April 5, 2021 

For Tara VanDerveer, it’s about people, not trophies

A championship drought ends at Stanford, while a legacy of teaching continues

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SAN ANTONIO, TX – APRIL 4: Stanford Cardinal players pose with the championship trophy after defeating the Arizona Wildcats in the championship game of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament at Alamodome on April 4, 2021 in San Antonio, Texas. (Photo by Justin Tafoya/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

29 years is a really, really long time to be doing anything. Shoot, that’s longer than this writer has been alive for.

But not only has Tara VanDerveer been coaching for that amount of time and longer, but she entered Sunday having gone 29 years since winning a national championship as the head coach at Stanford.

10,591 days after winning her second title on April 5, 1992, VanDerveer’s Cardinal beat fellow Pac-12 foe Arizona 54-53, giving VanDerveer that ever-elusive third championship.

And yet, you can truly capture the essence of Tara VanDerveer — how someone can be so good for so long, how someone can persist, how a job can be something you want to do for over 40 years — in her very first answer at her postgame press conference, when she was asked about the 29 years and if she could’ve imagined coaching for that long back when she won in ‘92.

“I never really thought about it. This isn’t why I coach,” VanDerveer said. “I wanted to be a teacher. Each year is a great year. I enjoy working with all of our players.”

That is also what VanDerveer’s message to her team before the game touched on, too. And, if you’re willing to buy in to her message, you realize that to Tara, winning this title isn’t about her. It’s about the players, past and present, she’s had at Stanford. 

“I really told our team before the game that whether we won this game or we didn’t win this game, it doesn’t change you fundamentally as a person,” VanDerveer said. “I had some just fantastic, Kate Starbird’s team in ’97, where we lost in the semifinals. It’s heartbreaking to go through that.

“I know that these women are kind of on the shoulders of those women. Former players would be so proud to be part of this team because of the resilience they’ve shown, because of the sisterhood that they represent. I’m just thrilled for this team, but also for all the women out there that played at Stanford.”

It’s almost unfathomable in sports to think of any coaches who went almost three whole decades between championships in their sport, and while it’s officially the longest gap between NCAA titles for any Division I coach in any sport, and unofficially only surpassed by John Gagliardi of St. John’s football in Division III (Link).

Even without winning national titles, VanDerveer’s program has consistently left their mark all over the women’s game throughout the years. Stanford’s made 10 Final Fours, two national championship games, won the Pac-12 regular season title 20 times and tournament 13 times and even ended UConn’s then-record 90-game winning streak in 2010. And earlier this season, VanDerveer broke Pat Summitt’s record for most wins by a women’s basketball coach in NCAA history.

Oh, and there was the year away from Stanford to coach Team USA to Olympic gold in the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta (of which none of her current players were alive for).

But amidst all that success, bumps on the road proved painful. Obviously, they lost both national championship games they appeared in since that time, and eight other losses in the Final Four. Oh, and remember when the University of Virginia men were the first men’s #1 seed to lose to a #16 seed back in 2018? The only women’s #1 seed to lose to a #16 was Tara’s 1998 Stanford, who lost to #16 seed Harvard on Stanford’s home floor. 

It seems all too fitting, then, that Stanford won the title in this season. When Santa Clara County went on lockdown at the end of November, it included any and all team sports activities, leading the Cardinal to elect to be nomadic as they continued their season. Stanford left for Las Vegas on Dec. 2 and didn’t return until Feb. 1, a two-month stretch that had the Cardinal all over the West Coast.

It turned out to be preparation for the NCAA Tournament, which was played almost entirely in San Antonio over the course of three weeks. As a coach who has played six games in the NCAA Tournament five different times now, this year will rank as the most grueling tournament run yet.

“I think everyone in our locker room is really ready to get home. I mean, we’ve been on the road, I can’t even count the number of days,” VanDerveer said. “This is the time we live in. Sometimes you just have to stick with things. For me as a coach, again, you want to win a national championship. We have had shots at it. I’ve had heartbreak with teams that had great shots of winning it.

