Tara VanDerveer craves challenges.
They fuel her love of basketball, drove her to take on piano lessons at age 47 and inspire her lifelong commitment to advancing women’s sports.
“If you want to be good at something, it isn’t just a casual endeavor,” VanDerveer said. “You have to just keep working at it all the time.”
After years of persistence, VanDerveer, 60, is just six victories away from becoming the fifth coach in the history of college women’s basketball to earn 900 wins. She has also won an Olympic gold medal, two national championships and 24 conference titles, but players, coaches and colleagues say her greatest achievements are the sacrifices she makes for the betterment of women’s hoops.
“This game really owes her a lot,” said Charmin Smith, a Cal assistant coach who played for VanDerveer at Stanford in the mid-1990s. “If you think back to the ’96 Olympic team, that was basically the springboard for the WNBA.”
Whether she is coaching the Cardinal, Team USA or sitting down at the piano, a key ingredient to VanDerveer’s success is her relentless determination. She expects her players to give 100 percent in every minute of practice, while off the court, she is pouring through game tape, ensuring the team is more than ready for its next opponent.
“She’s a fantastic, fantastic preparation coach,” 2012 Pac-12 Conference Player of the Year Chiney Ogwumike said. “We know what we’re walking into every game.”
With her team, VanDerveer, who is in her 29th season at Stanford, is blunt, tough and demanding. She doesn’t sugarcoat anything. But she cares deeply about her players and when she gives praise, they know it’s sincere.
“The personal touches — a lot of people would say they’re sometimes a little rare with Tara — they’re really impactful, really meaningful,” said Katy Steding, a Cal assistant coach who played on VanDerveer’s 1990 national championship team. “Just when you think, ‘Wow, she’s just on my case all the time,’ she lets you know how much she cares about you.”
Steding recalled a memorable letter that VanDerveer sent her in 1994 after she blew out her knee for the second time.
“She said, ‘Don’t think that you’re done just because you’re hurt — we’ll still need you in ’96,’” Steding said. “She knew what I needed — there’s a psychologist in there, too.”
VanDerveer, who couldn’t play basketball in high school because there wasn’t a team for girls, took a sabbatical from Stanford during the 1995-96 season to coach the U.S. Olympic team in the wake of its disappointing bronze-medal finish at 1992 Barcelona Games.
Prior to the Olympics, the team toured the country, playing international and college teams in NBA arenas, turning players like Sheryl Swoopes, Lisa Leslie and Rebecca Lobo into household names. The exposure and the team’s 60-0 record laid the foundation for the WNBA’s inaugural season in 1997.
“That’s how Tara presented it to us: How this team does will have benefits that will be huge for women’s sports for many, many years,” said Steding, who played on that Olympic team. “She put a lot of pressure on us to perform.”
But VanDerveer’s time away from Stanford might have impacted recruiting, disrupting the program’s rhythm. The Cardinal went to the Final Four in the 1996-97 season, but then the team went 11 seasons without a trip to the sport’s most prestigious event.
The program regained its glory in 2007-08, making its first of five straight Final Four appearances. But the Cardinal were eliminated in the Sweet 16 by Georgia last season and, in defeat, VanDerveer showed her generosity again, handing over the team’s scouting reports on the Bulldogs to rival Cal, which was slated to face them in the Elite Eight.
“She just cares about the Pac-12 and West Coast basketball,” Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. “She’s one of the people in our game that has always given to the greater good.”