It’s impossible to tell the story of the last four decades of college basketball without Tara VanDerveer. The Stanford icon, USA Basketball coach and all-around standard-bearer for West Coast basketball, is an integral figure in the growth of the women’s game since Title IX. And with two more wins, VanDerveer will become the winningest college coach, men’s or women’s, surpassing former Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski.
The summer of solitude that sustained a coaching icon
In anticipation of his potential record-breaking win this weekend, we’ll be running stories this week focusing on his esteemed career. Here’s a look at some of VanDerveer’s monumental wins:
1. Win number 1
December 1, 1978: Idaho 70, Northern Montana 68 (OT)
Before victory no. 1,201 there was victory no. 1. As Idaho’s head coach, VanDerveer faced Northern Montana College (now known as Montana State-Northern) in his opening game. It was the program’s fifth season of existence — the Vandals weren’t even in a conference yet — and they had chosen a 25-year-old who had been an assistant at Ohio State for two seasons to lead them.
Idaho had one possession to play, but the Vandals fouled out and went to overtime, where they beat the Polar Bears by two. As VanDerveer told the Stanford Daily in 2020, “Before we went into overtime, we were up by three and there was like 10 seconds left in the game or something. I said, “OK, guys, look, we understand this game, but don’t foul.” We came out, the girl took the shot, we fouled her, and I said, “This is going to be tough.” I’m thinking, ‘Man, this coaching thing isn’t going to be easy.'”
Tara VanDerveer –
The winningest coach in women’s college basketball
1978-80 Idaho women’s basketball head coach
3 NCAA championships
4 NCAA Final Four appearances
16 NCAA tournament appearances
— Idaho Vandals (@Idaho_Vandals) March 8, 2023
2. Sold out crowd, momentous win in Iowa
Feb. 3, 1985: Ohio State 56, Iowa 47
After two seasons at Idaho, including a 25-6 record in Year 2, VanDerveer returned to Columbus as head coach. He led the Buckeyes to the inaugural NCAA Tournament in 1982 and returned to the Big Dance in 1984, when they made the AP Top 25 for the first time during his tenure.
On the way to a fourth consecutive Big Ten title, Ohio State played Iowa – then coached by C. Vivian Stringer – late in conference play. In what would become a precursor to record crowds in the state decades later, the teams played before 22,157 people at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. This obliterated the previous attendance record for an NCAA women’s basketball game of 10,622 set two years earlier. Team officials originally listed attendance at 18,500, reportedly to avoid problems with the fire department because the arena’s capacity was 15,450; fans even had to stand in the aisles during the game.
3. Sign a turning point
1986: Stanford hires Jennifer Azzi
VanDerveer returned to the West after five seasons with the Buckeyes to lead a Stanford team that had finished 9-19 the previous season. His first goal was to recruit Jennifer Azzi, a point guard from Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The Cardinal had been so bad that VanDerveer told Sports Illustrated she didn’t let Azzi watch any practices or game film during his recruitment, but Stanford’s academic pedigree helped convince Azzi to follow her to the Pacific Coast and become the first real star of the program.
— Stanford WBB 🤓🏀 (@StanfordWBB) March 17, 2016
Azzi helped lead the Cardinal to the NCAA Tournament in 1988 as a sophomore, starting an appearance streak that continues today. She was the Pac-10 player of the year as a junior when Stanford made the Elite Eight and then the national player of the year in 1990 when the Cardinal won their first national championship. Azzi remains the program’s all-time leader in 3-point percentage, she ranks second in total assists and third in steals. The line of greats who have passed from Palo Alto, including Sonja Henning, Val Whiting, Kate Starbird, Candice Wiggins, Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike, to Cameron Brink, begins with Azzi. It was VanDerveer’s biggest off-court victory.
4. Reach the pinnacle
April 4, 1990: Stanford 88, Auburn 80
VanDerveer won his first national championship at Tennessee’s Thompson-Boling Arena, 20 minutes from where Azzi played high school basketball. The Cardinal were quite dominant throughout the tournament, winning their five games by an average of 15 points. The title game was more back and forth, as they were up by 11 early, then trailed by 11 later in the first half. It took a superlative shooting performance from Katy Steding, who hit six 3-pointers to defeat Auburn, sending the Tigers to their third straight loss in the championship game.
