VanDerveer Preaches Perfect Harmony

By Sally Jenkins
Friday, April 4, 2008

Tara VanDerveer always seems as if she just finished reading a very thick book about algorithms and found it fascinating. This genial inquisitiveness makes her well suited to coach women's basketball at Stanford, a campus where ballplayers coexist with particle physicists, children of diplomats, cellists, think-tankers and future sportswriters. VanDerveer fits right in; her idea of a lecture on teamwork is to air a symphony and ask her players to listen to all the parts. When they make a mistake on the court, you wonder if it's because they forgot which one is supposed to be the trumpet, and which one the flute.

VanDerveer is one of the nicer presences at the women's Final Four, which is saying something, because it's an unusually great field this year, maybe the best ever. The four teams converging in Tampa for Sunday's semifinals -- Stanford, Connecticut, Tennessee and LSU -- are led by titan-size talents and equally large coaching personalities.

In the midst of so many loud voices and big profiles, VanDerveer might not command much attention. But she should. Here's a statistic: Since 1990, only three coaches have won multiple championships. Tennessee's Pat Summitt and Connecticut's Geno Auriemma are two, and the third is VanDerveer, who in addition to two NCAA titles (1990, 1992) also has an Olympic gold medal to her name.

Disclaimer: Longer ago than I care to mention, I was a student at Stanford, a place I found almost illegally pleasurable, what with professors so interesting they could have charged admission, old Spanish-style quadrangles and a cheeky student body that laughed at authority.

Anyhow, VanDerveer wasn't there yet. She didn't arrive until 1985, when she took over a program with a dismal 9-19 record and no previous history and flipped it into a national contender in the space of just three years. In addition to her two titles, she sent three other teams to the Final Four, despite admissions standards that are (excuse the brag) restrictive. But while this is VanDerveer's sixth trip to the Final Four, it's been 11 years since the last one, mainly because she took a year's sabbatical to coach the 1996 U.S. Olympic team to a stunning 60-0 record, a performance that helped launched the WNBA but cost her program its preeminence.

The Cardinal gradually climbed back, and in region final appearances the past three seasons, it fell just shy of the Final Four. Finally, it has the depth to compete for a title again, led by four-time all-American Candice Wiggins. Earlier this season, Stanford upset Tennessee in overtime, and Monday night in Spokane, Wash., they hung 98 points on top-seeded Maryland. VanDerveer calls her team's momentum "the champagne effect: You have to open that cork and they come bubbling out."

What's striking about VanDerveer is how reticent she is for someone so good at what she does. She's a relatively still, quiet presence on the bench who dresses the same for every game, in a crisp white shirt with starched collar, dark slacks and black-rimmed eyeglasses with little or no makeup. She epitomizes what's so appealing about the women's side of the game: The coaches still are educators, and a college scholarship still means something. She is a 54-year-old who played and studied sociology at Indiana and made successful coaching stops at Idaho and Ohio State before arriving at Stanford. Her manner is no different from that of most other good teachers. She seems to expect the right answers from her players. Instead, when someone makes a mistake, she tends to squint and look baffled, as if to say, "Why would she do that after everything she's been taught?"

A couple of years ago, I got to know VanDerveer over lunch at one of those Final Fours her team failed to make. She managed to get through the entire meal without once discussing the thing she does for a living.

"How about that," she said delightedly. "We never even talked about basketball."

Instead, VanDerveer talked about the classical piano. A few years ago, she decided to satisfy a lifelong urge and began taking lessons. She needed something to relieve the stress of coaching. She practiced until she had to be treated for a wrist inflammation but became good enough to play at recitals, an experience that has been informative. It's made her all the more sympathetic to players who make public mistakes.

All the coaches at this Final Four are great teachers, and their players clearly are great students -- VanDerveer isn't unique in her conviction that "modeling good behavior and mentoring young women should be the focus of our job, not just winning games," as she says. But what does perhaps set her apart is a kind of gentleness in her coaching style. Occasionally, she records CDs of her piano playing and sends them to people she likes; Summitt once opened a piece of mail and out fell a CD entitled "Joy."

If there is a piano in her team hotel at this Final Four, VanDerveer will find it, and she will be at it. Usually she plays later at night, in a banquet room or lounge, sending ripples and cascades for an audience composed of a few staffers, team members or other select invitees. It's a performance that is as much about enthusiasm and love of the subject as it is about excellence, and it's one worth listening to.

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