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Final Four: The historical significance of Tara VanDerveer and Dawn Staley

In 1996, Tara VanDerveer and Dawn Staley helped to kickstart modern women’s basketball in the United States, winning a gold medal at the Atlanta Olympic Games. Since then, both have continued to influence women’s college hoops history. On Friday night, they will meet in the Final Four as head coaches for the second time.

Dawn Staley
Tara VanDerveer coaches Dawn Staley at the 1994 FIBA World Cup.
Getty Images

Since 1985, Tara VanDerveer has been a fixture for the Stanford University women’s basketball team. Except during the 1995-96 season.

Twenty five years ago, she took a year of absence from Stanford to coach the 1996 U.S. Women’s Olympic Basketball Team, where Dawn Staley was her reserve point guard.

At the Atlanta Games, VanDerveer and Staley not only scored a gold medal, but also established the foundation for modern women’s basketball in the United States. The success of the 1996 Olympic team propelled the creation of two women’s professional leagues in the United States. Suddenly, college was not the culmination of a young women’s domestic basketball career. Nevertheless, the prospect of a professional career has not lessened the significance of collegiate achievements, for players or their coaches.

On Friday night, VanDerveer and Staley will meet as coaching peers, when VanDerveer’s Stanford Cardinal, the No. 1 seed from the Alamo Region, will take on Staley’s South Carolina Gamecocks, the No. 1 seed from the Hemisfair Region, in the Final Four.

It will be the second Final Four meeting between the two. In 2017, Staley bested her mentor, with South Carolina topping Stanford, 62-53, en route to a national championship.

Prior to that 2017 game, Staley expressed appreciation for what she learned playing for VanDerveer more than 20 years prior:

(1996) opened my eyes to seeing basketball coached and played at a different level. I feel like, from my experiences with her, she taught me how to approach the game, how to approach pressure situations, and how to execute while being under that amount of pressure.

In addition to the 1996 Olympic Games, Staley also suited up for a Team USA team captained by VanDerveer at the 1994 FIBA World Cup and 1991 World University Games. On Staley, VanDerveer shared in 2017, “I always have respected Dawn’s competitiveness, her work ethic, her absolute passion for the game of basketball. She’s everything you could look for in a coach and a friend.”

Here’s the history at stake for VanDerveer and Stanford and Staley and South Carolina in Friday night’s Final Four.

Tara at the top, with another title?

Louisville v Stanford
Tara VanDerveer, or T-Dawg, cuts down the net after Stanford defeated Louisville to advance to the Final Four.
Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

In December, VanDerveer won her 1099th game, passing Lady Vol legend Pat Summitt to become women’s college basketball’s all-time wins leader. She currently sits at 1,123 victories, four ahead of UConn’s Geno Auriemma, who surpassed Summitt’s number approximately one month after VanDerveer.

Two more wins would be an appropriate coda to her history-making season. Tara at the top, with another title, would solidify the symbolic torch-passing that occurred when VanDerveer exceeded Summitt’s long-standing mark.

Already in a 13th Final Four, a victory would send VanDerveer and Stanford to a fifth national championship game, with an opportunity to win a long-awaited third national title. It has been nearly thirty years since the Cardinal last secured college basketball’s ultimate crown, defeating Western Kentucky in 1992 to win their second championship in three seasons. In 1990, Stanford won it all over Auburn. Along the way to their 1990 and 1992 titles, Stanford twice knocked off the Virginia Cavaliers — led by a spunky point guard named Dawn Staley — in the Final Four.

Another national title also would tie VanDerveer and Stanford with Kim Mulkey and Baylor at three national titles, which would be tied for third all-time behind Auriemma’s 11 and Summitt’s eight championships.

Whether or not her squad survives and advances and triumphs, VanDerveer still will have intensified her imprint on women’s college basketball. In response to the resource disparities in the women’s and men’s NCAA basketball tournament bubbles, VanDerveer issued a forthright statement, condemning the NCAA while furthering her status as a leader in the enduring effort for women’s empowerment in sports.

Dawn Staley keeps making history

Texas v South Carolina
Dawn Staley swings the net, celebrating South Carolina’s win over Texas and another trip to the Final Four.
Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

In steering South Carolina to a third Final Four, Staley has tied LSU’s Pokey Chatman for the second most Final Four appearances by a Black woman head coach, trailing C. Vivian Stringer’s four appearances with Cheyney State, Iowa and Rutgers. If the Gamecocks win on Friday night, Staley will become the Black woman head coach with the most national championship game appearances, passing Stringer and Purdue’s Carolyn Peck.

With a second national title, she would make even more history. She would be the first Black coach — including Black male coaches in men’s college basketball — to win two national championships.

Staley acutely understands her representational significance, often using her sartorial choices to celebrate Black coaches. After wearing a T-shirt with the names of notable Black coaches in the Gamecocks’ first round contest, she honored the legendary and late Georgetown head coach John Thompson on Tuesday night.

Staley also has spoken extensively about the importance of empowering and elevating Black women as head coaches. She stands as proof positive of the impact Black coaches can have on players and programs, as she emphasized to reporters after Tuesday’s victory:

There’s so many Black coaches out there that don’t get opportunities. Because when ADs don’t see it, they don’t see it. And they’re gonna see it on the biggest stage Friday night.

Commenting on herself and Arizona’s Adia Barnes making this the first Final Four to feature two Black women head coaches, Staley further asserted, “Our history here in women’s basketball is filled with so many Black bodies, for this to be happening in 2021, to me, is long overdue.”

Staley also has vaulted to the front of the fight for gender equity in college sports, eviscerating the NCAA for the their long inadequate treatment of women athletes.