What makes Tara VanDerveer so great? Let her players tell you

When Tara VanDerveer began coaching, Jimmy Carter was president, Andy Gibb and the Bee Gees were dominating the American music scene and cordless phones − not cellular phones, cordless phones − were still a few years away from being widely available.

These days the 70-year-old, who on Sunday passed Mike Krzyzewski as college basketball’s all-time winningest coach with her 1,203rd victory, does TikTok videos with her players and is a frequent texter. She’s adapted seamlessly to every new NCAA frontier and won a national title during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

To her former players, VanDerveer’s ability to connect with players throughout her career, and the success that’s resulted, is no surprise.

“There’s a joy in (coaching) when it fits you and I think Tara is wired to do this,” said Jennifer Azzi, the point guard on VanDerveer’s first national championship team. “She’s not jumping up and down all the time. She has more of an inner joy, just a calmness about her. She’s doing her destiny.”

VANDERVEER: Timeline of success for all-time winningest college basketball coach

Here’s a look at VanDerveer through the decades, through the eyes of her former players:   

Willette White, Idaho, 1979-81. Now a consultant after a long career as a coach.

“Her ability to pivot in the way she has, to make changes, to adapt, to continue to be current in these times, is absolutely amazing. I don’t know how you do it. (But) when kids know you care about them as people, I think the rest can fall into place.”

Idaho was VanDerveer’s first head coaching job, and she took over the Vandals when she was just 24. Still, her goal for the 1979-80 season, her second, was to take Idaho to the AIAW Division II tournament. To do that, however, they’d have to beat Western Washington, which had already beaten Idaho twice that season.

For several weeks before the conference tournament, VanDerveer would make her players spend the last 10 or 15 minutes of practice preparing for Western Washington.

VanDerveer had made White prepare to shut down Western Washington’s point guard. The player wasn’t a great shooter, but she was a terrific distributor and facilitator, the engine for Western Washington’s entire offense. White remembers VanDerveer telling her to park herself in the key, knowing the point guard would get flustered at not having anyone guard her.

Sure enough, White said, she was “so shaken. It disrupted everything.”

“We were all like, ‘Why are we preparing for this and it’s two months away?'” White recalled. “It was mind-boggling then to try and understand the method to her madness. But once you did, it was the beautiful progression of the vision she saw.”

Jennifer Azzi, Stanford, 1986-90. Now the chief business development officer for the Las Vegas Aces.

“She’s just always been able to adapt, to adjust, to grow. She’s one of those people who sees opportunities in places other people might want to quit.”

VanDerveer’s gift as a tactician is often underrated. People forget that, when she began coaching, she ran the triangle offense. When Stanford won its third national title in 2021, it was using the Princeton offense. 

The NCAA adopted the 3-point shot in the 1987-88 season, and VanDerveer made Stanford practice it relentlessly.

“‘Do the math. Three is worth more than two,'” Azzi recalled VanDerveer saying. “We won a national championship because we were first team to really embrace the 3-point line.”

Stanford made 11 3-pointers against Auburn on its way to its first national title in 1990, a Division-I record that stood until 2013. 

“This is a milestone and a celebration, but I don’t see this at all as an end. I see this as renewed, ‘Let’s go get a bunch more.’ Not for herself but for Stanford. She hasn’t done this for herself. She’s done it for her purpose but not for her ego.”

More: Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer will soon pass Mike Krzyzewski for major coaching record

Heather Owen, Stanford, 1994-98. Now the executive associate athletics director at Stanford.

“Her intellectual curiosity is unparalleled. She has an interest in things. With that comes a level of humility that’s really, really hard to find. You have to constantly say, ‘I don’t understand that, can you tell me more.'”

VanDerveer took a leave of absence from Stanford for the 1995-96 season to coach the U.S. women’s team at the Atlanta Olympics. The pressure to win was immense; the Americans were the bronze medalists in 1992, and a gold medal on home soil could fuel interest in the women’s professional leagues that would begin in 1997.

VanDerveer and the U.S. women did win gold, handily. But VanDerveer returned to Stanford with a perspective that carries her to this day.

