Coach’s Chair: Tara VanDerveer, Stanford University

Tara VanDerveer gets a hug from Karlie Samuelson last February after securing her 1,000th career win. Photo by Don Feria/
Tara VanDerveer gets a hug from Karlie Samuelson last February after securing her 1,000th career win. Photo by Don Feria/

Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer cemented her status as one of the greatest coaches in women’s basketball history last year, when she became the second Division I women’s coach to attain 1,000 career wins. In her 38 years as a head coach coming into 2017-2018, VanDerveer was 1,021-231 (.815) and 860-180 (.827) in 31 years at Stanford. She has led the Cardinal to two National Championships, 12 Final Four appearances, 22 Pac-12 regular-season titles, 12 Pac-12 Tournament crowns and 29 trips to the NCAA Tournament.

VanDerveer got her start as head coach of Idaho (1978-1980) and then Ohio State (1980-1985) before coming to Palo Alto. She guided Idaho to one AIAW Tournament appearance and Ohio State to a pair of NCAA Tournaments while twice being named Big Ten Coach of the Year. Her Cardinal teams have won 20 or more games 32 times, including each of the last 16 seasons. Numerous All-Americans, WNBA players and coaches have come out of VanDerveer’s program. She is well-known for her flexibility in changing her system each year, and sometimes during the same season.

This year Stanford got off to a slow start but has picked up steam, and now find themselves in a three-way tie for first place in the Pac-12.

A Boston native who grew up in upstate New York, VanDerveer has been inducted into both the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame (2011) and the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame (2002).

For the last few years, it seems like each season Stanford has been pegged as a “rebuilding team,” yet every year the Cardinal are in the upper echelons of the competition. How are you able to consistently get so much out of what you have?

Our team is in a horse race and it’s not how the horse comes out of the gate – it’s a long race. Right now we’re going down the dark stretch, working hard. We know where we want to get to and we want to stay healthy. The team is very close; they have great camaraderie and play hard for each other. We don’t have a lot of drama; we have upper-class leaders who know and accept their roles, which is hard. (The athletes) have really good attitudes and make a good effort in practice every day. Some teams are more fun than other teams, and this year’s team is fun. Last year’s team was really fun.

But to answer your question, we expect to do well. The expectation and the goal is to win the Pac-12 and go to the Final Four. So when it happens, it’s not a big surprise.

How do you motivate players?

I try to motivate myself. We’re trying to recruit players who have high goals and high expectations. We have 14 players on our team, and if someone is not motivated, someone else will be; it’s very competitive. People want to play hard, they want to be successful. This particular team is highly-motivated: they’re into it, they’re excited.

What kind of a basketball player were you?

I loved to play and I loved to watch. I was a passer and a screener. I did not like shooting and I was not a very good defender, but I would take charges. I was a coach on the floor – I was always having ideas of what to do. Sometimes my coaches just said I was the coach. I loved the strategy of it.

You’re noted for your willingness to change and grow, though you’ve been coaching for decades. Where did that come from?

If you own a piece of real estate in California and you want to stay there and keep your house, you have to figure out what works. I study the game, I watch the game, I talk to people. I’m a copier and I study to see what works. I watch the Warriors, the Lakers, the Bulls, I watch college, I watch men, I watch women. I’m a basketball junkie and I think about the game a lot. I’m wired to basketball, but I can also get away from it so I don’t get burned out.

We can always recruit, so I don’t try to fit a round peg in a square hole. I maximize our strengths and weaknesses. We’re not UCLA, we’re Stanford. And we try to make our team look that way.

How have you adjusted your style and approach to meet the needs of today’s student athletes? As opposed to twenty years ago, when Vanessa Nygaard and Charmin Smith were playing for you.

Young people today aren’t as different as people think they are. Sure we have social media and the helicopter parent, but kids still want a coach that’s direct, that cares about them, that has knowledge and who will help them get better. They want a team that’s unselfish, and I think Vanessa and Charmin would love playing on this team.

What’s your definition of greatness?

I think greatness is making others around you better. If it’s spreading the knowledge or it’s sharing it, if you’re good at something you help someone else be good at it. You’re got to spread it around.

You’ve had an all-woman coaching staff for many years. Why is that important to you?

I want to give women the opportunity. If you look at all the coaching opportunities, women don’t get a chance in men’s basketball. So half of the opportunities are gone, so if we don’t hire women, all of the opportunities are gone.

I don’t hire people who aren’t good.

What is the best thing about coaching?

It beats working for a living. It’s a good job – I love it.

The night you got your 1000th win: how did you feel?

What meant the most to me was that our team was successful and that our team was happy for me. They wanted it for me. It was going to happen, but it was more important for them. I was just glad to get it over with.

You’ve said you’ll walk away from coaching when you aren’t passionate about it anymore. At this rate, that might not happen for a long time.

I love it and it’s hard to walk away from great players.

How do you begin to conceptualize 38.5 years of coaching?

It goes fast. I try and enjoy every day and work hard.

How is the game different today than it was in the past?

The (intricacy of the) video aspect, and the fact that there is so much more scouting that’s involved in the game preparation is a lot different. Through scouting you can plan things. I like it myself, knowing what we’re going to do better. To me it’s fun; I like all the video work.

How would you characterize your sense of humor?

Sarcastic. We laugh a lot in the office and on the bench, at the expense of ourselves. We have fun; we have a great group and we have fun. We are always working hard and laughing a lot.

What do you enjoy doing when you’re not working?

During the season, if we have an off day, living in California is great. I work out every day. I have three Labs and I walk them in the morning. Later I may go swimming or ride my bike – get out on a road ride. If I had a couple days, I try to go skiing in the season, and in the summer I travel. I have a lot of boats and I love to water ski, sail and kayak. Mountain bikes are fun. I do get away because you’re always on recruiting to a certain extent.

It’s a great life, and I’m loving every minute of it.