January 16, 2024 

The singular figure that is Tara VanDerveer

There will be no gender-specific qualifier when the incomparable coach becomes the winningest in college basketball history

The exercise of paying homage to Tara VanDerveer’s extraordinary, legendary, Hall of Fame career as a college basketball coach is not rote at this point, but it is remarkably routine.

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Every three years or so — when the 100-win ticker reaches another astronomical number in VanDerveer’s win total — it becomes time again to tell a new story about how the eldest daughter of Dunbar and Rita VanDerveer became a singular figure in sports history:

To unpack the origins of her insatiable competitive drive and her passion for a game that looks nothing like the one she played as a girl in the pre–Title IX era. To pay tribute to the mentorship she has provided to both the women who have played for her and coaches around the country. To marvel about the consistency of success that has lasted for four decades and how she has redefined the athletic expectations of the world’s top academic institutions. To acknowledge her seminal role in extending the reach of the game to the West Coast and then setting a standard that we see being met at this very moment in the strength of the Pac-12 Conference.

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To compare everyone’s favorite “Tara-isms.” My personal preference is “Some days you are the dog and some days you are the hydrant,” but let’s not digress.

This particular moment is more momentous in that the ticker, which quietly reached 1,200 career wins against Washington on Jan. 7, has arrived at a number that no one else has ever seen. There will be no gender-specific qualifier when VanDerveer, 70, becomes the winningest college basketball coach in history.

When she notches the 1,203rd win of her career, perhaps as soon as Sunday at Maples Pavilion against Oregon State, VanDerveer will go to the front of the line, having passed Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, not to mention the likes of Jim Boeheim, the late Dean Smith and late Pat Summitt, whom VanDerveer would happily stand behind forever, if it meant that Pat were still here.

Connecticut’s Geno Auriemma drafts seven wins behind VanDerveer, the two combatants continuing into a future without an obvious end to either their tenures or their success in putting championship-caliber teams on the floor.

VanDerveer will demur through the hoopla. She will say the record is a reflection of her longevity and the quality of players she’s coached. And quickly she will want to talk about something else, turning to the focus to this year’s team and how she hopes to help it succeed.

But the women who played for her, who absorbed her wisdom, her criticism, her praise and her expectations, will happily do the talking on her behalf. She will always be their coach.

“Tara is one of one,” said Nneka Ogwumike, who played for VanDerveer from 2008 to 2012. The Los Angeles Sparks All-Star, who is also the president of the WNBPA, said that her college coach has impacted her life in “ways I never could have imagined.”

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“She will always be 100% true to who she is, what she stands for and how she shows up,” Ogwumike said. “Her legacy is decorated by records and historical feats, but it lays on a foundation of connection and intention.”

Her sister, Chiney Ogwumike, called VanDerveer the “rock of ages.”

“She never gets too high or too low, and, as women growing up in an ever-changing world, you come to greatly appreciate that quality in her,” Chiney Ogwumike said. “She teaches you to be the best version of yourself and she models it every day.”

Four of the five women who sit on the bench beside her every game represent something of a personal “Eras” tour for VanDerveer. Former players. Members of the family.

Associate head coach Kate Paye was on the 1992 national title team and graduated in 1995 as the Cardinal began a run of three straight Final Four appearances. Assistant coach Katy Steding was VanDerveer’s first big recruit at Stanford when the up-and-coming coach was lured away from building a championship program at Ohio State to the West Coast in 1985. Steding was on the national title team in 1990 and played for VanDerveer on the 1996 Olympic team.

Jeanette Pohlen, director of player development, was part of the program’s resurgence, playing from 2007 to 2011 as Stanford ended a 12-year Final Four drought and returned to the national title game. And new assistant coach Erica McCall played from 2013 to 2017 and spent five seasons in the WNBA, a professional possibility provided largely by her head coach’s guidance of the 1996 Olympic team to an 60-0 record and a gold medal in Atlanta.

In addition to personifying the long legacy of the program, theirs is a gaggle of comparisons, laughter and someone calling out, “Hey, remember the time that …” on the long bus rides. Each has had a distinct experience in VanDerveer’s evolution as a coach. And the one very big thing in common: the Tara Experience.

