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TARA AT THE TOP: How VanDerveer became the winningest coach in women’s college basketball history

Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer became the winningest head coach in women’s college basketball history, passing the legendary Pat Summitt to sit alone on the mountaintop. Yet, it is another woman from Tennessee who helps explain why VanDerveer has reached this unprecedented milestone.

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Stanford University women’s basketball coach Tara VanDerveer wrote the words “Whatever it Takes” on a sheet of plexiglass for ESPN Friday afternoon, March 30, 2012. Teams filmed a tease for the television network that will be used Sunday night during the
Tara VanDerveer, participating in a 2012 March Madness feature for ESPN, writes “WHATEVER IT TAKES.”
Photo By Karl Gehring/The Denver Post via Getty Images

With a college women’s basketball record 1,099 wins, Stanford Cardinal head coach Tara VanDerveer’s career can be encapsulated in numerous ways.

But the crux of her success can be understood through two women from Tennessee.

When her No. 1-ranked Cardinal defeated Pacific 104-61 Tuesday night, VanDerveer passed Pat Summitt, the late, legendary coach of the Tennessee Lady Volunteers, to become the winningest head coach in college women’s basketball history.

On passing Summitt, VanDerveer said, “I really hope Pat Summitt is looking down and saying, ‘Good job, Tara. Keep it going.’ I loved coaching against Pat, and we miss her.”

Yet, the story of another woman from Tennessee — Jennifer Azzi — best illuminates why VanDerveer was able to surpass Summitt’s illustrious mark.

VanDerveer’s Stanford risk

VanDerveer began her coaching career the University of Idaho in 1978. Two seasons later, she was moving up the ranks, heading to Ohio State. In 1985, after winning 110 games and turning the Buckeyes into a Big 10 power, she decamped and headed to Palo Alto, Cali.

Taking over the fledgling, forgotten Stanford Cardinal was not another move up the ranks — it was risk.

Her first season (1986-87), the Cardinal finished a decent 13-15 overall, but a dismal 1-7 in then-Pac-10 conference play. “At that time, our players were excited when they lost by only 20 points,” VanDerveer later said of her early tenure with the program.

To jumpstart her program, VanDerveer began aggressive recruiting of a promising point guard from Oak Ridge, Tennessee: Jennifer Azzi, who had been overlooked by the nearby Lady Volunteers and several other respectable programs, including VanDerveer’s former friends in Columbus, Ohio.

Azzi decided to take a chance on Stanford.

“Jennifer was like me,” VanDerveer later said. “She was a risk taker.”

The pairing with VanDerveer proved perfect, who now had the player who would exemplify and establish the principles of Stanford Cardinal women’s basketball.

As Sports Illustrated put it, Azzi’s arrival “made all the difference for Stanford.”

Persistence pays off

VanDerveer has described her coaching philosophy rather simply — “Hard work.”

Elaborating, she told Sports Illustrated in 1996, “I’m hard on (my players), but I want their experience here to be special. I want them to have fun, but I’m not comfortable with mediocrity. Stanford stands for more than that.”

In Azzi’s freshman season (1986-87), VanDerveer and Stanford began their escape from the discomforts of mediocrity, and a .500 season helped VanDerveer convince Sonja Henning, another future All-American player, to suit up for the Cardinal.

In doing so, she further proved wrong those who insisted she could not recruit the best players to Stanford. These critics included her father, who told her, “With their high academic standards, you’ll never be able to get the players you need to win.”

Former Southern Cal head coach Linda Sharp put it more bluntly, telling VanDerveer: “No, Tara, a Stanford player has a ponytail and won’t take a charge.”

Soon, the stubborn VanDerveer was attracting top recruits from across the nation and fortunes began to change on the “Farm.”

Or, more accurately, “hard work” produced the improved fortunes. “It’s not that I don’t get tired running,” Azzi told Sports Illustrated, embodying the mentality of her head coach. “It’s that I forget about it.”

In 1987-88, the Cardinal finished 27-5 and advanced to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament. The following year, Stanford bettered its record to 28-3, won the Pac-10 regular-season championship and made the Elite Eight.

Then came the big breakthrough for VanDerveer and the Cardinal.

VanDerveer, Stanford ascend toward excellence

Stanford entered the 1989-90 season with high expectations the team embraced. Posters dotting the Cardinal locker room read, “NCAA CHAMPIONS — GET COMFORTABLE WITH IT.”

They did. Stanford streaked to a 32-1 record and defeated the Auburn Tigers in Knoxville, Tenn., to win the 1990 national championship.

It was a full-circle moment for VanDerveer and Azzi, two-time All-American and tournament MVP, who led the Cardinal to its title near the east Tennessee town from which she had been plucked four years earlier.

Yes, VanDerveer had taken her team far from the discomforts of mediocrity. Since then, VanDerveer and Stanford seemingly have enjoyed only upward momentum.

Again winning the national title in 1992, the Cardinal have claimed 32 consecutive NCAA Tournament berths, including a total of 12 trips to the Final Four. VanDerveer’s Cardinal also have captured 25 Pac-10/Pac-12 regular season and/or tournament titles.

Yet, it is that “hard work” that has maintained this momentum.

Maintaining excellence, in basketball and beyond

In her tribute to her college coach, Chiney Ogwumike wrote for ESPN:

... her routine is simple: study, scout, work hard. Rinse and repeat. She has been doing it every day for more than 40 years at Stanford, winning games and learning valuable lessons along the way. Throughout those experiences, Coach Tara naturally became a teacher, with a tremendous impact on so many.

Nneka Ogwumike echoed her sister, sharing the all-round values VanDerveer instilled in her:

She always talked about never forgetting the fundamentals and the foundation by which I was able to make it where I was. At the end of the day, all of those simple things, those small things that most players seemingly overlook, are also the same things that can maintain a career of longevity and win you championships and get you as far as you hope to go. Never lose sight of those simple, everyday things.

As many of her former players demonstrate, the standards and practices modeled by VanDerveer have translated to success in basketball and beyond.

Twenty-six former Cardinal players have been selected in a WNBA Draft, highlighted by the Ogwumike sisters as No. 1 picks in 2012 and 2014. Nineteen of VanDerveer’s former players or assistant coaches currently work in basketball administration, including Azzi, head coach at the University of San Francisco; Charmin Smith, head coach at rival Cal; and Charli Turner Thorne, head coach at Arizona State.

After her historic win, VanDerveer herself emphasized the simple yet strong principles that have served as the foundation of her success, stating:

I never really kind of say, ‘I’m going to go to the gym and impact someone’s life today.’ I just try to work really hard, set a good example with work ethic, respecting our student-athletes. I want to be someone they want to play hard for. That’s my goal all the time, to be a great coach for them. That’s who I work for.