STANFORD, Calif. – Tara VanDerveer and Tennessee's Pat Summitt planned home-and-home series whenever their schedules allowed, two power programs in opposite regions of the country ready to test their teams against a fellow great. Ready to challenge themselves as coaches, too.
Their mutual respect always showed, and it shined. From the pregame hugs and quick chats to polite postgame handshakes that demonstrated the deep admiration they each felt for one another.
So, when VanDerveer tied the late Hall of Famer for most coaching wins in women's basketball with 1,098 victories Sunday night by beating one of her former players guiding rival California, she quickly credited Summitt for helping her get there.
“We would talk, and I think that one of the things, I like the idea of competing against great coaches to get better,” VanDerveer said. “If I tied this record with her, she helped me do it, because of playing against her teams. From the beginning, we only played Tennessee because Jennifer Azzi came to Stanford and we promised Jennifer we would play there like one year — not 25 years."
The 67-year-old VanDerveer is poised to pass Summitt's mark in a game Tuesday night when top-ranked Stanford (4-0) plays at Pacific, and it is certain to be in VanDerveer under-the-radar fashion — at remote Stockton in California's Central Valley. No media were expected to be allowed inside the arena to capture the historic moment aside from the ESPN broadcast crew because of the pandemic.
“Tara has kind of become the Coach K of the women's game,” Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr said Monday, referring to Duke's Mike Krzyzewski. “There's just this army of players who she recruits to come through there and then she coaches them up and just year after year they win. It's not easy to do that as a coach, your voice can get old.
"... I've always loved her sort of understated presence. She's understated but she's clearly in charge. When you're in the room with her you feel like, yeah, she’s the boss, but she doesn't need to yell and scream. It's more just poise and knowledge, and the players feel that, and then she keeps churning out these great teams year after year, so she's pretty remarkable.”
In recent years, Kerr has spent time around VanDerveer, a huge Warriors fan who likes to learn from anybody and everybody — no matter the profile or pedigree.
VanDerveer has adapted her approach and style on numerous occasions, even relying on what has become her trusty red bullhorn this season so her players and coaches can hear given the COVID-19 spacing protocols on the bench and need to speak over the piped-in crowd noise at arenas devoid of real fans.
In the summer of 2014, VanDerveer realized she needed to revamp her offense and go away from Stanford’s tried-and-true triangle with the departure of Pac-12 Player of the Year Chiney Ogwumike. VanDerveer called in then-Houston Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni to help with a daunting process that had her “a little cranky.”
“I'm really happy for her. I don't know anyone who's done it better,” said second-year Cal coach Charmin Smith.
And consider what VanDerveer's win total could be: She took a year away from Stanford to coach the 1996 Olympic team. The Americans won a gold medal at the Atlanta Games, while associate head coach Amy Tucker guided Stanford during the absence.
“I am incredibly proud of Tara for this achievement. Her drive, consistency and passion are the foundations for success,” said Tucker, who also played for VanDerveer at Ohio State. “It is really amazing to see her success year after year!”
VanDerveer's Cardinal teams captured two NCAA championships — in 1990 and '92 — and she is always quick to point out the talented players she has been blessed to coach for decades. From Azzi, Kristin Folkl, Sonja Henning and Kate Starbird to Nicole Powell, Candice Wiggins, Jayne Appel-Marinelli and the Ogwumike sisters — Nneka and Chiney. And so many more.
Many of those players have gone on to become coaches, often after a stop as an assistant on her staff first, while others have taken leadership jobs in basketball. Most recently Lindy La Rocque became head coach at UNLV, and before that Smith in Berkeley last year.
“I love being in the gym with players, whether they're a great player or not,” VanDerveer said.
With a young, talented team currently, VanDerveer would like nothing more than to bring home another title before she's through.
“I’m hoping she’s coaching for quite some time longer, especially as the promise of this team now and in the future looks bright,” Stanford athletic director Bernard Muir said. “If all goes well, I’m excited to witness another historic moment in Tara’s illustrious career this coming week. This is indeed quite a milestone, and I feel fortunate to watch this special Hall of Famer approach each and every day with such enthusiasm and such care for her student-athletes and for the good of the game.”
With grace and humility, even when it comes to carefully picking her moments to get on the referees, VanDerveer considers herself a “copier.” She has borrowed ideas from many coaches along the way, and whatever her methods they sure do work.
“What I learned from Pat was just to be passionate about the game and I study other people,” she said. "If anything maybe from her it was the importance of rebounding and playing really hard. Her teams did that. And they didn’t ever give up. They really were determined teams.”
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