January 22, 2024 

Stanford celebrates ‘our coach’ VanDerveer on her record-breaking day

Sights and sounds from Maples Pavilion on a historic afternoon

STANFORD — On Saturday, a group of two dozen alumni (give or take) showed up in the Stanford athletics commissary to have lunch with head coach Tara VanDerveer — part of the scheduled alumni weekend festivities. The weekend was well-timed for the celebration that the Cardinal have been building toward for weeks, the moment that VanDerveer would overtake Duke legend Mike Krzykewski as the winningest coach in college basketball history.

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The players who came in a day early didn’t come alone. Quite a few of them brought their kids, a chance to introduce their beloved head coach to their own beloveds, a chance to show VanDerveer what became of the foundation she laid for their lives while they played at Stanford.

VanDerveer has talked about the gratification she gets from the Christmas cards she receives from her former players, the calls to share news about job promotions and weddings and new babies. The moments when they ask her for advice.

Many of them came back on Sunday as well to pay homage — and now they pay homage to the coach who has won more games than anyone in the history of the sport.

“Our coach,” said former guard turned broadcaster Ros Gold-Onwude, speaking to the more than 7,000 people who stuck around after the Cardinal’s gutty win over Oregon State to celebrate VanDerveer.
She belongs to them all, the current and former players, the staff members, the longtime season ticket holders and even the band members that she greets personally before every game to thank them for being there.

Stanford’s theme for this afternoon was #onlyher. And those who filled Maples Pavilion — thankfully, the 49ers played on Saturday night — created a full house of love and admiration for VanDerveer, who looked mildly uncomfortable with the attention, even as she said she’s appreciated the stories and the interviews and the opportunities to reflect on the journey she’s taken in a 45-year coaching career.

“I am really very humbled,” VanDerveer said. “I’m appreciative of all of the great players I’ve coached and the great places I’ve been and the attention being brought to women’s basketball. I’m not always really comfortable in the limelight, but I understand it’s part of the job.”

Luminaries such as Billie Jean King, Lisa Leslie, Dawn Staley, Condoleezza Rice and Coach K himself appeared in a congratulatory video as part of the hour-long postgame celebration. At the end, with the floor of Maples Pavilion covered in gold confetti, her current and former players encircled her in a huge group photo.

And while alumni stars like Gold-Onwude, Jennifer Azzi and Chiney Ogwumike told their best Tara stories to the crowd, the current players sat together on the bench knowing that they had made this happen on this day. That they finished a job that absolutely needed to be done.

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The game the Cardinal won in her honor Sunday was no gimme against a dangerous Oregon State squad.

Stanford went into the game without star center Cameron Brink, who suffered an awkward injury to her left leg early in Friday’s game against Oregon. Stanford was going to have to show something that has been lacking in the previous Cardinal’s non-Brink minutes, to replace the offensive tentativeness they’ve shown without Brink at various points this season.

Junior Kiki Iriafen picked up the slack and then some. Iriafen finished with a career-high 36 points and 12 rebounds, including the first two 3-pointers of her career. Sophomore point guard Talana Lepolo added 14 points and her steady leadership. By the time the final seconds ticked down on a 65-56 win that kept Stanford at the top of the Pac-12 standings at 6-1, the crowd was primed, holding up signs and chanting “Ta-ra”.

“We got to give Tara the flowers she deserves,” Lepolo said, answering a follow-up question about whether the Cardinal players felt pressure, knowing they needed to win in order not to spoil the party.

“Oh, absolutely. I mean, how could there not be with the stands filled to the top?”

VanDerveer was thrilled by Iriafen’s breakout.

“She’s taken her game up like three notches, it’s just like a blast off,” VanDerveer said of Iriafen, who is averaging 22.6 points a game in conference play. “She was fearless out there. She is a ferocious competitor. I want to be ferocious for Kiki.”

VanDerveer admitted that all these 45 years, she has watched her players with a little envy.

“I want to bring attention to the wonderfulness of these players that work so hard and I’m so jealous because I never got to do what they get to do, but I’m able to watch a little girl’s dream play out through them,” VanDerveer said. “I’d be outside shooting by myself and thinking about what it could be like to play in front of a full arena and have a great game like this, but I never got to do it. But I’ve got the best seat in the house and I love it.”

At the end of the game, the family reunion of former players spilled onto the floor to start the party that didn’t happen when VanDerveer won her 1,000th game at a Thanksgiving tournament in Mexico. Or when she became college basketball’s winningest coach in 2020 during the COVID pandemic and marked the occasion with a team-only celebration in the locker room at Pacific in Stockton.

This day was a pent-up need to pay tribute.

Bethany Donaphin, the head of league operations for the WNBA, traveled across the country with her daughter, grateful that the schedule worked out so she could be there for her former coach.

“I’m so honored that I could be here in person to watch Tara make history,” Donaphin said. “And my daughter gets to witness this as well and understand what Tara has built here. Being here, it’s like no time has passed and the tradition is still alive.”

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Chiney Ogwumike talked multiple times about the “sisterhood” that VanDerveer has built.

“She treats this program as if we are all family,” Ogwumike said. “Trust me, when you leave, she’s still checking in. And that’s one of the best things. You come in here and you see success that has spanned generations.”

Azzi, who will be inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame later this year, said that she has watched VanDerveer “always do things right with integrity, with ethics and with morals.”

“The most beautiful thing about Tara’s legacy is that it lives in all of us, all of the things that the alums are doing in their lives. We are all representing you and we love you dearly.”

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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