In his 12th season as head coach, VanDerveer had reached the pinnacle and established Stanford as a national power, only the sixth team to win an NCAA title. Oddly enough, the Cardinal never finished No. 1 in the AP polls during the season, but they would get there soon enough. Even as Azzi was graduating, Henning and Whiting remained to carry the baton.
5. Become an icon
April 5, 1992: Stanford 78, Western Kentucky 62
One headline put VanDerveer on the map. Two titles made her an icon. In the more than 30 years since this game, only four other programs have won more championships (UConn, Notre Dame, Baylor and South Carolina), and the coaches of those teams have become legends in their own right.
The 1992 season was the Cardinal’s third consecutive trip to the Final Four, but they had to replace three starters from the previous season. Even so, they went 30-3 and dominated Western Kentucky in the final, led by freshman Rachel Hemmer’s 18 points and 15 rebounds. Their toughest matchup came in the Final Four when they held 66-65 against Dawn Staley and Virginia.
6. Take down Tennessee
Dec. 15, 1996: Stanford 82, Tennessee 65
VanDerveer took the 1995-96 season off to coach Team USA until the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, and the program continued to thrive in his absence. The combination of Marianne Stanley and Amy Tucker led Stanford to an undefeated Pac-10 record and another trip to the Final Four. However, VanDerveer’s return marked another milestone.
The Lady Vols had won the national title the previous season – which would be the first of three tournaments – and four championships total in the past decade. They were the gold standard of the sport under Pat Summitt, and Stanford had yet to beat them on their home court at Thompson-Boling Arena, including a 36-point defeat in Knoxville two years earlier. Not this time. The Cardinal entered as the nation’s No. 1 team and took care of No. 5 Tennessee. Starbird was the team’s leading scorer with 26 points, edging out Tamika Catchings, who had 24 on 11-of-28 shooting. Both teams reached the Finals Four that year, but Stanford lost in the semifinals before a potential rematch in the title game.
This was a short-lived high for the Cardinal, who would not win again at Tennessee until 2012 despite playing there every other year.
7. End the drought
March 31, 2008: Stanford 98, Maryland 87
VanDerveer and Stanford entered this tournament after a 10-season Final Four drought. The Cardinal had won or tied for the PAC-10 title in eight of those years, but was not experiencing the NCAA Tournament success he had become accustomed to. The drought finally ended in 2008, when the Candice Wiggins-led team broke through against Maryland. Wiggins scored 41 points in the win, reaching the national semifinals as a senior after two previous Elite Eight losses. This was a return to the top of the mountain for VanDerveer, as Stanford would advance to the Final Four in each of the next four seasons.
8. The amazing UConn
December 30, 2010: Stanford 71, Connecticut 59
Connecticut arrived at Maples Pavilion having won 90 straight games, including two national championships. Stanford emphatically ended what was then the longest winning streak in NCAA history. Point guard Jeanette Pohlen had 31 points and six assists as the Cardinal exacted a little revenge for losing in the 2010 national championship. They ultimately halted UConn’s winning streak, after handing the Huskies their most recent loss in the 2008 Final Four.
9. T-Dawg wins again
December 16, 2020: Stanford 104, Pacific 61
VanDerveer became the winningest coach in women’s college basketball history, surpassing Summitt with her 1,099th win, all but 176 of which came at Stanford. The pandemic meant no fans were on hand for her milestone, but the players presented VanDerveer with a swim jacket that read “T-Dawg” after the final buzzer to mark the occasion. Cameron Brink, who was a freshman on that roster, said it Atletico that the Cardinal has something “fun” planned for the next album.
10. Achieve elite status
April 4, 2021: Stanford 54, Arizona 53
More than three decades after winning his first national championship, VanDerveer collected his third, joining a list that includes only Summitt, Geno Auriemma and Kim Mulkey. This had the added significance of featuring another PAC-12 team (Arizona) in the title game. After years of carrying the conference on their shoulders, the Cardinal had West Coast company on their final weekend and final game of the season.
(Top photo by Tara VanDerveer: Jack Dempsey/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)