We claim to cherish greatness, but the truth is that as with even the most beautiful and precious of gifts, there is a tendency to take it for granted. People do it with all the time with life itself, relationships, health, all the things that matter and even the things we only think matter. When greatness is sustained, it becomes part of the presumed landscape and only in its absence do we ever stop to take notice. Only in its absence do we lament our failure to appreciate it.
Don’t do that with Tara VanDerveer.
Tonight, or some other night in the near future, VanDerveer is going to win her 1,000th game as a college basketball coach, a feat reached by one other in the women’s game. It is by definition everything she’s accomplished as a college basketball coach and at the same time the least relevant descriptor of her impact on the sport, Stanford, and her players. It’s just a number, and the truth is she’d be just as amazing if she stayed at 999 and she’ll be just as amazing when she hits 1,001.
VanDerveer has become part of the iconic landscape at Stanford. She’s Hoover Tower, the Quad, and Palm Drive. She’s been a Hall of Famer twice over, elected to the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 2002 and the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame in 2011. The top of the resume’ is wrote by now. Two National Championships, 11 Final Four appearances, 22 Pac-12 regular season championships, and 28 NCAA Tournament appearances in 30 seasons at Stanford.
Among the many signs of her astounding basketball acumen, her ability to adapt and change has to be at the forefront. Jennifer Azzi’s teams didn’t run the Triangle offense that Nnemkadi and Chiney Ogwumike ran, and the offense that helped Briana Roberson and Britney McPhee lead the Cardinal over No. 8 Washington in Seattle this past Sunday wasn’t the Triangle that the Ogwumikes ran either. VanDerveer, like all legendary coaches, is at her core a master teacher.
The most stirring truth though, is that while as fans we revere the wins and the longevity, the most profound effect and stirring achievements she’s had in her time at Stanford have occurred far away from the eyes of the fans. Like with all great teachers, the difference she has made with her students has eclipsed even the mammoth achievement of 1,000 wins. What better way to really appreciate and honor her than to hear from them?
Joslyn Tinkle, who played on the Stanford team that secured VanDerveer’s 800th win and broke UConn’s last monolithic winning streak, talked about what went (and goes) into Coach VanDerveer’s success.
“There was all this hype around ‘the streak’ and whether or not we would snap it. Tara didn’t focus on the pressure of ending the streak, rather just focusing on us and treating it like it was any other game. We prepared and prepared that week, and Tara gave us the confidence that if we worked hard, we would win.” That ‘P’ word is clearly a running theme, one on which Tinkle was happy to elaborate.
“She constantly studies the game and has a game plan for everything and every opponent. Part of the reason she is and we were successful is because we always were prepared.”
It is stunning how you can talk to different generations of VanDerveer’s former players and with no prompting at all they all ring the same bell when it comes to what makes her so exceptional. Jennifer Azzi went right to preparation when trying to choose among VanDerveer’s many strengths as her biggest.
“It’s the things away from the games that makes her great. Her greatest strength is her preparation. Everyone wants to focus on those in-game situations where the coach grabs a clipboard and draws up a play, but the truth is that you can’t make up something new right there on the spot. You have to rely on something you’ve done all year.”
Jayne Appel-Marinelli, as if on cue: “Preparation. The Coach watches more film than ANYONE (caps are JA-M’s) in this world. End of story.”
What say you, Nnemkadi Ogwumike?
“Preparation. Hand down. If all else fails, you WILL (caps are N.O.’s) be prepared.”
Coming into Azzi’s senior season, VanDerveer had legendary Stanford swimming coach Richard Quick talk to her team. Quick told them that you don’t become national champions on that particular day, you have to tell each other you’re national champions all season long. VanDerveer had signs posted in the locker room referring to Stanford as national champions, and her team embraced that mindset. When the time came to go to the Final Four and the National Championship, Azzi and her teammates had spent months verbalizing a goal that they’d go on to realize. They were prepared, in every way, to become the champions they became.
It’s hard, both thematically and alliteratively, not to pivot to practice after hearing Tinkle emphasize prep. “Practice Tara” is not someone most fans ever get to meet or even hear about, but make no mistake, there is an intensity to producing what the Cardinal has produced under VanDerveer’s tenure. Tough love might be putting it gently when it comes to what happens at a VanDerveer practice.
