University of San Francisco guest services began passing out Cardinal red "800" signs to the crowd of 3,441 fans in attendance at War Memorial Gym with about six minutes left in Stanford University's 100-45 rout of the Dons last night.
Ultimately, that just about sums up all you need to know about Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer's seemingly elusive 800th win.
Obviously, it was a dominant performance by Stanford whose simple size advantage overwhelmed USF in every way imaginable. After getting off to another slow start in the first six minutes of the game, Stanford methodically barraged USF with a 25-0 run over the final 14 minutes of the first half to pretty much solidify the fact that they wouldn't have to entertain any chatter about VanDerveer being stuck on 799 as they had the past two games.
"Nobody can ignore that we-," said junior forward Nneka Ogwumike, pausing to adjust her statement. "Well, not we - Tara - was 799. But we just had to find confidence in ourselves."
However, that USF also actively facilitated a post-game celebration befitting of the moment after being so thoroughly outplayed by a far superior Cardinal team was confirmation that that there was probably no better situation in which VanDerveer could have reached the milestone. Not only was it that she won it with former players Jennifer Azzi and Katy Steding in attendance as USF's coaches, but the response from the mixed crowd of Stanford and USF fans in addition to the support of an opposing program speaks volumes about what VanDerveer means to women's basketball.
"It was kinda weird when we were watching the Tennessee game and it looked like Stanford might not win," said Azzi, who called VanDerveer the most brilliant mind in the game of basketball. "So as I've said, bittersweet. Ironic - we were Tara's first recruiting class and now here she is at USF with her 800th win. So it's kind of weird to think we lost a game but I'm really happy. I'm really happy on some odd level that it was here at USF."
Although passing out the signs was Stanford's idea, Azzi, Steding and USF interim athletic director Dr. Gary Nelson shared in the celebration with flowers and a post-game commemorative ball presentation before VanDerveer addressed the crowd. It was a touch of class that wasn't originally planned for but seemed like the only appropriate thing to do.
"It wasn't planned - obviously we wanted to beat DePaul, we wanted to beat Tennesse," said VanDerveer. "But it really made it all the more special for it to be here. My mom was here. My sister. And obviously Jennifer and Katy. And a lot of people in the Bay Area that have been through the years so supportive of me personally and our team."
Of course, VanDerveer reciprocated with a classy gesture of her own, perhaps outdoing the efforts of her former players on her milestone night - shortly after coaching the team that overwhelmed USF on the court, VanDerveer decided to visit the USF locker room after the game to say a few words to the opposing players.
"I think it's cool," said senior forward Kayla Pedersen, who finished with a double-double with 20 rebounds and 16 points. "Everybody wants to hear from Tara - like why wouldn't they? So, it's the game of basketball so when you can help anybody out, it's great."
And the reciprocal gestures - that might be more uncommon than unexpected - perfectly illustrated what's special about VanDerveer's legacy, both in terms of the program she has built as well as the type of players she has produced. In a broader college sports landscape that has become increasingly focused on winning at all costs - even if to a lesser extent in the women's game - VanDerveer has maintained a broader focus on developing strong people even in achieving an elite level of success that only six previous coaches can lay claim to.
"Tara is a very intellectual kind of a coach," said Azzi. "She doesn't get up screaming all the time. And she's not boisterous. She's very much a teacher. And she's a student of the game. She definitely yelled at me quite a bit, but I also found her pretty calm at the same time, which was very effective for me - I think there would have been a lot of coaches that would have been tougher for me, I guess, mentally or emotionally or whatever. But I just thought she was an incredible teacher and coach."
VanDerveer's intellectual disposition to basketball could almost be considered the uniquely defining feature of her legacy, which has led some to consider her something of the professor among her six colleagues in the 800 club. Fittingly, she flashed a little bit of what Azzi was talking about during her own press conference.
"I was also thinking during the summer - not that I was thinking about the number necessarily - but I was like ah I've been doing this a long time," said VanDerveer. "And sometimes you think, 'Well you're pretty good at it.' And then I read the book Outliers. Has anybody read that book? It's a great book. But I've been in these situations to study basketball and be around basketball and I've had so many turns to have this opportunity."
Of course, Gladwell's point that VanDerveer evoked is certainly valid - certainly, her success is as much a product of fortuitous circumstances as it is about circumstances under her control. From watching basketball with her father to charting teams' play as a 10-year-old to the timing of Title IX that gave her an opportunity as a coach, a lot of things have just gone her way. As a reporter noted that she's said in the past, part of reaching the 800 win milestone is a simple matter of time. And conversely, as VanDerveer joked during her press conference, had she not recruited Tennessee native Azzi, she would not have scheduled Pat Summitt's Lady Vols so many times, and might have reached 800 wins a year ago. Context definitely matters and VanDerveer is no less a subject of circumstance than anybody else.
"To win 800 games, I mean I've thought about it but just seeing the signs - I'm like, that's a lot of games," said VanDerveer. "And I just realized I've been at this a long time. And it really was special to plan it this way - I didn't want it to happen this way - but it was really special to be here with Jennifer and Katy because they were part of so many wins."
However, the rest of us can be a bit less modest than VanDerveer and acknowledge that there's more to her success than serendipity. 25 years coaching at one school is a privilege earned rather than freely granted and in that time she has built a women's basketball institution that is simply unrivaled in women's basketball on the west coast. Similar to what has been said in the best of the media's coverage of UConn's record-breaking 89 game streak, VanDerveer's ability to maintain such a consistent level of success from the Azzi era into a bright future ahead of her with freshman Chiney Ogwumike poised to establish a legacy of her own is worthy of our utmost admiration. To remain that successful for so long despite changes in the game, rapid growth in the abilities of the athletes, and increasing competition is simply a remarkable human achievement. And that success makes her professorial approach to the game even easier to appreciate.
Yet none of this is to say that the final chapter of VanDerveer's legacy has been completed with the somewhat arbitrary marker of an 800th win that happened to come under near-ideal celebratory circumstances; to the contrary, it's not even the final statement of this year with both #4 Xavier University and #1 UConn coming to town just after Christmas for a re-enactment of Stanford's 2010 NCAA tournament run. It's conceivable that the rout of USF that gave VanDerveer her 800th win could be obscured by losing 4 of 5 games to end 2010.
"I was hoping to enjoy Christmas, but it's exciting because I feel like that's what, again, this is what Jennifer and Katy created by winning a national championship, by putting Stanford basketball on the national map," said VanDerveer. "Then we play teams like Xavier, like Tennessee, and like Connecticut. And we are going to have to play very, very well. And that's kinda like the idea."
Nevertheless, considering that media row at USF was full, four local news cameras were rolling for the press conference, and VanDerveer's former players made sure to show her the type of appreciation she deserves, it's hard to ignore the emotion and magnitude of that moment last night. It's by no means a stretch to say that the night's festivities were symbolic of VanDerveer's layered significance to Stanford, Bay Area, and national women's basketball. Even growing up as a Cal fan before the landmark 1996 Olympics, VanDerveer's program was something you simply had to respect. And to be present was an honor for everyone present from the opposing coaches to the USF fans who graciously embraced VanDerveer as though she was one of their own to the players who were ultimately responsible for the win on the court.
"She's been here for a long time making history, accomplishing many things and I'm just really glad to be a part of that history and to see how many people are supporting us and her and Stanford as a program," said Ogwumike who scored 14 points and had 7 rebounds.
And with the inevitable 800 milestone now reached, we can just appreciate the opportunity to witness greater success in the future.