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Women's Basketball

Tara VanDerveer Will Never Know A Hot Seat

PALO ALTO, CALIFORNIA - JANUARY 21: Head coach Tara VanDerveer of the Stanford Cardinal celebrates with her player Cameron Brink #22 after Stanford defeated the Oregon State Beavers 65-56 at Stanford Maples Pavilion on January 21, 2024 in Palo Alto, California. Tara VanDerveer recorded her 1,203 NCAA career victory passing Mike Krzyzewski with 1,202 NCAA career wins. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

We have spent a fair amount of time since the end of the football season marveling at (or, as the spirit moves, mocking) the lengthy careers of Bill Belichick, Nick Saban, and Pete Carroll. They all succeeded far beyond their contemporaries, outlasted most of them, and at least for Saban, left satisfied that their work stands on its own and needs no further competitive embellishment. They are also in their early seventies, well beyond their sell-by dates as determined by their bosses who find youth, thrift, and malleability to be more compelling factors in hiring the modern coach.

If Sunday’s Stanford–Oregon State basketball game was noteworthy for another septuagenarian success, as Tara VanDerveer broke the record for college basketball coaching wins—previously held by Mike Krzyzewski—win No. 1,203 cast less of a shadow because, well, college basketball isn't as culturally bankable as football, more now than ever.

Until, that is, this line from the story leapt forth: "VanDerveer has accumulated more wins than 355 of the 360 NCAA Division I women's programs." She can thusly say, if ever accused by a critic that she acts like she's bigger than the game, "Well, now that you mention it, I am," and have the math to prove it.

The five schools with more wins than VanderVeer? Tennessee (obviously), Connecticut (Tennessee's successor in the obviously camp), Louisiana Tech (a legacy program with good-old-days championships), and James Madison (maybe they've been playing since he was the president). Oh, and Stanford.

Of course there is a partial explanation for this beyond her own gifts, and that's that many women's college basketball programs only started seriously after she first began coaching at Idaho in 1978. That is partially a measure of athletic directors coming late to the notion that there's money to be made in the half of the sport, but it’s also tied to the fact that VanDerveer has never had a season she had to apologize for in 45 years—unless you count 1999, when her team won only 18 games. Even the other dark moment, when the Cardinal became the first NCAA tournament team to lose to a 16-seed (Harvard, 1998) has been mitigated by Virginia and Purdue on the men's side doing the same thing since. Even there, she was at the forefront of the age of galling upsets.

But mostly it's the fact that she's been doing this as a coach for four and a half decades without let or hindrance or even a hint that her job might be in jeopardy. Hers has been the safest seat in all of North American sport, and there has never been a notion that she might see her own sell-by date in the distance even though she is 70 herself. She could even threaten Connie Mack's record as the oldest coach ever if she can (a) live to be 88, (b) not begin to lose her vitality, and (c) buy the university. That was Mack's dodge, and even then his kids came up from behind and deposed him, doing the job their father did so well that the franchise fled to Kansas City four years later. In other words, the hammer comes for everyone, except apparently VanDerveer. And maybe Andy Reid.

Never mind age, though. It's the fact that VanDerveer has by herself out-victoried 98.6 percent of all the schools that have tried women's basketball—that's the one that bends the brain. She is beating her entire industry, and will do until she goes to that giant piano bench in the sky. Belichick by comparison has only won more games than five NFL franchises (Tampa Bay, Carolina, Jacksonville, and Houston, and depending on how you define Baltimore/Cleveland, and he started as a head coach before any of them existed). It's probably why he got fired in New England and is contemplating a life in the league's witness protection program, a.k.a. the Atlanta Falcons.

That won't happen to Tara VanDerveer, who will almost certainly retire knowing she has never been in danger of either losing her job or having it modified, or had to worry about even a pro forma year-end review. It's almost like she doesn't even work in America.

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