September 2, 2023
Institutional Knowledge: Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer talks about grief and excitement in move to ACC
'You invest 40 years into something, and to watch it unravel in 40 minutes, it’s sad'
Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer has water skied on the lake near her cabin in Minnesota on 31 of the last 33 days. She just got back from dropping her brother off at the airport and picking up her sister. She will fly back to California on Wednesday and re-enter a world that looks profoundly different than when she left for her annual summer break.
The sport’s winningest coach, who turned 70 on June 26, will come back to prepare her team for one final season in the conference — the Pac-12 — she has championed for nearly four decades.
Then she will do what she’s always done: adapt. But it will be a change unlike any she’s ever experienced, as her program will join the ACC in 2024.
VanDerveer talked to The Next on Saturday about conference realignment and her emotions about what’s coming. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.
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Q: Are you ready for a whole new world?
A: Yeah. It’s crazy, that is for sure.
Q: People I know have talked for weeks about what you must be thinking about all of this. Let’s go back to three weeks ago, to that fateful Friday when the conference effectively dissolved. What were you thinking that day?
A: I think that the slow death started with USC and UCLA [leaving for the Big Ten]. Even when that happened a year ago, that was really sad because we weren’t going to have what we’ve always had. We weren’t going to have the Pac-12, or even the Pac-10, as we always knew it. So that’s what started it. And then when Colorado went to the Big 12, I thought, “Okay, this still has potential to stay together.” But then Oregon and Washington go, and this is the wheels coming off the cart.
I don’t know what’s going to happen with Washington State and Oregon State. We’re going to the ACC now, but it’s just sad.
Q: When UCLA and USC left, did you see it for the harbinger it turned out to be?
A: I think what everyone was talking about when they went out was just like, “Well, Stanford and Cal and Oregon and Washington would go to the Big Ten. You would have a West Coast division.” I kind of am a little bit singularly focused on just basketball, so I didn’t try to figure it out or plan it out or talk about it a whole lot. But that’s what people would tell me: “Next year, you’ll be in the Big Ten.” And I was thinking, “Okay, whatever.”
Q: What feelings do you have about all of this?
A: It’s been extremely painful. You invest 40 years into something, and to watch it unravel in 40 minutes, it’s sad. And you have to process who you are angry at, you know?
There’s something that was really special here, something that really made sense. We were like-minded universities that competed with one another, and I think as coaches we really stuck together. I think we realized we were out here on the West Coast and that was special. When I think of where women’s basketball went in the Pac-12 from even 25 years ago to now, it’s unbelievable. And I’ve been part of that journey the whole time, and I’ve loved it. So, I mean, it is a death. It is a grieving process. It’s sad.
Q: How many of your fellow Pac-12 coaches have you talked to over the past few weeks?
A: I have talked to people from Stanford probably more than anything. But I have talked to [Cal coach and Stanford alum] Charmin Smith and I talked to [Oregon coach] Kelly Graves. Different coaches in the league have reached out. I know that this doesn’t have anything to do with the basketball coaches. We have no decision making input or anything.
What I do think is kind of interesting is that I’ve not heard from a single ACC school since the announcement that we are going to their conference. I would have reached out to any new coaches [if it had been the other way around]. I would have done that. So I’m kind of surprised that there’s not a single coach in the ACC who I’ve heard from.
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Q: How do you think that lack of input or representation is going to play out for sports other than football?
A: I hate to say it, but in so much of our world in athletics, it’s the new normal. If you’re a West Coast athlete, this is what you’re gonna have to do now. If you want to play for a West Coast university, you are going to have to play in a national conference. Everyone is in a national conference now.
Q: Do you hope that, as the athletes enter into this experience, people will share their experiences so people understand the consequences this has on sports beyond football?
A: The powers that be don’t care. Intellectually, they can figure it out. They understand the consequences for the other sports. This was the choice that people made for the TV money. It’s hard for me to think that a TV executive who might have a daughter or son who went to Stanford or Oregon or Washington or UCLA, that this is the life that they would choose for their children. But this is what adults do. I mean, this does not make sense.
There are all kinds of situations in our world where instead of standing up and saying, “This isn’t right,” we live with it. I don’t see this as being good for us, but it’s what we have to do, and the alternative was worse for us. I mean, I’m not like, “Yay, I can’t wait to fly six hours across the country,” but the thought of not being in a league was more painful.
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Q: Can you see the impacts yet that this will have on your program and your place in the national landscape?
A: I think that for Stanford, the best-case scenario obviously is tremendous support from the university. We know we have to go across the country three or four times and charter and take your tutors with you or your academic person with you. I would hope that the ACC would schedule it in a way that would assist us. For example, because we’re on the quarter system, we could do a trip maybe before or right after Christmas, when we’re not missing school. We have kids on the team in summer school, so maybe they can take a lighter load during the winter.
But all the different issues that young people are experiencing, the mental health issues, this is going to complicate that. I’ve read that at UCLA and how much money they’re putting into mental health and nutrition and sleep deprivation to handle it. You can’t just say you are going to play these games and now go ahead and get a ticket and fly over there. It’s going to take some real planning.
Our schedule may be such that we play November and December basically on the West Coast instead of going to Tennessee and South Carolina or instead of going to the Bahamas over Thanksgiving, and then we’ll take our trips during the conference season. And for the most part, the ACC has pretty good weather, right? You make it work because that’s what you have to do.
Q: Have your athletes had anything to say? Have you guys talked about this as a team?
A: We did. We did a Zoom on Friday and Cameron Brink, for one, is excited. I asked if anyone had any questions or comments and she said, “I’m so excited.” Our players want to be in a competitive national league. That’s what we’re used to. If we had gone to another [non-power] league, it does change the dynamic of your competition, and not in any way to disparage that, but that’s not what we’re used to. We don’t know exactly how it will work out, but we have confidence in the leadership at Stanford. As an institution, we have had to make some hard decisions. I’m confident that the leadership of Stanford is not just throwing women’s basketball or the other sports to the wolves.
We want to compete in the ACC. Maybe there’s a reason coaches didn’t call me; maybe they are not excited about us coming in. But we’re good and we’re excited, and we’re in it to win it.
Related reading: WNBA stars reflect on the dissolution of the Pac-12
Q: How is this last season of Pac-12 competition going to be?
A: For me, it will be pretty emotional every place we go, just knowing the memories of all the places you’ve been and all the games you’ve had there and how you never know if you’re ever going to come back.
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.