PUERTO VALLARTA, Mexico - For a woman who regularly coaches in front of thousands of spectators, Tara VanDerveer is surprisingly shy. The Setsuko Ishiyama Director of Women’s Basketball at Stanford is a gym rat at heart and prefers teaching to applause. Not that she can avoid the latter.
On Wednesday, VanDerveer became just the fifth Division I women’s coach to record 900 wins. The elite club also includes Pat Summitt (1,098), Sylvia Hatchell (908), C. Vivian Stringer (905) and Jody Conradt (900).
Fittingly, it happened in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, against Florida Gulf Coast. Stanford won, 83-59, in front of mostly friends and hardcore Cardinal fans.
“I don’t like to be the center of attention,” said VanDerveer. “I’m just fine being the person behind the scenes. It is not about me. I have such terrific help around me. And we have great players. I know it’s a big number and I’m kind of like, ‘How did this happen?’ I’m not that old.”
Now in her 35th season as a head coach – 28 at Stanford – the 60-year-old VanDerveer remains energetic, positive and passionate about the game and her players. A 1975 graduate of Indiana University, where she used to sneak into the men’s practices and take notes watching Bobby Knight coach, she was a dean’s list scholar for three years and majored in sociology.
VanDerveer was a three-year starter on the basketball team and was inducted into the school’s athletic hall of fame in 1995.
VanDerveer began her coaching career at the University of Idaho in 1978, where she promptly lost her first game. She spent two seasons in Moscow, compiling a 42-14 record.
Her next stop was Ohio State, where VanDerveer led the Buckeyes to three Big Ten Championships and posted four-consecutive 20-win seasons and two appearances in the NCAA Tournament. During her five-year tenure, Ohio State went 110-37 (.748) overall and 55-5 (.917) in conference play.
When former Stanford athletic director Andy Geiger reached out, VanDerveer initially turned him down. But Geiger was persistent, and lured her to The Farm in 1985.
“I just thought she was very, very bright,” said Geiger, now retired. “She’s a very interesting, fascinating person, and I thought she would appeal to Stanford students. She’s a deep thinker and wasn’t sure it was a good fit.”
All she has done is capture two NCAA Championships, 21 conference titles, 10 conference tournament crowns, and make 25 appearances in the NCAA Tournament, reaching the Final Four 10 times. VanDerveer is a four-time National Coach of the Year (1988-90, 2011), a seven time District/Region Coach of the Year, and 13-time conference coach of the year.
In 1995-96, VanDerveer took a sabbatical and guided the U.S. National Team to a 52-0 record, then led the U.S. Olympic Team to an 8-0 mark and a gold medal at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.
In 2002, VanDerveer was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame. In 2011, she was enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
“It’s just amazing what she has done on a consistent basis,” said Conradt, who coached collegiately for 38 years, the last 31 at Texas. “Year-in and year-out, Stanford is so good. There is no program in the country that is more respected than Stanford. Tara’s part of that has been to provide tremendous leadership. She set a standard that very few programs in the country can reach, and I don’t know a coach who is more admired or respected, not only for her success on the court, but how she conducts herself. She does it the right way and with tremendous success.”
Long regarded as one of women’s basketball’s top recruiters, VanDerveer jump-started the Cardinal program in 1989 with the help of dynamic point guard Jennifer Azzi from Tennessee. She went on to win the James Naismith National Player of the Year Award and sparked Stanford to its first national title in 1989-90.
“I’m really proud of her, happy for her, she deserves it,” Azzi said of VanDerveer’s milestone. “If she’s not the greatest mind in the game, she’s pretty close to it. Obviously, 900 wins is a number, but it shows you how she’s been able to be successful over time, and that’s very hard to do because there’s so many ups and downs in this profession, and honestly, a lot of things that aren’t in your control. The fact that she’s been able to just continue to be successful is amazing.”
Now the head women’s basketball coach at the University of San Francisco, Azzi said VanDerveer was tough, demanding and a stickler for details.
“I learned a lot from Tara,” she said. “More than anything, how all the details of the game matter. We had to do things perfectly. I don’t know if she is still that way, but if we were screening, we had to set it; if we were doing a full-court drill and we had to do it in a certain time, nothing slipped. I missed my two-mile time my senior year by one second and I was the second best time on the team, but I still had early morning conditioning for the next two weeks at 7 a.m. That’s the way we did things, and it paid off for us with a national championship.”
