Turn away, for a moment, from all the noise. Press mute on the yammerers and hucksters and attend instead, if only briefly, to someone who “doesn’t live life very loudly,” in the words of a former star player, and who therefore snuck up on a thousand victories almost unheard and unnoticed. A thousand victories. Just two coaches in the history of collegiate basketball have won so many games: Mike Krzyzewski of Duke and the late great Pat Summitt of Tennessee. And now Tara VanDerveer of Stanford joins them.
VanDerveer is what the NCAA should be — as opposed to the pools of muck populated by coverup artists and accessories to crime it has become in some quarters. She works on the other side of the NCAA from all that, in the women’s game, in which a four-year scholarship is still life-altering and a coach can cling to the antique idea that “modeling good behavior should be the focus of our job, not just winning games,” as VanDerveer once put it.
For 38 years, she has practiced exactly that, managed to be both educator and winner, with two NCAA titles and 11 Final Fours and an Olympic gold medal, too. On Friday night, she reached the 1,000-win plateau when No. 8 Stanford beat Southern Cal, 58-42. On Monday night, she will go for 1,001 on ESPN2 against No. 13 UCLA, so do yourself a favor and watch her. Watch how all-time greatness can reside inside of such reticence.
“She’s brilliant; she’s just not a loud person out blowing her horn,” former player Jennifer Azzi said. “She just does her job.”
In her starched collars and muted gray suits and spectacles, she looks like the lawyer she might have been and the chess expert and classical pianist she is. She’s known for low-key demands that her players call “Tara-isms,” such as “You’re a Ferrari; quit driving like a Volkswagen.” Or: “That ‘S’ on your chest stands for ‘Stanford,’ not ‘Stupid,’ so play like it.”
Yet she has the steel and court wits to match anyone. She’s the only person in this era to consistently break the grip of Summitt and Geno Auriemma and hand them losses on big occasions. In 2008, she ousted Connecticut from the Final Four, and in 2010, she busted its 90-game winning streak. Her great friend Summitt both loved and dreaded playing her.
“She’s going to poke holes in us,” Summitt used to say, wincing.
Understand this about VanDerveer’s remarkable career: She was almost entirely self-taught. There were no coaching trees in women’s basketball as she came up, no camps and clinics and mentors. Instead, she picked up the trade by watching from the margins, studying Bobby Knight when she was a player at Indiana, slipping courtside between her own practices and sociology classes. She signed up for his coaching class and enrolled in one of his clinics, the only woman surrounded by 500 guys.
After successful early coaching stops at Idaho and Ohio State, she arrived at Stanford in 1985 and promptly flipped a miserable program that played in empty arenas into a national factor.
“We had no fans,” Azzi remembered. “They didn’t even pull the bleachers out when we played.”
By 1990, she had led the Cardinal to a national championship, and she repeated that feat in 1992.
The 1,000th victory is all the more remarkable because it comes despite a significant, albeit short, gap. VanDerveer interrupted her dynasty-building to take a year-long sabbatical to coach the 1996 U.S. Olympic team, leading Dawn Staley, Lisa Leslie and company to an epic 60-0 record, including eight wins and a gold medal in the Atlanta Games. It was an act of generosity that resulted in the birth of the WNBA, while costing her and her Stanford program its momentum. She slowly rebuilt.
Over the years since, VanDerveer has fashioned a program that rivals U-Conn. and Tennessee for its own kind of powerful chic. Stanford is a regular power in the NCAA tournament — with five straight Final Four appearances from 2008 to 2012 — yet VanDerveer never acted like the book bags on her players’ backs were too heavy.
“She’s actually drawn to the academic piece, the rigors,” Azzi said.
The program has an odd brand of swagger, born of players such as Chiney Ogwumike winning all-American status while majoring in international relations and taking semesters abroad. It’s an aura that attracts interesting benefactors from Stanford’s Silicon Valley fan base; it’s not unusual to see Condoleezza Rice or Sheryl Sandberg courtside.
VanDerveer didn’t set out to be that kind of feminist pioneer-builder. She just set out to be a teacher, “to maybe take players to a place they couldn’t get by themselves,” she told ESPN on Friday. “Do something they couldn’t do on their own.”
The essence of her coaching is this unselfishness. Her teams are known for their eye-pleasing reliance on collaboration; there is no drifting or freelancing but rather what she calls “purposeful” action. She is liable to give a film session — and then air a symphony and ask her players to listen to the parts and understand how they combine to become music. Or she might say, “Take your fingers. How do they become a fist?”
There is something profoundly gratifying and more than a little cleansing about the fact that such a purely motivated, natural-born instructor can flourish in today’s NCAA. Much less to the tune of 1,000 victories. And, unsurprisingly, other people are making more out of that benchmark than VanDerveer is herself.
“I think we might be more excited about it than she is,” Azzi said. If it means anything, VanDerveer told ESPN, it’s that “it sets a higher standard. And I want to be up for that.”
Azzi didn’t expect VanDerveer would do much in the way of celebrating the achievement.
“I just hope she can take a breath at some point,” Azzi said, “and stand in the empty arena and go ‘Wow.’ ”