VanDerveer Leads Stanford To National Prominence
by Michelle Smith
In 1985 when Tara VanDerveer began to consider leaving Ohio State to come to Stanford as head coach of the women's basketball team, she considered the Pac-10 to be "the wild west."
She'd never been to Tempe or Eugene or Pullman. At Ohio State, she'd lost to every Pac-10 team she played. She came anyway.
Twenty-six years later, people in the game of basketball use words like "icon" and "legend" to describe VanDerveer.
Her coaching legacy at Stanford includes 18 Pac-10 titles, two NCAA championships and eight Final Four appearances.
No basketball coach in Pac-10 history—in men's or women's basketball—has more wins or conference victories.
She has won 30 or more games nine times and at least 20 games 20 times during her career with the Cardinal. She is a three-time national coach of the year and led the 1996 U.S. women's team to an Olympic gold medal in Atlanta. She is a member of the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame.
And she is about to become the fifth coach in women's basketball history to win 800 games in her career, joining Tennessee's Pat Summitt, Texas' Jody Conradt, Rutgers' C. Vivian Stringer and North Carolina's Sylvia Hatchell in a very exclusive club.
"She is the best coach I ever played for," said Lisa Leslie, a member of the 1996 Olympic team.
VanDerveer, who grew up in upstate New York, played college basketball at Indiana and began her head coaching career at Idaho at the age of 21 before she was hired at Ohio State two years later.
Then-Stanford athletic director Andy Geiger lured VanDerveer to Stanford in 1985 after she led the Buckeyes to the NCAA Elite Eight.
VanDerveer remembers her decision to come to Stanford, and how difficult it was to walk away from the success she was experiencing as a young coach with the Buckeyes.
"Everyone did all these different things out here," VanDerveer said. "In the Big Ten, everybody played the same style all the time. It was like meat and potatoes. Out here, people were pressing, and running half-court traps and triangle-and-2. There was all this variety and it's what I really liked about it."
When she came, there were so few fans in the stands that the bleachers in the gym didn't even need to be pulled out. She had to convince young players to take a chance on a program that didn't have much success in its history.
In her fifth season at Stanford, VanDerveer led the Cardinal to the NCAA title with a team that featured some of the best players ever to come through the Pac-10: Jennifer Azzi, Sonja Henning, Katy Steding and Val Whiting.
Over the years, VanDerveer's rosters have been filled with players whose names decorate the Pac-10 record books, such as Kate Starbird, Nicole Powell, Candice Wiggins and Jayne Appel.
While the Cardinal have dominated the conference over the past two decades, VanDerveer remembers many rivalries and constant intense competition.
"We've been challenged by every program. There were the years with [head coach] Chris Gobrecht at Washington, then Arizona with Joan [Bonvicini] and ASU with Charli [Turner Thorne] and USC with Lisa Leslie. We've had a revolving rivalry with everyone," VanDerveer said.
Fox Sports Net analyst Mary Murphy said that VanDerveer "is West Coast basketball."
"I have known Tara since I was 18 years ago and she has always been Tara. She doesn't try to be anything for anybody. She's incredibly intelligent and she funnels all that intelligence toward basketball. She loves the sport."
California head coach Joanne Boyle, in her sixth season in Berkeley, said VanDerveer has been a mentor and an advocate for the Conference.
"She is a great role model," Boyle said. "She understands the league and the issues we have on the national scene. She's been a wealth of information and knowledge. Whatever platform she has, she uses it to promote the Pac-10."
VanDerveer said she has always found the Pac-10 to be "an upbeat positive place."
"When I made the decision to come to Stanford, it was a hard decision. I was leaving a great team at Ohio State," VanDerveer said. "But I could feel the energy of the Pac-10, for women's sports. It was a place that valued women's sports.
"If you look at the incredible number of outstanding female athletes, I don't know that any conference could claim more or better ones. It's competitive here, but it's friendly. People compete hard against each other, but I think there's a feeling that we are all in this together."
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