Many more wins await Tara VanDerveer
Stanford's coach gets 800th victory but isn't one to be defined by wins and losses
Whenever coaches reach a big milestone, they always talk about how it's really just a number that reflects a group effort and is not a big personal celebration. With most of them, that's probably really how they feel. With some you wonder.
With Stanford's Tara VanDerveer, though, you know she would have been fine if "800" was just a sentence mentioned in the pregame notes for the media. The fact that it had to be kind of dragged out over the course of three games -- Stanford lost at DePaul and Tennessee in attempts at securing her 800th win -- was particularly uncomfortable for her.
However, the plus side to this is that No. 800 came back in the Bay Area on Wednesday, with VanDerveer going head-to-head with two of the most important and accomplished former Cardinal players she has had.
The odds of that -- that this particular victory would happen against this team at this time -- were high indeed. Yet there was VanDerveer after the Cardinal pounded San Francisco 100-45, getting flowers and congratulations from Jennifer Azzi and Katy Steding, head coach and assistant for the Dons.
The loss at DePaul was a bit surprising, the one at Tennessee not at all. Stanford has defeated the Orange Crush only once in Knoxville. But it was from that area of Tennessee, nearby Oak Ridge, that VanDerveer recruited Azzi, the lynchpin player for the Cardinal's 1990 championship team.
Again, in one of those odd but fascinating coincidences, Stanford won that title at Tennessee's Thompson-Boling Arena, not far from where Azzi grew up. Steding was a senior on that team as well.
Stanford went back to the Final Four in 1991 and fell in the semifinals, then got another national championship in 1992. And that has been it as far as NCAA titles for the Cardinal, something that would have seemed quite unlikely, really, if you'd projected it 18 years ago.
It says a lot about how hard it is to ultimately close the deal in college sports that Stanford has not been able to win another championship since 1992. Not that the Cardinal haven't had their heartbreaking misses. They've had plenty.
Three consecutive trips to the Final Four in 1995-97 ended in semifinal losses, the last one an overtime defeat to Old Dominion that most Cardinal fans would probably call the most painful they've experienced.
In 1998, two ACL injuries to starters days before the NCAA tournament started contributed to Stanford's loss to Harvard, which remains the only No. 16 seed victory over a No. 1 -- a nightmare to which Cardinal followers always affix the double-ACL asterisk.
Then for the next three years, Stanford drifted away from being an NCAA championship contender. The Cardinal lost 32 games in those three seasons; just a few less than they'd lost in the previous nine combined.
But two especially important players brought the Cardinal back to being a heavy hitter again: Nicole Powell (2001-04) and Candice Wiggins (2005-08). The Cardinal's run to the NCAA championship game in Wiggins' senior season was an emotional healing for a program that had not been to the Final Four since that devastating ending to the 1997 season.
Through all this, of course, was VanDerveer at the helm. She has changed over time, but so gradually and quietly that it can be easy to miss. For many years, through the ups and downs, VanDerveer didn't really offer a great deal of insight into who she was other than a coach.
We knew she was born and raised in the Northeast, went to school at Indiana and soaked up Bob Knight's practices, coached at Idaho and Ohio State, then went to Stanford in 1986.
Few people at that time could have seemed less "Californian" than VanDerveer. She didn't speak the lingo or have the look. But she saw the chance to build something at an academic giant of a school, and within four seasons had an NCAA title.
When VanDerveer took a leave from Stanford in 1995-96 to coach the U.S. national team that went on to gold at the Atlanta Olympics, it came at some cost. That's not to say that had she been in the driver's seat, the Cardinal wouldn't have lost to Georgia in the 1996 Final Four, but one can always wonder how different that season might have been with her.
The years since have further proved her resilience, and they've also revealed more about her than the nearly one-dimensional side she had shown for a long time.
She took up piano and found music was soul-cleansing for her. She began to share small but revealing details of what it was like growing up a basketball junkie when the sport provided so few opportunities for girls and women.
And rather than sound bitter about what she'd missed out on, VanDerveer actually showed her inner sunshine. We realized that she'd always been an optimist, that she was very funny, and that she was not as defined by basketball -- and certainly not by wins and losses -- as we'd assumed.
Those close to Stanford say that Wiggins was one of the most important players to ever go through the program because of the effect she had on VanDerveer at an important time in her coaching career.
Despite the loss of her father when she was very young, Wiggins had grown up a joyful, positive, outgoing person. She combined that with a fierce competitiveness and immense talent. She was one of those players coaches feel truly blessed to be around, and that's how VanDerveer regarded her.
Wiggins also helped the staff bring higher-caliber recruits to Stanford, and the Cardinal's three consecutive Final Fours in 2008-10 reflect that.
VanDerveer became the fifth Division I women's hoops coach to reach the 800 plateau Wednesday, and at 57 still has a lot of tread left on the tires.
This is her 32nd season overall as head coach, 25th at Stanford. Even after a quarter-century in the Bay Area, she still has some of that Easterner's wonderment about the nice weather and the laid-back feel, even if she herself has never been laid-back.
When VanDerveer talks about her life and career now, it's with a sense of contentment that comes only from being able to be passionately devoted to what you do, but not letting it consume you.
Which is why 800 "mattered" to her, sure, but not necessarily a great deal more than 799 or 801. Or whatever number, years from now, she has at the end.
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.
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