What it lacked in suspense, it made up for in historical significance. No. 1 Stanford’s 104-61 victory over Pacific on Tuesday was the 1,099th of coach Tara VanDerveer’s career, giving her the most wins in Division I women’s college basketball history.
She was handed the game ball afterward and then was given a new jacket with the nickname “T-Dawg” from her celebrating players.
“I’ve gotten so many messages from people, it’s been so exciting,” VanDerveer said. “It’s been a great journey. I hope Pat Summitt is looking down and saying, “Good job, Tara. Keep it going.”
VanDerveer passed the late Summitt, whose legendary career at Tennessee ended prematurely in 2012 after she was diagnosed with early onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type. Summitt, who had 1,098 wins, died in 2016.
VanDerveer, 67, began her college coaching career at Idaho in 1978, and took over at Stanford in 1985, where she’s had 947 of her wins. She has won two NCAA titles, advanced to 11 other Final Fours, won or shared 23 Pac-12 regular-season titles and has won 13 of the 19 league tournaments that have been held.
She’s had some of the greatest players in the sport. Those include Jennifer Azzi, who helped lead the Cardinal to their first NCAA title, in 1990, four-time All-American Candice Wiggins, the Ogwumike sisters Nneka and Chiney, and a team this year that has started 5-0 and looks to be a strong Final Four contender.
“Basketball always has been and always will be a great team sport,” VanDerveer said. “This might be a record that has Tara VanDerveer’s name next to it, but it is about the athletic directors that hired me and gave me a chance. Great, great, great assistant coaches that have worked extremely hard for our program. And it’s about having great players.
“I’ve never been the best player of a team I’ve ever played on. I don’t consider myself some John Wooden Jr. coach. But I’m determined, I work hard, and I love this game of basketball. And I really, really love coaching young women and helping them get better.”
Even though Stanford is undefeated, this season has had its challenges. Because of COVID-19 protocol in Santa Clara County that banned indoor activities like contact sports, Stanford had to relocate to Las Vegas for practice and to play two of its games thus far. Sunday’s record-tying win came against Cal in Berkeley. Tuesday’s win was in Stockton, California, with no fans. But VanDerveer said her focus is on her players and what’s next for them anyway. She appreciates the recognition, though.
An East Coast native who went to college at Indiana and used to watch Bob Knight’s practices, VanDerveer has built the Cardinal into the crown jewel program of the West Coast. She has won 81.3 percent of her games, with just 253 losses. In Pac-12 play, VanDerveer is 512-82 (86.2 percent). And she would have gotten this far even earlier, except she stepped away from Stanford’s Final Four season in 1995-96 to coach the U.S. national team, which won the 1996 Olympics.
It was no surprise that VanDerveer thought of Summitt right after Tuesday’s game. The coaches were born just a year apart: Summitt in June 1952 and VanDerveer in June 1953.
Summitt began her college coaching career at Tennessee in 1974, while VanDerveer started at Idaho in 1978. Their teams began a series in 1988, thanks to Azzi being a Tennessee native, and they met three times in the NCAA tournament, all won by Tennessee.
VanDerveer said she improved by coaching against Summitt.
“She helped me do it because of playing against her teams,” VanDerveer said. “Something that I learned from Pat was just to be passionate about the game. I study other people; I’m a copier. The importance of rebounding, playing really hard — her teams did that. They didn’t give up, they were determined teams.”
UConn’s Geno Auriemma isn’t far behind VanDerveer; he got his 1,093rd victory Tuesday night at Seton Hall. Auriemma took over the Huskies the same year that VanDerveer took over the Cardinal.
“I’m still here since 1985, Tara’s still at Stanford,” Auriemma said. “Does [the success] have something to do with the stability, being in one place for such a long time? And for Pat to be in one place a long time? I think that has something to do with it.
“Tara [has been] at a great school, a place that really values women’s athletics and women’s basketball. The test of time – ultimately that’s what seals your legacy: time. That’s a lot of games to coach, much less win.”