It’s impossible to tell the story of the past four decades of college basketball without Tara VanDerveer. The Stanford icon, USA Basketball coach, and overall standard-bearer for West Coast basketball is an integral character in the growth of the women’s game since Title IX. And with two more wins, VanDerveer will stand alone as the winningest coach in college, men’s or women’s, passing former Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski.
The summer of solitude that sustained a coaching icon
In anticipation of her potential record-breaking win this weekend, we will publish stories this week that focus on her esteemed career. Here is a look back at some of VanDerveer’s monumental victories:
1. Win No. 1
Dec. 1, 1978: Idaho 70, Northern Montana 68 (OT)
Before win No. 1,201 there was win No. 1. As the head coach of Idaho, VanDerveer faced Northern Montana College (now known as Montana State-Northern) in her opening game. It was the program’s fifth season of existence — the Vandals didn’t even belong to a conference yet — and they had tapped a 25-year-old who had been an Ohio State assistant for two seasons to lead them.
Idaho was up with one possession to play, but the Vandals committed a foul and went to overtime, where they edged out the Polar Bears by two. As VanDerveer told the Stanford Daily in 2020, “Before we went into overtime, we were up three and there’s like 10 seconds left in the game or something. I said, ‘OK you guys look, we got this game, just don’t foul.’ We went out, the girl hit the shot, and we fouled her and I said, ‘This is going to be hard.’ I’m thinking, ‘Boy, this coaching thing is not going to be easy.’”
Tara VanDerveer –
Winningest Coach in Women’s College Basketball
1978-80 Idaho Women’s Basketball Head Coach
3 NCAA Championships
4 NCAA Final Four Appearances
16 NCAA Tournament Appearances
— Idaho Vandals (@Idaho_Vandals) March 8, 2023
2. Sellout crowd, momentous win in Iowa
Feb. 3, 1985: Ohio State 56, Iowa 47
After two seasons at Idaho, including a 25-6 record in Year 2, VanDerveer returned to Columbus as the head coach. She led the Buckeyes to the inaugural NCAA Tournament in 1982 and returned to the Big Dance in 1984, when they landed in the AP Top 25 for the first time in her tenure.
En route to a fourth straight Big Ten title, Ohio State played at Iowa — then coached by C. Vivian Stringer — near the end of conference play. In what would become a precursor for record-breaking crowds in the state decades later, the teams played in front of 22,157 people at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. That obliterated the previous attendance record for an NCAA women’s basketball game of 10,622 set two years earlier. Team officials originally listed the attendance at 18,500, reportedly to avoid trouble with the fire marshals because the arena’s capacity was 15,450; fans even had to stand in the aisles during the game.
3. Signing a game-changer
1986: Stanford signs Jennifer Azzi
VanDerveer returned to the West after five seasons with the Buckeyes to helm a Stanford team that had gone 9-19 the season before. Her first item of business was to recruit Jennifer Azzi, a point guard from Oak Ridge, Tenn. The Cardinal had been so bad that VanDerveer told Sports Illustrated she didn’t let Azzi watch any practices or game film during her recruitment, but Stanford’s academic pedigree helped convince Azzi to follow her to the Pacific coast and become the program’s first true star.
— Stanford WBB 🤓🏀 (@StanfordWBB) March 17, 2016
Azzi helped lead the Cardinal to the NCAA Tournament in 1988 as a sophomore, starting a streak of appearances that continues to this day. She was the Pac-10 player of the year as a junior when Stanford made the Elite Eight and then the national player of the year in 1990 when the Cardinal won their first national championship. Azzi remains the program’s all-time leader in 3-point percentage, ranks second in total assists and places third in steals. The line of greats that have come through Palo Alto, including Sonja Henning, Val Whiting, Kate Starbird, Candice Wiggins, Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike, leading up to Cameron Brink begins with Azzi. She was VanDerveer’s biggest off-court win.
4. Reaching the pinnacle
April 4, 1990: Stanford 88, Auburn 80
VanDerveer won her first national championship at Tennessee’s Thompson-Boling Arena, 20 minutes away from where Azzi played high school basketball. The Cardinal were fairly dominant throughout the tournament, winning their five games by an average of 15 points. The title game was more back-and-forth, as they went up by 11 early, then trailed by 11 later in the first half. It took a superlative shooting performance from Katy Steding, who hit six 3-pointers to defeat Auburn, sending the Tigers to their third-straight defeat in the championship game.
