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The Science Survey

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The Science Survey

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The Science Survey

Tara VanDerveer Breaks the NCAA Basketball Wins Record

A look back at Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer and her career, as she cements herself as the greatest ever coach on the NCAA level.
Here, Tara VanDerveer cuts down the net at the 2011 NCAA tournament at the end of the Spokane Regional. Her team, the Stanford Cardinal, won the region, and advanced to the Final Four. (Photo Credit: Don Feria, CC BY-SA 3.0

On January 22nd 2024, the Stanford women’s basketball team won a game. For one of the nation’s top ranked teams, one win isn’t too remarkable. However, for the team’s coach, Tara VanDerveer, it was win #1,203, the most ever for an NCAA coach. In her 45th season coaching (her 38th at Stanford), VanDerveer broke former Duke men’s basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski’s win record, and cemented herself as one of the greatest to ever coach the sport on the NCAA level. 

Seventy years old and an Indiana University (and UAlbany) alum, VanDerveer’s ascendancy came alongside the implementation of Title IX, the 1972 legislation that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in the (federally funded) educational system. Although sports aren’t mentioned anywhere in the original body of Title IX, its impact on sports at both the collegiate and high school level are its most well-known legacy. The law pushes for equal participation between the sexes in sports.

When VanDerveer was entering college, Title IX was not yet in effect, but she was sure she wanted to play collegiate basketball regardless. She ended up at UAlbany since her family knew the coach and tuition would be low. She played one season there and was by far the best player on the court – so much so that the next year, she left for Indiana, where the AIAW (Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women, a women’s league and precursor to the NCAA) program was stronger. 

The legendary men’s basketball coach Bob Knight was coaching at Indiana at the time, and his presence definitely impacted her game. Bea Gordon, the women’s coach at Indiana modeled her style after his, and VanDerveer took his class at the university on coaching basketball on top of sitting in on his practices to observe. She finished out her undergrad years playing three seasons there, reaching the AIAW Final Four in 1973 (the year after the passing of Title IX). 

After graduating from Indiana, VanDerveer was not ready to be done with basketball. A year spent back home between jobs left her restless, and a brief stint coaching her younger sister’s team made her realize what she wanted to do. She landed a job as a JV coach of the women’s team at Ohio State, where she also began working towards her masters degree in sports administration. VanDerveer was very successful at Ohio State, going undefeated in her first season, that she was offered a head position at the University of Idaho after only two years of coaching basketball at the collegiate level. 

When she arrived at Idaho in 1978, their basketball program was only four years old. Still part of the AIAW (the NCAA didn’t take over the women’s league til 1983, after a lot of conflict and a March with two tournaments and two victors; extra madness, one might say), the Idaho team had been continuously unsuccessful so far. Despite this, VanDerveer was determined to change the program, convinced that one thing her team could never do was get outplayed in the last five minutes of a game. She ran them through intense drills, stuck them in the weight room, and sent them out on long runs, all of which were unusual for a women’s program of the era. 

On top of her commitment to the physical fitness of her athletes, VanDerveer’s technical and strategic know-how elevated the Idaho women in the two seasons she spent there. Those seasons also taught her a masterclass in advocating for her athletes and on the realities of a newly post-Title IX world. While equality was technically the law of the land, Idaho’s athletic director had to fight tooth and nail to get a full-time women’s coaching position approved, and VanDerveer herself had to fight to get the legitimacy and resources the men’s program easily obtained. 

VanDerveer quickly outgrew the Idaho program, moving back to Ohio State, this time as head coach of the women’s team. In her five years in Columbus, she developed the Ohio women into a nationally ranked team, breaking into the top ten during her last year there. And then in 1985, she accepted an offer to be head coach at Stanford, where she has been since then (with the exception of 1996, when she coached the US National team). In her nearly 40 years coaching at Stanford, her teams have won three NCAA titles, made the Final Four 15 times, and won 26 conference titles.

The Stanford Cardinal has only had one losing season (13-15, VanDerveer’s first year there) and five seasons with more than 10 losses since 1985. They are a dominant force in the (very strong) Pac-12 conference, and have been since VanDerveer’s early years there, despite being unable to recruit some top players due to strict academic standards. Her coaching talent has withstood decades of change in the NCAA, from her first national title in 1990 to her third, just a few years ago in 2021. She even coached Team USA in 1996, bringing the women to a 60-0 season and Olympic gold.

