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Michelle Smith Women’s Basketball Feature: Tara's Big Night

Dec 16, 2020
Stanford Athletics

Apparently, it’s “T-Dawg” now.

In addition to becoming the winningest coach in the history of collegiate women’s basketball Tuesday in a nationally-televised 104-61 win over Pacific in Stockton, Tara VanDerveer got herself a nice new warm hoodie and a new nickname that it’s going to take her a while to live down.

“I take it as a sign of affection,” VanDerveer said, joking that nobody is going to be calling her that when she yells at them about their defense.

In fact, Tuesday night was one gigantic show of affection for VanDerveer, whose win total of 1,099 puts her in a realm all her own after passing the late, great Pat Summitt. It was a walk down memory lane from the humble beginnings of a young woman bound for law school whose life and career took a different direction, an affirmation of decades spent inspiring and elevating young women, a legacy of class, hard work and mentorship and a testament to competitiveness and consistency at the highest levels.

Senior Kiana Williams said after the game what was already abundantly apparent. The No. 1 team in the country desperately wanted to win this milestone game for their head coach. VanDerveer said she could feel the anticipation building on the bus ride to the arena. The nerves were apparent in the early minutes as a determined Pacific team, playing in its first game of the season, hung tight with Stanford until halftime.

“We knew how big this was,” Williams said. “We wanted to do it for Tara.”

The Stanford players and coaching staff have been on the road for nearly three weeks, unable to play or practice at Stanford because of local public health orders. They have bonded tightly during that time. They celebrated VanDerveer’s milestone in the locker room after the game with cupcakes and t-shirts, party poppers and confetti.

“I look at it as a blessing,” Williams said. “It’s not ideal, but we’ve had more time to spend together. It would have been nice if this could have been at Maples. But at the end of the day, we are just thankful to be in a gym, playing basketball. We are road warriors for her.”

VanDerveer was a little more giddy after the game than she was when she tied Summitt’s career wins mark on Sunday night, letting the weight of this moment sink in. She was touched by how many people had reached out to send their well-wishes, so many, she joked that she thought someone had put her phone number on a bathroom wall somewhere.

“It’s so great to connect with people, everyone has been feeling so isolated,” VanDerveer said. “I’ve been feeling the love from everyone and it’s so wonderful that so many people have reached out.”

And VanDerveer said she hoped that Summitt, her longtime friend, was watching.

"I hope Pat Summitt is looking down and saying, 'Good job, Tara. Keep it going.'"

VanDerveer shared her gratitude for the players, coaches, administration and staff that have supported her and her program through the years. She said her goal is to be the kind of coach that players want to play for, work hard for. For nearly four decades, she has accomplished exactly that. That is the legacy.

Stanford released a six-and-a-half minute video tribute on Tuesday night after the game that included so many of her players, expressing their gratitude and congratulations. It could have gone on a lot longer.

“I don’t go to the gym every day thinking I’m going to impact somebody’s life,” VanDerveer said. “I just want to work hard and set an example."

No better example than the gesture she announced after the game to donate $10 for every one of her career wins to a local food bank, a donation of nearly $11,000.

“I want to make a difference. I learned that from my players,” VanDerveer said. “This time in our country is a tough time. One in six Americans is hungry and it behooves me, as a person who is fortunate, a privileged person, to help.”

One more reason that VanDerveer is one of the most beloved figures in the game. For her part, she said she will go for a swim in the morning, plan for the next game and put this big night behind her.

“This is special to me,” VanDerveer said. “We are currently the No. 1 team in the country, we are playing in a pandemic. I will never forget this. That’s for sure.”

Neither will we, T-Dawg.