In her 12th season as a head coach, VanDerveer had reached the pinnacle and established Stanford as a national powerhouse, only the sixth team to ever win an NCAA title. Oddly enough, the Cardinal never earned a No. 1 AP poll ranking during the season, but that would come soon enough. Even though Azzi was graduating, Henning and Whiting remained to carry the torch.
5. Becoming an icon
April 5, 1992: Stanford 78, Western Kentucky 62
One title put VanDerveer on the map. Two titles made her an icon. In the 30-plus years since this game, only four more programs have won multiple championships (UConn, Notre Dame, Baylor and South Carolina), and those teams’ coaches have become legends in their own right.
The 1992 season was the third consecutive Final Four trip for the Cardinal, but they had to replace three starters from the previous season. Even so, they went 30-3 and dominated Western Kentucky in the final, led by freshman Rachel Hemmer’s 18 points and 15 rebounds. Their toughest matchup came in the Final Four when they held on 66-65 against Dawn Staley and Virginia.
6. Taking down Tennessee
Dec. 15, 1996: Stanford 82, Tennessee 65
VanDerveer took the 1995-1996 season off to coach Team USA leading up to the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, and the program continued to thrive in her absence. The combination of Marianne Stanley and Amy Tucker led Stanford to an undefeated Pac-10 record and another trip to the Final Four. Still, VanDerveer’s return resulted in another milestone.
The Lady Vols had won the national title the previous season — what would end up being the first of a three-peat — and four total championships in the past decade. They were the gold standard of the sport under Pat Summitt, and Stanford had yet to beat them on their home court in Thompson-Boling Arena, including a 36-point defeat in Knoxville two years prior. Not this time. The Cardinal went in as the nation’s No. 1 team and took care of No. 5 Tennessee. Starbird was the team’s high scorer with 26 points, outdueling Tamika Catchings, who had 24 on 11-of-28 shooting. The teams both made the Final Four that year, but Stanford lost in the semifinal before a potential rematch in the title game.
This was a short-lived peak for the Cardinal, who wouldn’t win at Tennessee again until 2012 despite playing there every other year.
7. Ending a drought
March 31, 2008: Stanford 98, Maryland 87
VanDerveer and Stanford entered this tournament after a 10-season Final Four drought. The Cardinal had won or tied for the PAC-10 title in eight of those years, but they weren’t experiencing the NCAA Tournament success to which they had grown accustomed. The drought finally ended in 2008, as the Candice Wiggins-led squad broke through against Maryland. Wiggins scored 41 points in the win, making it to the national semifinals as a senior after two previous losses in the Elite Eight. This was a return to the mountaintop for VanDerveer, as Stanford would advance to the Final Four each of the next four seasons.
8. UConn streak-busters
Dec. 30, 2010: Stanford 71, Connecticut 59
Connecticut came into Maples Pavilion having won 90 games in a row, including two national championships. Stanford emphatically put an end to what was then the longest winning streak in NCAA history. Point guard Jeanette Pohlen had 31 points and six assists as the Cardinal exacted minor revenge for losing in the 2010 national championship. They ended up bookending UConn’s streak, having handed the Huskies their most recent loss in the 2008 Final Four.
9. T-Dawg wins again
Dec. 16, 2020: Stanford 104, Pacific 61
VanDerveer became the winningest coach in women’s college basketball history, passing Summitt with her 1,099th win, all but 176 coming at Stanford. The pandemic meant no fans were in attendance for her milestone, but the players presented VanDerveer with a swim jacket that read “T-Dawg” after the final buzzer to mark the occasion. Cameron Brink, who was a freshman on that roster, told The Athletic that the Cardinal have something “funny” planned for the upcoming record.
10. Reaching elite status
April 4, 2021: Stanford 54, Arizona 53
More than three decades after winning her first national championship, VanDerveer collected her third, joining a list that includes only Summitt, Geno Auriemma and Kim Mulkey. This one had the extra significance of featuring another PAC-12 team (Arizona) in the title game. After years of carrying the conference on their back, the Cardinal had some West Coast company in the final weekend and final game of the season.
(Top photo of Tara VanDerveer: Jack Dempsey / NCAA Photos via Getty Images)