It’s not just VanDerveer’s vast knowledge of the sport that sets her apart from other coaches. Her mindset around coaching, playing, and everyone else who works with the team also made her into a one of a kind coach and leader. In an interview with The New York Times shortly after winning that 1,203rd game, she provided some of her personal rules for coaching such a successful team. In terms of both staff and players, she said, “Be sure they complement you more than compliment you.” She continued, “Outwork the players on your team. Take care of yourself — eat and sleep right, and exercise — so you can take care of one another.”

She says it’s important to be willing to experiment and take risks in the game. And above all, she emphasizes that she loves what she does. Every season, when the dust settles at the end of March Madness, she thinks she might be done with coaching and with Stanford. But year after year, she comes back.

VanDerveer also credits her assistant coaches for their massive role in the team’s function, and talks about the inspiration she draws from her athletes. It seems that, to VanDerveer, coaching is more an exchange than anything else. She brings what she can to the table, and takes in what her players bring. She explains that she doesn’t like losing her cool at her women — after explaining a meltdown she had early on in her career before a game, she said, “ I didn’t feel good about it. These were college women, and I wanted to treat them as adults. It wasn’t who I wanted to be.” From just these short responses, it becomes clear that the respect she treats her players with is a major part of the respect she receives in turn. 

In 2021, March Madness (the NCAA basketball championship) was held in a “bubble,” where all participating athletes were kept in one facility for the entire length of the tournament in order to prevent COVID-19 infections. The bubble revealed stark differences between the treatment of women’s teams and men’s teams, from elaborate meals to swag bags to fully outfitted weight rooms (or a lack thereof), despite the Title IX protections that are supposed to enforce equal treatment. 

Watching women’s basketball this year, however, it would be easy to forget that the women’s side of the sport was ever neglected. Every article I read ahead in preparation for making my March Madness bracket had one version or another of the same sentiment: the women’s game is just so much more interesting this season.

Superstars like Caitlin Clark (Iowa), Angel Reese (LSU), Paige Bueckers (UConn), and Juju Watkins (USC) are household names to a degree that nobody on the men’s side can claim. Clark, specifically, has been on an absolute tear this year, racking up records and earning herself legions of devoted fans. Tickets to any Iowa game are more expensive than those for some NBA games; so many people want to be there to see what Caitlin Clark will do next.

As for VanDerveer’s Stanford team, the Cardinal ended their season with a loss to NC State in the Sweet 16 (thus completely shattering my bracket). The end of the season also brought about the end of star player Cameron Brink’s collegiate career (she has declared for the WNBA draft). Brink’s time at Stanford really pulls into focus the changes that have occurred since VanDerveer’s first season in 1985. With NIL (name, image, and likeness) deals valued at more than $200,000 per year, Brink stars in ads for companies including New Balance and Buick, just like many professional athletes.

When she started at Stanford (or when she began her first season as head coach at the University of Idaho), Tara VanDerveer could never have anticipated her job would one day include coaching athletes raking in thousands of dollars per year, or popping up in national commercials. Part of her excellence as a coach is how well she’s adapted to the changes in both the sport and the league. 

Some of those changes have been great. The Stanford University athletics website lists its Gender Equity Plan, detailing how the school will ensure its own Title IX compliance and provide opportunities for its female athletes. It’s a far cry from VanDerveer’s first season at Idaho when the athletic director had to fight to hire her as a full time coach for a women’s team.

At the end of the 2024 NCAA tournament, VanDerveer made the announcement that she will not be returning for another season at Stanford. After 45 years of coaching, she is stepping away from the court and into an advisory role with Stanford athletics. Former Cardinal (both athlete and assistant coach) Kate Paye will take over the head coaching position. VanDerveer leaves with the wins record under her belt (her final win of the year was in the March Madness round of 32 against Iowa State) and presided over 85% of the wins in Stanford women’s basketball history. Beloved by her players and staff, her shoes will be difficult for Paye to fill. But it’s also in part because of coaches like VanDerveer that women like Paye are readily considered (and considered qualified) for positions like this.

We’ve come a long way in women’s sports, and Tara VanDerveer has been there for many, many steps along the way.

We’ve come a long way in women’s sports, and Tara VanDerveer has been there for many, many steps along the way.

About the Contributor
Lily Zufall, Staff Reporter
Lily Zufall is an Editor-in-Chief of ‘The Science Survey.’ To her, the most appealing part of journalistic writing is being able to walk the line between strictly informational writing and creative stories. Her favorite stories have been ones that allow her to explore New York City and do deep dives on small topics that interest her.  She is a part of the track and cross country teams at Bronx Science, and participates in the biology research program. After high school, Lily hopes to pursue something in the environmental sciences, where she is hopefully able to use the writing skills she has learned on staff of ‘The Science Survey’ in conjunction with the other things she will learn.