“I remember she came back and started to talk much more about the journey rather than the result. Which makes a ton of sense. … If they hadn’t won, what would you have to show for that whole year? There’s still value in it. She talked about that, the process, the day-to-day journey.

“There’s only one team in every sport that wins it every year. If that is how we define success, we’re probably doing a disservice to our young people. (Coaching) is an educational endeavor. Tara has been a stalwart in that world and continuing to hold true to why we do this.

“(Winning and teaching life lessons) are not mutually exclusive. You can hold both together.”

Which is evidenced by the close relationships VanDerveer has with so many of her former players, many of whom will be in attendance Sunday. To see her break Krzyzewski’s record, yes, but to celebrate VanDerveer and the influence she continues to have, too.  

“She’s always your coach.”

Jayne Appel-Marinelli, Stanford, 2006-10. Now the director of player relations for the WNBA Players Association.

“She is, has and always will be about constant excellence. Not expecting that excellence, but working for it and preparing for it and finding the right puzzle pieces to help build to that excellence. That’s the Tara I know and the lessons she taught me and continues to teach me to this day.”

Stanford had two seniors at power forward and two at center when Appel was a freshman. When she came back for her sophomore season, she assumed she’d step into their roles − a notion VanDerveer quickly quashed.

“You’re not getting anything. You have to earn it,” Appel recalls VanDerveer telling her. “She taught me how to be a true leader. How she was able to relate to every single player is what she instilled in me. … That first player down to the 15th − they (all) have to matter just as much, and you have to meet them where they are to bring them with you.

“She came to my wedding. I took my 4-month-old daughter when we lived in New York to meet her. … Tara has not missed one of my birthdays, I always get a text from her. She’s just a very steady and constant force that I’m very thankful to have in my life every day.”

Nneka Ogwumike, Stanford, 2008-12. Now a power forward for the Los Angeles Sparks and president of the WNBA Players Association.

“Tara is one of the first people in my life who really vocalized how limiting non-belief in yourself can be. Being in a safe space, there’s a comfortability to it. But fearing not attaining greatness when you’re seeking it is worse than not trying, and that’s something I learned from her.”

Ogwumike reached the Final Four all four years she was at Stanford, playing for the national title in 2010. Her teams went a combined 137-12 and never lost at Maples Pavilion. 

“One thing she doesn’t like is when you play to your competition’s level or you take an opponent for granted. You’re disrespecting your opponent, and that is something that gripes her.”

Those who don’t know VanDerveer often mistake her for being dour because of her intense demeanor on the sideline. But Ogwumike said nothing could be further from the truth. 

“It might have been my first Halloween at Stanford and we all dressed up as different versions of Tara. I was ‘Pool Tara.’ (Longtime assistant Amy Tucker) helped get all of her belongings. I had Tara’s robe on. She was like, ‘Is that my robe?’ She loved it.”

Kiana Williams, Stanford, 2017-21. Now a point guard for the Seattle Storm and Bursa (Turkey).

“She always told me, ‘It’s your job as a point guard to find a way to win. So when the team wins, you look good. When the team loses, it’s your fault.’ I translate that to my life away from basketball. You might be dealt a bad hand but you have to find a way to win the day, to win your situation.”

Williams was a senior during the COVID season, when teams had to adhere to strict protocols or risk not being able to play. Williams recalled having a five-day quarantine when players returned to campus, and she and some her teammates sneaking out on the last day so they could play a pick-up game.

Sure enough, one of those players tested positive. VanDerveer was furious.

“After that meeting, I took ownership. I (told) the team, ‘From this day on, we have to be smart. We’re not only making decisions for ourselves.’ I was like, we have to win. That’s the only way to ‘apologize’ for our actions.”

Stanford did win, claiming its third national title (and first since 1992) in Williams’ hometown of San Antonio.

“Obviously, I was super emotional. It was my senior year, in my hometown. She cut down the net and throws it to me. I was like, ‘No Tara, you keep that.’ She said, ‘No, you keep it.’ I still have that net. It’s in my bedroom, hanging on my wall. That moment meant so much to me.”

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on social media @nrarmour.

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