Commentary

VanDerveer remains student of game

Stanford's coach on verge of becoming fifth women's coach to win 900 games

Originally Published: November 26, 2013
By Michelle Smith | espnW.com

Tara VanDerveer Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsTara VanDerveer won her 899th game Tuesday in Mexico as Stanford beat Purdue.

The university that produced the founders of Netflix, PayPal, Google, Hewlett-Packard and Yahoo is the perfect place for Tara VanDerveer.

Where else but Stanford for the woman who loves nothing more than to see what others do successfully so that she can apply it to her own trade?

"There is a culture of excellence here," VanDerveer said. "We are part of a special place in time, to be here, to be in the Silicon Valley and the Bay Area. It's very energizing and it's motivating. It gives me an incredible amount of energy."

She has used that energy to an end that few other people in her profession can claim.

[+] EnlargeTara VanDerveer
Kirby Lee/Getty ImagesTara VanDerveer has guided the Cardinal to 21 regular-season Pac-12 titles, 10 league tournament crowns and two NCAA championships.

The venerable Stanford women's basketball coach -- with her crisp suits, impeccable preparation and dry wit -- is about to become just the fifth women's college basketball coach to win 900 career games.

It is fitting that this milestone will very likely take place in a gym in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, this week in front of what is equally likely to be an intimate crowd of her players' families, a few Stanford die-hards and some friends. Low-profile is fine by her.

"I don't like to be the center of attention," VanDerveer said. "I'm fine just kind of being the person behind the scenes."

Winning 900 games makes that too much to ask. VanDerveer will join Tennessee legend Pat Summitt, former Texas coach Jody Conradt, North Carolina's Sylvia Hatchell and Rutgers' C. Vivian Stringer in the 900 club, with no impending retirement in sight. VanDerveer recently signed a new contract extension at Stanford, and when asked how long she signed for, she responded with a smile, "As long as I want."

But if 900 wins is an occasion for an ovation and maybe a little cake after the game, the days leading into it are just like any other for the 60-year-old Naismith Hall of Famer.

"I don't think about it," VanDerveer said. "I'm just trying to do what I do every day, trying to think about what we should be doing to beat the next opponent."

She would always talk about taking the weakness in your game and turning it into your strength. She's really a genius in that way and she's very specific. Its not always about being great at something, it's about not being bad at something. No one taught me that like Tara.

-- Candice Wiggins on Tara VanDerveer

That might sound like spin from another coach, but there isn't a lot of spin in VanDerveer. Never has been.

"She's just Tara," said Vanessa Nygaard, who played for VanDerveer from 1995-98 but is now piquing her former mentor's brain as she runs a program of her own for the first time at Windward High School in Los Angeles.

"I was in the middle of the playoffs last year and I called her and she's getting ready for the NCAA tournament, and she's on the phone with me before their practice and she's basically giving me the plan that wins us the game," Nygaard said. "I was up there again a couple of weeks ago and she answered every question I could come up with. As I was leaving she said, 'My brain is your brain.'"

If VanDerveer's reputation and on-court persona has been a little professorial, the truth is, she still is a pure student of the game. Always has been, from the days that she used to sneak into the gym at Indiana to take copious notes while Bob Knight ran practice, to this very day, when she routinely invites other coaches in to teach her their offensive or defensive philosophies.

"After we practice, I watch our [men's team] practice. If somebody is doing something that works against us, we will use it," VanDerveer said. "But I know in my mind how the game should be played."

A plethora of technology options has made it possible for her to feed her "curiosity" about basketball. Yes, that's her word.

"I keep learning more and more about the game," VanDerveer said. "We have access to so much video and I always feel like I learn a lot by watching. I can watch any team I want. I have a game on the TV and one on the computer and I'm going back and forth between different ones.

[+] EnlargeTara VanDerveer
AP Photo/Tony AvelarWade Trophy winner Candice Wiggins helped lead Stanford to the 2008 Final Four, the Cardinal's first trip to the national semifinals since 1997.

"At home the other night, I had the Warriors game on, and I want to see the out-of-bounds plays and time-and-score, and Michigan State and Duke were on and I'm watching all of it. I'm intrigued by it. I want to see what kind of offense teams are running, how they are defending the pick-and-roll. I'm taking notes on everything. It's a curiosity more than anything. And it gives me ideas."

There is a trade-off, however to all this access.

"I don't get much laundry done," VanDerveer said. "I might be wearing the same sweats two days in a row, and there's nothing in my fridge."

Her players know all about her "Tara dates," when she asks a player to sit next to her on the plane to go over video.

"I see the preparation side of things much more now than I did as a player," said Susan King Borchardt, the former Stanford guard who was the Cardinal's strength and conditioning coach in 2011-12. "As players, we would be in our own world, go to class, have some lunch, show up at practice, and we never realized how much time she was spending preparing for that practice. I have never been around another coach who lives it like Tara does."

There's balance, too. VanDerveer has her dogs, her piano, her lake house in Minnesota, her books. But there was a point that she worried that she was too singularly focused.

She reached out to a good friend at Stanford, the head of the psychology department. His response? Don't worry about it.

"He told me to spend the time you want on things," VanDerveer said. "I have a lot of other interests. Sometimes, they are just on the back burner during the season. I manage to find time to go skiing in the winter. I've done a lot of thinking on a chair lift. In the summer, I do other things.

"But during the season, I focus on basketball."

VanDerveer arrived at Stanford in 1985 after a successful stint at Ohio State, looking to breathe life into a moribund program.

In the 28 years since, she has won 21 regular-season Pac-10/12 conference titles, two national championships and made 10 trips to the Final Four, including a run of five in a row from 2008-2012.

VanDerveer has done it with teams that ran a spread-motion offense, a triangle offense dependent on a dominant center, and, in the current version, a looser game more reliant on athletic guards and ball-screen action.

"She's done it all," said Charmin Smith, Cal's associate head coach who played for VanDerveer in the mid-1990s and coached on her staff for three years before joining the Cardinal's league rival. "I love it when we play against Stanford. Coaching against Tara, you know what's coming and sometimes you just can't stop it.

Candice Wiggins was one of VanDerveer's brightest stars. She values her relationship with her former coach as much as ever now that she's a WNBA veteran.

"No one watches as much tape as she does, and she can see everything," Wiggins said. "She would always talk about taking the weakness in your game and turning it into your strength. She's really a genius in that way and she's very specific. It's not always about being great at something, it's about not being bad at something. No one taught me that like Tara."

VanDerveer has watched over the past few years as contemporaries such as Summitt and Hatchell have seen their careers cut short or interrupted by illness. She has become less focused through the years on the final result, and talks more about appreciating the day in front of her, the next practice.

VanDerveer says her extension includes the stipulation that when she decides it's time to step down, she will serve as an assistant to the athletic director at Stanford.

On the horizon, nothing but more basketball.

"George Karl was in the gym the other day. He misses coaching so much," VanDerveer said. "There's something drug-like about coaching. It gets in your system and it's who you are. You want to be able to control things, tell people how to set that screen or run this play. It's hard to imagine not coming to the gym."

VanDerveer's sister, Heidi, can't picture it, either.

"When you are around young kids all the time, you feel a lot younger," Heidi VanDerveer said. "She found her niché at Stanford. She likes to be stimulated, she likes the challenge. She doesn't waste time, not in recruiting, not in scouting, not in practice. She's going to do this as long as it's good for her and she's good for the program."

And good for a few more milestones perhaps.

"It's crazy," Nygaard said. "Nine hundred wins. I don't think there's anything in my life I've done 900 times."

Michelle Smith

Contributor, espnW.com

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