Not that VanDerveer doesn’t have a softer side.
“She’s kind and she’s caring, and now she would do anything for me,” said Azzi. “She’s just a genuine, true, ‘what you see is what you get’ person, and that’s something I’ve always appreciated about her.”
According to Conradt, VanDerveer’s team’s are always fundamentally sound and she excels in putting her players in the best situation to succeed.
“The thing that always strikes me is that they’re truly a team,” Conradt said. “She may have standout players and she generally does, but she also has players who fit perfectly into their role. They always have excellent chemistry and they’re extremely prepared, so you’re never going to catch Stanford on an off night.”
Which is a big reason why VanDeerveer still loves to coach.
“What I try to do with our players is to try and understand their game and maximize their strengths and weaknesses,” she said. “So if someone is good at something, I try to put them in situations where they look good.”
VanDerveer has always been a student of the game. She never misses an opportunity to watch a men’s or women’s game – college and professional – on television to glean useful information.
“I feel there is so much to learn about the game of basketball,” said VanDerveer. “I watch and watch and watch. I’ve always been intrigued by the strategy of basketball. That’s the kind of puzzle I like to put together. And seeing people improve. That’s what’s really motivating.”
Admittedly, VanDerveer isn’t afraid to borrow ideas from other coaches, especially at Stanford.
“I think I’m a copier,” she said. “I watch other programs, I watch other teams, whether it’s our soccer or swim coach. Here at Stanford, I’m surrounded by excellence.”
For example, during her early years on The Farm, VanDerveer was walking behind former men’s water polo coach Dante Dettamanti on an outside staircase at the old athletic department building. He was dressed in ripped jeans and had already won five NCAA titles, prompting her to think, “What is so special about him? If he can do it, I can do it.’ ”
Two years later, after securing her first NCAA crown, VanDerveer is walking on the same stairs and comes across men’s gymnastics coach Sadao Hamada, who had just captured his first national title after 20 years. “I said to Sadao, ‘What got into you?’ And he said, ‘Tara, if you can do it, I can do it.’ You kind of have to keep up with the Jones’ around here.”
Both of VanDerveer’s parents were teachers. Her sister Heidi is the head coach for the UC San Diego women’s basketball team, and they talk hoops every day. During Heidi’s first year as an assistant coach at the University of Tennessee, the Lady Vols won the national championship.
“I’ve never even been the best coach in my family,” cracked VanDerveer. “I’m always the second fiddle.”
Not only does VanDerveer take great pride in the players she has coached, but also what they have accomplished after college. Many have followed her into coaching, including June Daugherty, Charli Turner Thorne, Azzi, current assistant Kaye Paye, Lindy La Rocque, Melanie Murphy, Katy Steding, Charmin Smith and Vanessa Nygaard.
“I’m proud of my tree,” she said.
And they are proud of her.
“She was always laser-focused on what we were doing,” said Azzi. “I don’t know if I learned this or if I already kind of had this because I was taught this when I was younger, but basketball is a game of momentum and it’s a game of possessions, so you can’t think about the scoreboard. You can’t think about the ups and downs of the game. If you do things well, ultimately you’re going to win. She’s always been that way.”
And VanDeerveer has always made it look easy.
“Over her long career, she’s always been so passionate and has so much fun with what she does,” Conradt said. “To me, that’s what sets her apart. It never looks like she is stressed or working hard or doing anything besides just enjoying coaching and enjoying her team.”
No one is happier for her success than Geiger.
“I marvel at what she has done,” he said. “She remains one of my favorite people as a colleague and a friend.”
VanDerveer almost certainly will move up to No. 2 on the career win list this season, trailing only Summitt. Earlier this year, Bernard Muir, the Jacquish & Kenninger Director of Atheltics, extended her contract for as long as she wants to stay. VanDerveer could overtake Summitt in four years.
“I don’t think about it,” she said. “I’m going to coach as long as it’s something I enjoy doing. If I’ve got a million games in me, then I’ll coach a million games. But I have a lot of other interests, and coaching, as much as I love it, is not the end-all, be-all in my life. Numbers are not what motivate me.”
Making her players better, does.
“It’s just teaching in a big classroom where people come and watch and are sometimes very critical of what you do,” said VanDerveer. “All of your exams are in public. What I tell our team is, ‘No one is allowed to fail the exam.’ It’s my job to help them get A’s.”