Michelle Smith Women’s Basketball Feature: Stanford's Tara VanDerveer
Dec 8, 2020
Having known and covered Tara VanDerveer for 26 years now, I know this much about how she feels about being on the verge of becoming the winningest coach in the history of women’s basketball: nonplussed.
VanDerveer’s team is holed up in Las Vegas, practicing at UNLV and looking for games to play after being elevated to the No. 1 team in the country this week. It’s a development that she will also treat with that usual Tara temperament - a shrug and a reminder that the only rankings that matter coming in March and even April.
Tara VanDerveer is an extraordinary coach. Her longevity is only part of it. Her drive, her consistency, her attention to detail and her evolution as a coach have created the historic circumstances we are on the verge of now.
It is beyond disappointing that this moment of sports history - and make no mistake, this is a very big moment - won’t happen in front of thousands of fans at Maples Pavilion. And that it might well not even happen on television.
The top-ranked Cardinal are 3-0, won their first Pac-12 game Sunday against Washington and everything after that is up in the air. Friday’s game against UC Davis won’t happen at Maples Pavilion, and UC Davis has announced that play for its basketball teams will be paused until further notice. But it looks like Sunday’s rivalry game against Cal at Haas Pavilion is on, which for the moment is VanDerveer’s first chance to tie the iconic Pat Summitt.
Every time VanDerveer has hit a milestone win in her career, and they come every few years now, she finds the moment to be reflective and deferential to her players and her fellow coaches.
This particular milestone is going to be bittersweet for VanDerveer.
Passing Pat Summitt is a reminder that her friend and colleague, one of the most revered figures in the history of the game, isn’t here anymore, having passed away in 2016. And there is no replacing Pat, no matter how many wins VanDerveer collects by the time her career is over.
And whenever that is, VanDerveer’s legacy as one of the all-time greats in the sport is cemented. It’s a legacy not only built on those wins, but on the coaching tree she has planted. On her advocacy for women coaches, on her advocacy for the Pac-12, the conference that she helped to build into its current powerhouse status by pushing everyone else to catch up and play at her team’s elite level.
It is very hard not to feel sadness that this celebration is one more thing that COVID has taken away from us. But that Tara VanDerveer that I have known for 26 years won’t give that one moment’s regret. She has a next game to coach - whenever that is - and a team that needs to improve and evolve in order to be ready.
That’s all it’s ever been about.
I’ve had an opportunity to ask many of the coaches around the Pac-12 what they have learned from Tara VanDerveer. Here are their answers:
Adia Barnes, Arizona: "I learned from Tara how to do things the right way, how to work hard at your craft, how to promote the game and be successful. I have the upmost respect for her. I listen to her. She has a brilliant basketball mind and the opportunity to coach against her has been amazing. When I have a question and I want an honest answer, I call her and she will give me her honest feedback. She is not just thinking about her own program. I know she wants me to be successful. I trust her with things I wouldn’t ask other people. She cares about the game, she cares about women and she does it the right way."
Scott Rueck, Oregon State: “She’s not only an inspiration, but the ultimate competitor. She is obviously a trailblazer, and for a young head coach, back in the day, 25 years ago for me, there was this program on the West Coast that was able to win nationally. And that belief, that confidence, that level of perfection and excellence that she held herself and her team to was inspiring and made me aspire to be like that.”
J.R. Payne, Colorado: "The thing that’s always struck me is the way she represents this conference. I remember I was in my first year in the conference and I don’t know where we finished, but we were at the Pac-12 Tournament and somebody asked Tara about the great run that they were having and she mentioned every single Pac-12 team and talked about how good and strong everyone was and how we helped to get them prepared. In this big shining moment, she talked about how great everyone else was. That level of selflessness has had a big impact on me."
Mark Trakh, USC: "I’ve known Tara for a lot of years and she is class personified. She is gracious with her team. She is the first one to welcome people to the conference. I always study her teams. They play with purpose and they execute so well. They are a reflection of their head coach. I have nothing but respect for her."
Charli Turner Thorne, Arizona State: "It’s amazing what I still take from Tara. Her attention to detail, the way that everything matters, the way she prepares for teams. When I played for her, we didn’t have film on all of these teams the way we do now. She really prepared us. She found people’s strengths and pushed everything. The great thing about Tara is that she evolves and learns and grows.”
Kelly Graves, Oregon: "The thing I’ve learned is that meticulous attention to detail and the consistency. Stanford never beat themselves. You’ve got to knock them out. I don’t think anyone scouts as well as they do. Tara is just very classy and I’ve learned to appreciate that more through the years."
Cori Close, UCLA: "I went to Tara’s camps when I was a kid. Even back then, her quest for excellence and her empowerment of women was obvious. Tara really did make me feel like I should never settle on my dreams. At her camp at one point, someone told me that I was too slow and too short to be a Division I player and Tara pulled me aside and said ‘You can do this.' I’m really grateful for the opportunity, all of these years later, to be coaching against her."
Kamie Ethridge, Washington State: "She has been a tremendous mentor to hundreds, if not thousands of coaches. I just appreciate and admire how successful she’s been. But at the same time, how she has changed how she coaches to fit the players she’s had. She adapts and grows and teaches the game and she is just one of the greatest ever."
Jody Wynn, Washington: "Playing against her teams as a student-athlete, her teams were always on point with execution. As a coach, to coach against her, it forces you to step up to the plate, to prepare your team. She does things right. I have always admired her ability to attract the best student-athletes in the world by not doing anything other than talking positively about her own university and that’s admirable."
Lynne Roberts, Utah: "I adore her. She always extends a hand down to help other people. There is no arrogance about her at all. You can call and ask her anything and she is going to help you. I respect that so much. I don’t think that is normal. She is a legend and she doesn’t move through any of this with a big ego. She is just consistently Tara."
Charmin Smith, Cal: There isn’t really one thing that Tara has taught me. It’s really just a way of being. The way that Tara teachers and instills expectations and the importance of doing the little things. Her teams are well-prepared and it’s those little things that pull out games. That is Tara’s secret sauce.
If anyone is going to (pass Pat Summitt) I think it’s very fitting that it’s Tara because she has fought for all the things Pat fought for. They did it in different ways, but there was a lot of mutual respect there. I know Tara had a ton of love and respect for Pat.