As Tinkle says, “You knew going into each and every day that practice would be intense and competitive. Tara demanded the best out of all of us. Practices were some of the hardest/scariest days I’ve ever had, because you left blood, sweat, and sometimes tears out there. But as tough as those days were, I would give anything to relive them. ‘Practice Tara’ is what made us so good and she definitely helped me become a much tougher basketball player as well as a stronger person.”
Yet, as Appel-Marinelli points out, there is an authenticity and a selflessness that grounds every demand she makes of her players. “To me, there was no "practice Tara, game Tara or off the court Tara. What you saw is what you got. That was one of the reasons I chose to go to Stanford - she was real with us the entire time and the same person throughout every experience.” Even when setting up an ungodly amount of running for her team to complete, VanDerveer never put herself above her players.
“One of my favorite moments with Tara is when we were in Spring training after our loss in the first round my freshman year. She told us just to ‘run until I tell you to stop. Oh, and I will be running too.’ I have never run so fast in my life - there was no way I was going to let CVD pass me. Talk about motivation.”
Tinkle and Jeanette Pohlen both talked about VanDerveer’s annual Arizona Road Trip 2-on-2 battle against former player and current assistant coach Kate Paye. First, VanDerveer always makes sure she looks the part, donning wristbands and headbands as the two coaches add a player from the current team to round out the squad. Then they play the game. Full court. According to Tinkle, VanDerveer always gave 120% and always won.
And she has also known how important it was to pick her spots and let some of the pressure off. Pohlen recalled a time VanDerveer organized a team trip to Baskin Robbins on a road trip (again in Arizona) which as Pohlen concedes “might not seem like a big deal to most people, but at all of our team meals we would rarely, if ever, get dessert. It was like Christmas that day.”
Pohlen also adds “her biggest strength is her x’s and o’s. She watches so much film on teams that she always knows the other team’s plays of course, but all of the player’s tendencies as well.”
The testimonies of her focus, her intensity, her willingness to watch endless hours of film, they all explain the success, but they don’t get at the most impressive part of her legacy. When I asked Azzi about the one thing she learned from VanDerveer she has taken with her life to this day, she didn’t talk about a virtue. She talked about the friendship with her coach that she maintains to this very day.
“Every year she remembers my birthday, and it’s not like Christmas or an easily remembered date,” Azzi says. She remembers handwritten letters VanDerveer wrote her during her recruitment, letters that along with her cherished friendship, she keeps to this very day.
Tinkle adds, “I’m a coach’s daughter so I like to think that I’ve always had those high character qualities instilled in me from a young age. But it wasn’t until Tara, where those qualities were put to the test. She helped expose the good and not so good qualities, which in turn helped me become a better basketball player as well as a person. Those experiences and high expectations continue to remind me to always be the hardest working, most accountable, all the while keeping a positive attitude. Her basketball lessons have definitely translated to the real world and I feel like she helped me prepare for life beyond basketball.”
For Appel-Marinelli it was VanDerveer’s message “Never to put yourself above the team. You won't get anywhere without them - cherish them” which remains in her thoughts to this day.
Pohlen adds that “Tara always told us to never get too high on a win or too low on a loss and that really has carried over into my daily life. Things will never be great all the time or bad all the time, so staying level headed while keeping things into perspective has truly been a great lesson.”
It’s good solid advice, but on this night, ignore it. Make a big deal out of 1,000. To echo Appel-Marinelli, cherish her. Make a big deal out of Tara VanDerveer. You know there’s no chance she’s gonna do it. Don’t let Friday night (if it happens) pass without taking some time to really appreciate all the work, talent, and basketball inspiration that has gone into a career that has epitomized what a coach and a teacher is supposed to do for her students.
The stage is set just as much for fans of basketball as it is for the players who will be undoubtedly prepared by the master teacher for the moment Friday night. Don’t let it slip away. Hers is a singular, special greatness, and the number 1,000 barely scratches the surface of how profoundly that greatness has touched everyone inside and outside the Stanford’s Women’s Basketball team.