“But this team won and I’m so proud of them. We might call it the COVID championship, it might have an asterisk. But it was tougher being down here [than previous tournaments]. In the very beginning, I know the NCAA was like, “Three weeks.” But we stayed in it, we found ways to really enjoy each other and be excited to play.”

And what consistently remains impressive is how much Tara publicly, vociferously, and rather boldly roots for her conference rivals to perform well. She’s consistently advocated for her conference rivals over and over again, even opening her postgame press conference thanking the conference and the conference’s other schools and coaches for “the commitment to women’s basketball.”

And for the biggest and brightest example of all that work’s payoff, all VanDerveer had to do was look right, down the sideline, to her opposing coach for the night, Arizona’s Adia Barnes, who said she’s “very happy” for VanDerveer. 

“I think she’s amazing,” Barnes said. “She’s helped me since I became the coach at Arizona — she’s believed in me, she’s given me advice, constructive criticism. She’s always cheering for me. She always says she cheers for me except for one time in the year, when we play each other.”

Of course, VanDerveer’s been coaching for so long, she faced off with her coaching foe when Barnes was a player at Arizona back in the 1990s, the type of longevity that Barnes is both in awe of … and also not happy about seeing continue, either.

“The fact that I think nowadays, if you look at coaching, to even have the opportunity to coach that long at warmup place means you’re so successful,” Barnes said. “To be at the same school for so many years, have sustained success, shows what a phenomenal coach she is. So much time, that she’s still coaching at this level, having so much success, speaks volumes to her and who she is, what she does.”

“She’s one of the best there is. I think she’s unfortunately for us going to be coaching a lot longer. I don’t think she’s going to hang it up yet because she has a phenomenal class coming in next year, along with Geno and Dawn. They have amazing classes coming in next year so they’ll be back here, I’m sure.”

VanDerveer’s had 30 players go from Stanford to the WNBA, with a legendary record of superstars at the collegiate and pro level — Jennifer Azzi, Candace Wiggins, Nneka Ogwumike, Chiney Ogwumike and many more. And for Nneka, who was in the crowd tonight, there were lots of tears over the culmination of this program’s long journey.

“This has been 29 years. I went to four Final Fours and was never able to come back with one. So it feels like we all won it — decades of players,” Nneka told ESPN’s Holly Rowe after the game. “Everyone talks about how we were the foundation. But we wouldn’t be who we were without Candace Wiggins. Candace Wiggins wouldn’t be who she was without Nicole Powell, and Nicole to Kate Starbird and to Jen Azzi. There’s a legacy here, and I think that’s what matters the most to us because we keep trying to be great no matter the outcome. And it’s really great for it to kind of consummate today.”

And to tie that journey to its current completion, it is all too fitting that the player who won Tournament Most Outstanding Player was Haley Jones. The #1 recruit could have chosen anywhere in the country to play, but there was never much doubt about where Jones was going to go. And tonight, she showed why.

“This program is what it is because of Tara,” Jones said. “The legacy she’s created, just being able to be recruited by her, now be a part of the team, and then to take that a step further and win a national championship after the 29-year-long drought? It’s just a blessing to be here right now. I don’t think it’s still honestly even hit me yet. Even standing with the confetti, I’m just still waiting for it to kick in.”

“So many great players have passed through this program. They have all come for the same reason that we have, to be coached by the greatest to develop not only as a player but just as a person, as a young woman. So I think this is just an honor to be able to do this for her and with her.”

VanDerveer was asked about retirement in her postgame press conference and admitted she hasn’t been thinking about it, though she quipped she didn’t know if she could “go through another COVID year.”

But it’s never been about wins or championships for Tara VanDerveer. It’s always been about teaching. And that’s why her last words in her postgame interview on ESPN hit me the hardest:

“It’s a national championship, and I’m really excited to represent Stanford. It’s a great game. We did not play a great game, however, we can win not playing as well as we need to, I’m excited.”

Back to teaching will Tara VanDerveer go. A new journey is beginning again soon.

Written by Alex Simon

SF Bay Area native, 2x grad (Elon, ASU), adjunct professor at ASU's Cronkite School, editor & journalist always looking to tell unique stories.

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