At the end of every season, Stanford women’s basketball coach Tara VanDerveer thinks she’s done coaching.
«I quit for about a day,» she said, laughing. «I’m like, ‘Oh God, I can’t take this anymore.'»
Then she plays with her dogs, goes for a swim, soaks in the world around her. And the feeling quickly passes; she’s already thinking about next year’s team and its journey.
A coach the past 45 years, VanDerveer reached a pinnacle Sunday: Stanford beat Oregon State for VanDerveer’s 1,203rd career victory, passing former Duke men’s coach Mike Krzyzewski for the most wins in NCAA basketball history.
«She’s wired to do this,» said Jennifer Azzi, who played for VanDerveer on Stanford’s first NCAA title team in 1989-90, as well as VanDerveer’s gold-medal-winning Olympic team in 1996. «There are just those coaches who are in it because it’s who they are, what they do and love every minute of it. Not that there are never frustrations or ups and downs. But the core of her is 100% in it.
«Someone like her doesn’t really get burned out, because ultimately, they are always going for more. Not in a bad way, or for her ego. It’s just, ‘I’m always going to challenge myself and have a vision for where my team can go.'»
The ability to keep growing and adapting is why VanDerveer is at this peak. She embraced the 3-point shot when it was introduced in the 1980s. Decades later, she has adjusted to the name, image and likeness opportunities and the impact of transfers.
For VanDerveer, coaching basketball hasn’t just been a labor of love, but a love of labor. She has picked the brains of every basketball guru she has ever been able to spend time with, allowing her to master coaching different offensive and defensive styles to match the talent she has.
She has become a prestigious institution at a prestigious institution.
«I understand now what a trailblazer Tara is and what an honor it is to be coached by her,» junior forward Kiki Iriafen said. «Every day, I’m learning something from her, but she’s trying to learn from us as well.»
VanDerveer grew up in the state of New York, where more than once she heard her well-meaning parents ask, «Where is basketball going to take you?» She played at Indiana in the 1970s, at the dawn of women’s college sports as we know them. She took a basketball class there from men’s coach Bob Knight in which she was his most diligent pupil, even going to his practices daily and taking notes.
She wound up back home after college, unsure what was next. When her father suggested she help coach her younger sister’s high school team, VanDerveer at first demurred, pointing out with her characteristic bluntness that the team was terrible. But she did it anyway, and the coaching bug bit and never let go of her.
After time as an unpaid graduate assistant at Ohio State, VanDerveer was hired as Idaho’s head coach in 1978 and served there for two seasons — «I was paid $13,000 a year, and I loved it» — then went back to Columbus to be the Buckeyes’ head coach. In 1985, she took over at Stanford, where she has won 26 conference regular-season championships and three NCAA titles while going to the Final Four 15 times.
That’s the quick version, of course; it wasn’t that easy. She was 23 with no obvious way ahead in the sport she loved in a nascent time for women’s athletics, and she made her own path. She won two NCAA titles before age 40, then came close to winning another multiple times, but didn’t get there again for another 29 years.
VanDerveer turned 70 in June, and while she says, «I don’t plan on being an 80-year-old coach,» there’s excitement and possibility surrounding her.
Next season, Stanford and Cal will join the ACC. For someone who for decades has championed West Coast basketball, the demise of the Pac-12 is crushing for her. But VanDerveer wants to be a part of the transition and finds something to look forward to in it. The ACC, she said with a smile, can now stand for «All Coast Conference.»
«The ACC is a great league for women’s basketball,» VanDerveer said. «Every rose has a thorn, and the thorn will be some of the travel. But isn’t it exciting to think about Duke, North Carolina, Louisville, Notre Dame, Miami, Syracuse, Virginia — all the teams — coming to Stanford?»
With each win, she will add to her record, but it’s never foremost on her mind. She still enjoys practice and breaking down game film. She isn’t motivated to pursue what’s easy. Even her down time consists of things like water skiing.
«You’re always around these young kids,» VanDerveer said when asked whether she feels her age, or whatever 70 is «supposed» to feel like. «Last year, I was doing a ropes course; I’m climbing up on these things with these kids. They were like, ‘Come on, Tara!’ I’m thinking, ‘I can’t do this. I shouldn’t be doing this.’ But I did it.»
Is that the competitiveness in VanDerveer?
«It’s the craziness!» she said, chuckling. «But when you talk to people who don’t work, they get depressed. I have a lot beyond basketball that I love to do. So I’m not worried about when I retire. But I’m very happy with what I’m doing now. I’m just having fun.»
About a decade ago, she found herself so tired after the season, she wondered whether she should step down. But a prominent Stanford booster encouraged her to instead take more time off in the summer, and conserve energy.
«I evaluate every year,» she said. «I’m in the second year of a four-year contract, and it’s a great contract. I feel very supported at Stanford. I love what I’m doing. Last year was not the ending that we wanted. I want to have a great year this year, and then just say, ‘Alright, hey, I’m up for this next challenge.’ Or say, ‘Well, maybe not.’ I’ll know that.»
VanDerveer’s legacy is set. She could have ridden off into the Bay Area sunset years ago. But she is firmly rooted in the present of Stanford’s 17-2 season. And still evolving.
«I think I’ve preserved the tread on my tires,» VanDerveer said.
Tara VanDerveer celebrates tying Coach K for most wins across college basketball
Tara VanDerveer shakes hands with Oregon then celebrates with her players for tying Coach K for the most career wins in NCAA basketball history.
For Azzi, part of the first recruiting class VanDerveer brought to Stanford in the fall of 1986, the coach’s longevity and her adaptability are inseparable.
«She’s been through all the different generations, the different rules, the changes in society,» Azzi said. «To cell phones and texting, to the start of social media, to the NIL stuff now. She learns about it, and then embraces it to the best of her ability.
«She is a really special coach. After all this time, she never forgets my birthday. And she’s always that voice that I sometimes need to hear.»
That’s what matters most to VanDerveer: The players who still call, who bring their children to see her, who reminisce about what they learned and ask her advice.
«I’m not much of a collector. I couldn’t even tell you where national championship rings are, or my Olympic stuff,» she said. «They are [here] somewhere. Off the top of my head, I couldn’t locate them.
«I do have in my workout room at home a really beautiful big collage of the 1996 Olympics and a collage of the 2021 national championship. I think pictures are fun, but I’m not a scrapbook keeper.»
It’s all stored away in her mind, the memories of everything that led to 1,203 victories and counting.
«I still love doing clinics, and teaching the game of basketball,» VanDerveer said. «I love to ski. I play bridge with my mom and my sister. My mom’s better than me, but I’m better than my sister. I love my dogs. I have a great life, and I’m a very happy person.
«And I really love to see the improvement of our team and our players. I love watching them grow.»