STANFORD, Calif. – A thousand is a lot. Of anything.
I know this because, to prepare for an interview with Tara VanDerveer about her upcoming inevitable 1,000th coaching victory, I go full gimmick. I decide that a visual aid might be useful.
So I go to the bank. I ask for a thousand pennies. I put them in a sack. I bring it to our interview at center court of Maples Pavilion.
Then I empty the sack onto the floor at her feet, on top of the Stanford logo.
“That,” I explain, “is a thousand pennies.”
“Wow,” VanDerveer says. “Wow. Wow.”
“Each would represent one victory of yours,” I say.
“Some are standing out more than others,” VanDerveer says.
Yes, some do. But all together, a thousand pennies is a lot of pennies. As I would later learn when I had to pick them all up.
And a thousand basketball victories? VanDerveer is right. Wow. That’s a lot of victories. Only two other coaches in major college basketball – Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and the late Pat Summitt at Tennessee – have 1,000 victories or more. VanDerveer won her 999th game last weekend.
VanDerveer stares at the pennies. Each one a happy result, a happy game. She won 42 of them at Idaho, her first stop as a head coach at age 25 in 1978. She won 110 more at Ohio State, her next stop. The rest she won here, many of them on this very court, after coming to Stanford in 1985.
A thousand victories means more than a thousand victories. It means 5,000 or more practices. It means tens of thousands of recruiting phone calls, probably. It means that, with three or four seniors earning diplomas every year, VanDerveer has seen 150 to 160 young women on her teams receive degrees and move on to successful careers. Wow.
All of this makes VanDerveer mighty proud, even if she does not say so directly or blatantly. She would rather tell stories. She has many good ones. I ask if she recalls her first head coaching victory. She thinks. I remind her that it was Idaho 70, North Montana 68, in overtime. Then the details come back, with a slight wince.
“Here’s brilliant coaching,” VanDerveer says. “We had the game won in regulation. We were up by three. And they called time out. So, I said, ‘Let’s just not foul.’ They go out and make the basket and we fouled. And we went into overtime.”
That result taught VanDerveer another lesson about dealing with young players in particular.
“Don’t say what not to do,” she recites. “Say what to do. That sticks with them. Tell them what to do.”
In those days, she was so intense. It’s why they hired her at Idaho as a 25-year-old head coach, after she’d spent a few years as an impressive Ohio State assistant following her playing career at Indiana, where she took notes while watching Bobby Knight’s men practice.
“I’m a lot more mellow now,” VanDerveer said. “I used to be fired up all the time. The men’s basketball coach at Idaho was Don Monson. He wanted to run the girls basketball camp. I’m like, ‘No you’re not running the camp, you don’t care about girls basketball, you just want the money.’ I said, ‘I’m going to run the camp.’ So the first thing I did was get into a fight with him. And then, I thought, ‘I’ll save money, I won’t buy snow tires.’ So, I was driving to school and lost control and skidded and ran into a car. It was him. Don Monson. I’m like, ‘Oh, God,’ ”
As it turned out, VanDerveer and Monson – who went on to coach at Oregon – developed a friendship and a mutual admiration. And VanDerveer kept clicking the victory odometer. She returned to Ohio State as head coach and won four Big Ten titles. Then came the biggest decision of her professional life. Stanford athletic director Andy Geiger called and said one of the Cardinal players had recommended that he talk to her. Geiger and VanDerveer talked. Geiger offered the job. But was it smart to take a chance at Stanford? The team had gone 14-42 over the previous two seasons. How would the 1,000 victories scenario have played out if she had stayed at Ohio State?
“It might have happened faster, honestly,” VanDerveer says. “We had a great, great team at Ohio State. A lot of times I ask, ‘What the heck was I thinking?’ ”
So what the heck was she thinking?
“I just saw Stanford as the ultimate challenge,” VanDerveer says. “The combination of academics and athletics. Ohio State was a great job. I loved coaching there. I told Andy no the first time he offered me the job. It wasn’t that Stanford wasn’t a great job. But Ohio State was fabulous. The players we had, it was tearful to leave. But I think it has worked out pretty well.”
Not initially. VanDerveer’s first team at Stanford went 13-15, the only losing season of her career. But she credits those players for recruiting the women who would eventually help VanDerveer win two national championships. Those titles go alongside her 30 NCAA Tournament appearances, the 23 trips to the Sweet 16, the 11 trips to the Final Four.
And the victories. So many. Wow. I ask VanDerveer to again look at the thousand pennies and try to recall which ones gave her the most satisfaction.
“I remember playing Washington here,” she says. “It was the first game we had a big crowd – 3,500 people. And one of the best games in this gym, we were playing Arkansas in the NCAA Tournament. It was Jennifer Azzi’s and Katy Steding’s senior year. We had played horribly against Mississippi. I told everybody, ‘You’re going on vacation, there’s no way we’re going to the Final Four.’ I came into the gym and one of the operations people handed me a note. It said: ‘This is for you, Tara, relax and have fun.’ It was from Jennifer. And we won. I remember we had a 6-point play. We hit a 3 and they fouled, we took it out and had another 3. That’s the only 6-point play I ever remember. There were so many great games.”
All of that winning has, arguably, made VanDerveer the most successful head coach in Bay Area history, in any sport. She certainly belongs up there with the likes of Bill Walsh, Pete Newell, Pop Warner, Bruce Bochy, the rest. However, we all know what it’s like in Northern California. With so many other college teams and professional teams rising up to grab fan eyeballs, VanDerveer has rolled out her success in relative anonymity on the Stanford campus.
To be sure, a hard core of Stanford women’s hoop followers will pack Maples for her history-making win. But compared to the way Summitt was revered at Tennessee and Kryzewski is venerated at Duke. VanDerveer is just the unassuming Naismith Basketball Hall of Famer who rides her bike to work every day on The Farm. She is okay with that, she tells me.
With the interview done, I lean over and begin to gather up the pennies. As she watched me collect them, one by one, VanDerveer finally does turn reflective.
“When I think of what will bring me satisfaction,” she says, “it will be that I have a thousand positive relationships through basketball. People like my parents helped me be the coach that I am. Being able to watch coach Knight’s practices. The relationships with so many players. The relationships that I have had with all the coaches I have at Stanford – like Jim Harbaugh, Bill Walsh – that’s what matters to me. If every penny is a relationship, then I’m a rich person.”
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