Here’s a perplexing bit of trivia: It was only last year that Tara VanDerveer, the Stanford women’s basketball coach with 12 Final Four appearances, two national championships, 15 30-win seasons, and an Olympic gold medal to her name, was inducted into the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame. Either the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame is prone to bizarre oversights or it’s the sort of hard-ass organization that, in 2046, will tell Steve Young to apply again next year. Because Tara VanDerveer is her Bay Area sport. You cannot tell the story of women’s basketball in America without her.
Last night, with No. 1 Stanford’s 104-61 win over Pacific, VanDerveer passed Pat Summitt to become the winningest coach in women’s basketball with 1,099 career wins, 947 of them at Stanford. VanDerveer’s story is one not uncommon among the old guard of women’s basketball coaches. She grew up in a pre-Title IX era, and after playing at Indiana, got her coaching start at her sister’s high school team. She earned her first college head coaching job at Idaho, logged five winning seasons at Ohio State, and then arrived at Stanford in 1985. The Farm was considered an unattractive landing spot at the time; there were doubts about whether a school like Stanford was really committed to its basketball program. “My dad told me I was crazy to take this job,” VanDerveer said at that Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame induction. “He said, ‘You’ll be unemployed and coming home to live with us in three months.’” Within five years, she turned a 9-19 school into a national champion. They’ve been a powerhouse ever since.
Summitt put women’s basketball on the map; VanDerveer reshaped the whole territory. She would have won more before now had she not taken a year-long leave from Stanford to coach the 1996 Olympic Team, which served as a springboard for professional women’s basketball in the United States. The stories of VanDerveer from that period are a bit funny; she leaves, say, a 60-point win over Zaire not totally satisfied with the team’s performance, but the fretfulness was because she knew the stakes of being the NBA’s test case for women’s basketball. As proof that her rigor paid off, consider that Molly Goodenbour, a member of VanDerveer’s 1990 and 1992 championship teams, worked in a department store after she left Stanford—there was no WNBA to play in—and that today, another VanDerveer product, Nneka Ogwumike, is president of the WNBA players’ union.
There are few opportunities for celebrity in coaching women’s basketball, and if you can’t inspire terror like Pat Summitt, aren’t named Muffet, or lack Geno Auriemma’s drollery, then you can just about forget it. VanDerveer, a staid and soft-spoken sort who has rocked the same haircut for 35 years now, may not command much attention outside the sport, but her consistent excellence speaks for itself. “She’s understated, but she’s clearly in charge,” Steve Kerr said yesterday at a press conference. (And she can be plenty droll if the occasion presents itself. When Candice Wiggins, a former Stanford star, alleged in an interview that she was bullied for being straight in the “toxic” and “98 percent” gay WNBA, VanDerveer said, “I don’t know that math was ever Candice’s strength.”)
Tuesday’s win put her in the spotlight of sports, if bittersweetly. VanDerveer’s players chanted her name and gifted her an extremely comfortable-looking jacket monogrammed “T-DAWG,” but this is a montage-on-the-jumbotron sort of game, the kind you’d like to see played in a sold-out Maples Pavillion, and it is tough to celebrate amid the unpleasant, cynical circumstances of the college basketball season. For a certain kind of women’s basketball fan, there is an undercurrent of sadness, too, in seeing a Pat Summitt record erased. “I really hope Pat Summitt is looking down and saying, ‘Good job, Tara. Keep it going,'” VanDerveer made sure to say after the game. Summitt partisans will be happy, at least, that VanDerveer, with whom Summitt developed a mutual respect, is the one to eclipse the record first, and not Auriemma. And they can take some satisfaction in knowing it took eight years of Summitt’s absence from coaching for anyone to do it.
How long VanDerveer holds on to this record is anyone’s guess. Auriemma is just six games shy, and Baylor’s Kim Mulkey is winning at a pace that should frighten them both. Still, if it is VanDerveer’s for only for a short while, she has well earned this testament to her longevity.