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Steding has watched VanDerveer for nearly 40 years with awe and deep respect.

“As incredible as it is, I feel like it’s a fairly predictable outcome,” Steding said. “She’s the architect that built this program in the late ’80s and early ’90s into the powerhouse that everyone expects to see. And she’s still here, cranking it out, adapting with what’s going on in the world of basketball and leading as well, which is incredible. She is always there, you know, doing her thing, chugging along. It’s just a relentless pursuit of excellence.

“I don’t know if you can bottle and sell what motivates Tara to get up in the morning and look at film before she even checks her email.”

Paye went to her first Stanford basketball camp at 11 years old. She has sat next to VanDerveer on the bench for 17 years.

“We are all teammates,” said Paye. “It’s this incredible family that spans generations, and we are all bonded and connected because we’ve played for Tara and we have all heard the same stories. We’ve all heard the same phrases. So I’ve always felt one of the things that I loved. It didn’t matter if I had actually been on a team with somebody. We were all raised the same way.”

Steding and Paye will tell you that they got a more intense version of VanDerveer, earlier in her career and with more to prove. Pohlen and McCall remember a slightly more relaxed version with a legacy that was already in pretty good shape. Though not as relaxed as they say she is now.

“When I joined our staff 17 years ago, I would be telling the players, ‘Y’all got it easy. Tara’s turned into grandma,’” Paye said. “Now Jeanette is back on staff and she’s like, “What the heck is going on? Now she’s a great grandma.”

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The delivery may have softened a little, just another example of VanDerveer’s willingness to evolve and learn. Her work-life balance may be more, well, balanced. There have been her dogs, and the piano and water skiing to sand off her edges through the years. The expectations, however, remain the same.

“It’s humbling to be a part of this staff,” McCall said in her first season. “I don’t think anyone else in the country or in the world who does what we do when it comes to scouting and Tara preparing her team like the way that she does.”

Pohlen has always trusted VanDerveer’s vision for the program and for individual players.

“I have always wanted to do what she wanted me to do, that she was trying to teach us what the team needed,” Pohlen said. “It can be a little intimidating to come and play for a Hall of Fame coach. But I think for her, it’s about making deposits each day and proving yourself, so she gains trust in you. I think I always trusted her because of her status in the women’s game. You knew she was doing things the right way.”

Paye joked about how many people consider VanDerveer “their life coach.”

“Whether it’s former players, people on our staff, other people in the athletic department, other coaches, her neighbor across the street — Tara is just incredibly wise,” Paye said. “She’s playing the long game and she is just getting better and better with age.”

Tributes are already pouring in from across the country to mark this auspicious occasion. VanDerveer’s phone — the same tool she’s used to advocate for, encourage and connect to so many coaches and former players — will blow up. There will be gifts and video messages.

But all of that will happen only as a result of another successful day on the Maples Pavilion hardwood floor that should someday bear her name, at an arena where a statue in her honor unquestionably belongs.

VanDerveer by the numbers

  • 3 NCAA titles (1990, 1992 and 2021)
  • Five-time National Coach of the Year
  • 17-time Pac-12 Coach of the Year
  • 2002 Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame inductee
  • 2011 Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame inductee
  • 12 former players as head coaches
  • More wins than 344 of 351 Division I programs
  • 38 20-win seasons
  • 17 30-win seasons
  • 3 National Players of the Year (Jennifer Azzi in 1990, Kate Starbird in 1997 and Candice Wiggins in 2008)
  • 36 First-Team All-American honors
  • 19 Pac-12 Players of the Year
  • 25 Pac-12/Pac-10 titles
  • 14 NCAA Final Fours
  • 29 WNBA Draft picks (13 first-rounders)

Written by Michelle Smith

Michelle Smith has covered women's basketball nationally for nearly three decades. Smith has worked for ESPN.com, The Athletic, the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as Pac-12.com and WNBA.com. She was named to the Alameda County Women's Hall of Fame in 2015, is the 2017 recipient of the Jake Wade Media Award from the Collegiate Sports Information Directors Association (CoSIDA) and was named the Mel Greenberg Media Award winner by the WBCA in 2019.

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