In college sports, the coach is usually the constant and the student-athletes are the variable, as players come and go each academic year.
Under those circumstances, Stanford University’s longtime women’s basketball coach Tara VanDerveer has created an environment in which her players thrive and her team competes for the national title nearly every season.
Speaking at the Rotary Club of Los Altos’ Sept. 19 meeting, VanDerveer discussed her journey to success and provided insights into her past teams. Growing up in Niagara Falls, N.Y., she learned to play basketball in rec leagues and pick-up games with the boys.
When she set off for college, not only was there no WNBA, there were no programs for women to learn about coaching. So VanDerveer studied sociology and nearly attended law school after earning her degree. She soon realized, however, that coaching basketball was her true passion.
After earning a master’s degree in sports administration, VanDerveer coached at the University of Idaho and then Ohio State University, turning the Buckeyes into a nationally ranked team.
That’s when Stanford came calling. The Cardinal had a losing record at the time and averaged only 300 fans per game. All that changed once VanDerveer stepped onto campus in 1985. The number of wins and fans soon increased, as Stanford emerged as a national power by her third season.
Although she has received numerous accolades in her long career – none bigger than leading the Cardinal to national championships in 1990 and 1992 – VanDerveer said she does not coach for recognition. She is driven by a desire to help develop others.
Each season, her team has a theme; this year’s theme is “More than me.” VanDerveer said she gets the most gratification from watching her players grow as people seeking to contribute to the team and to society.
Many of her former players remain in touch with her, which VanDerveer said brings her absolute joy. She recalled receiving a text message from a woman who played for her 20 years ago who had just accomplished something significant. It read: “I remember what you said: ‘You can do it!’”
VanDerveer shared stories about several other former players, focusing primarily on their attitude and compassion.
While the game of women’s basketball has evolved since she first started coaching, VanDerveer said some elements have not. She noted that players still need to demonstrate a great work ethic, great attitude and great energy to succeed.
The coach goes into this season – scheduled to tip off Nov. 5 at home against Eastern Washington University – with plenty of talent. The Cardinal returns four starters and welcomes a stellar freshman class featuring Pinewood School’s Hannah Jump, Mitty High School’s Haley Jones and Fran Belibi, a 6-foot-1 forward from Colorado known for her dunking abilities. VanDerveer referred to her recruits as “phenomenal.”