'Legend' Tara VanDerveer Winning in Her Own Way
In the women's basketball cult of personality, Connecticut's Geno Auriemma is the yeller, stalking the sidelines. Tennessee's Pat Summitt comes with the icy glare of disapproval and expectation.
Stanford's Tara VanDerveer is the professor. Studious and detailed, reserved and competitive, VanDerveer has carved out one of the most impressive resumes in the game.
Two national titles, an Olympic gold medal, six Final Fours, 18 Pac-10 championships, three national coach of the year awards and a spot in the women's basketball Hall of Fame prompts Cal coach Joanne Boyle to ask, "Can I use the word 'Legend?'"
VanDerveer is one win away from 800 in her coaching career, a milestone she could reach Thursday night on the road against No. 24 DePaul.
"It means I'm old," the 57-year-old VanDerveer cracked.
She would become the fifth women's basketball coach in history to reach that milestone, joining Summitt, Texas' Jody Conradt, Rutgers' C. Vivian Stringer and North Carolina's Sylvia Hatchell. Barbara Stevens, who coaches at Division II Bentley, sits at 799 wins, her team taking the court again on Dec. 19. Still, it's an exclusive club.
Auriemma is more than a season away at 744 wins. VanDerveer has become Auriemma's chief foil of the last few years. Stanford was the last team to beat Connecticut in the 2008 national semifinals. The two teams met in last year's national championship game. And the Dec. 30 matchup between the two teams at Maples Pavilion is viewed by many as the game that could end Connecticut's record-breaking win streak. Stanford and Connecticut have each appeared in the last three Final Fours.
"I have always thought she's at the very top of a group of coaches that have coached women's basketball," Auriemma said. "To go through that run in the early 1990's where they were the dominant program in the country, in my opinion, and then to regroup like all of us do and come back again, it's a sign of longevity, a sign of greatness."
Four years after she arrived at Stanford in 1986, VanDerveer led Stanford to NCAA titles in 1990 and then again 1992. The program reached three more Final Fours from 1993 through 1997.
In the middle of it all, VanDerveer walked away from the program for a year to coach the U.S. Olympic team. You could call it a successful sabbatical. The American team, perhaps the best assembled in the history of the sport, posted an 80-0 record over that year and won the Olympic gold medal in Atlanta in 1996. It was a seminal moment in the game, one that led to the formation of two professional leagues -- the ABL, which ultimately folded, and the WNBA, which still survives.
But her year away from Stanford exacted a cost. The Cardinal lost recruiting momentum, lost an infamous first-round NCAA game against Harvard in 1998, and some of their luster.
Between 1997 and 2008, there would be no Final Fours at Stanford. Connecticut and Tennessee took turns dominating the women's game, while VanDerveer's program tried to catch back up to the front of the pack.
"She's an icon," said Texas coach Gail Goestenkors, who took her former program, Duke, to three Final Fours, but has been unable to duplicate that success yet with the Longhorns. "I'm trying to figure it out myself. Having gone to Final Fours, it becomes an expectation. And to begin again, sometimes it's frustrating. There must a be a tremendous satisfaction for her to be in that position again. That's where I'm striving to go as well."
VanDerveer began her coaching career at home in upstate New York, home following her 1975 graduation from Indiana, where she'd spend her days studying Bobby Knight's practices every day. She was a basketball junkie who didn't have many of her own opportunities to play in the pre-TItle IX days. She loved the game, but she was planning to go to law school.
"I traveled and around Christmas I ran out of money and came home," VanDerveer said. "In the middle of January, my dad said to me 'Well what's your plan now?' I said I didn't have a plan and he said I was going to go down and help coach [my sister Marie's] team. I said 'Dad they just lost 99-11 last night.' He said that's why I was going down there, they need some help."
VanDerveer was hooked. She began writing to programs across the country, looking for a coaching job. She heard back from USC and Ohio State. She chose to go to Ohio State in 1976 and coach the JV team as a volunteer coach. That team went 8-0.
To make ends meet, she worked at the Rec Center at Ohio State. She'd work from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. and wrap herself in a sleeping bag to keep warm. She was on food stamps and for a year she lived for free in a friend's trailer.
"But I was happy," VanDerveer said.
VanDerveer turned down a paid job offer from Marianne Stanley at Old Dominion as an assistant coach because she wanted to finish her Master's Degree at Ohio State. VanDerveer was offered her first head coaching job at Idaho in 1978 and returned to Ohio State as the head coach in 1980.
VanDerveer loved to watch other teams practice. She went to bed with a notebook under her pillow with information she got from those practices, from conversations with other coaches, things she'd seen on TV games.
After winning two Big Ten championships at Ohio State, she was lured to west to Stanford in 1986. She'd never been to Pullman or Tempe or Eugene. She viewed the Pac-10 as "the Wild West."
She is now synonymous with West Coast basketball, the winningest coach in Pac-10 basketball history, men's or women's. She still taps into new perspectives and new ideas. VanDerveer and Knight still keep in contact. She would have long conversations with Pete Newell when he ran his "Big Man" basketball camps at Stanford in the summer. She frequently invites other coaches to talk to her team.
Her coaching tree includes San Diego State's Beth Burns, Pepperdine's Julie Rousseau, Washington's Tia Jackson, Washington State's June Daugherty and Arizona State's Charli Turner Thorne (who played at Stanford). Two of her current assistants, Kate Paye and Bobbie Kelsey, played on Stanford's 1992 national championship team.
"The fact is, she's been able to sustain such a high level for her program with all the changes in the game and in recruiting," Boyle said. "It's hard to keep it there."
Stanford men's basketball coach Johnny Dawkins spent years playing for and working under the wing of Duke coach Mike Krzyzeswki, said VanDerveer has been a resource for him.
"Her attention to detail ... she's really organized and their execution is outstanding," Dawkins said. "She's very passionate about what she does and she's very competitive. What she's done, that doesn't happen by luck. It happens because of a certain will that you have and desire and I think it permeates through her players. Watch how they execute and the standard they have for themselves. That comes from somewhere."
Summitt has coached against VanDerveer every year since 1988. The two teams will continue their yearly series next weekend in Knoxville.
"She'd probably say she's mellowed (over the years), but I think she's as focused as ever," Summitt said. "There's no doubt. When she's on the court, she's so invested in her team."
Lisa Leslie, owner of one the greatest careers in the history of the game, played for VanDerveer in the 1996 Olympic team.
"She's the best coach I was ever coached by," Leslie said. "She taught me how to be a champion, not just to win. She taught me how to run, how to post. She taught me how to demand the ball, to relentlessly want the ball."
Jennifer Azzi was the first player VanDerveer recruited at Stanford back in 1986. The coach went to Oak Ridge, Tenn. and talked Azzi into coming to the West Coast. Azzi would become her star, the national player of the year and the Most Outstanding Player in the 1990 Final Four. She played on VanDerveer's Olympic team ad after a long professional career and work as a motivational speaker and spokesperson, Azzi has become part of the coaching fraternity.
She is in her first season as a head coach, taking over the struggling University of San Francisco program last April.
VanDerveer is now a mentor to Azzi in a new way.
"She's a brilliant coach and now sitting in this seat, I find myself doing and teaching a lot of the things she taught me," Azzi said. "She is great at seeing the details and how those things add up to winning."
After 799 wins, VanDerveer said she still has much in common with a first-year head coach.
"I was on the phone with Jennifer this week, and she was saying 'Tara, we've got to work on screening angles.' And I said, 'Jennifer, we work on screening angles,'" VanDerveer said. "She says 'We've got to work on boxing out.' I said 'We've got to work on boxing out!'"