From piano lessons to swimming, Tara VanDerveer’s success is rooted in non-stop learning

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PALO ALTO, Calif. — Almost nothing about Tara VanDerveer’s home would imply a basketball coach, let alone one who is about to become the winningest college basketball coach ever, has resided there for nearly 30 years. The muted yellow walls and decor — several large framed florals painted years ago by a friend — are tasteful but minimal. The coffee table books are mostly National Geographic travel tomes.

Her home gym displays some memorabilia, but the only room that might truly give it away is her “office,” a generous term as it more closely resembles a windowless walk-in closet. But this is VanDerveer’s preference — understated and neatly organized (though VanDerveer calls the office itself, generally stuffed to the brim, “a disaster”). On occasion, she’ll display on her fridge a photo of herself sitting with former Tennessee coach Pat Summitt and former UCLA and Cal State Fullerton coach Billie Moore — three Hall of Famers — as a reminder to enjoy every day. But the sparse memorabilia and occasional photo are the only slightest clues that a rather successful coach calls this place home.

For VanDerveer, the crown jewels of her house are the seven redwood trees in the backyard. They stretch upward like forestial skyscrapers, transplanted into her property 12 years ago and grown considerably since then. Five are younger trees, but the two eldest are likely north of 70 years old, just like VanDerveer. From time to time, she finds herself walking around the backyard with her dogs, Piper and Enzo, gazing skyward, admiring the sturdy giants that have come to withstand time, drought and fire.

“They’re beautiful trees; they’re very resilient trees,” VanDerveer says. “Their roots grow underneath and they support each other. They’re really tall, but they remind me of a team in that they’re holding each other up.”

There were no redwoods in the Northeastern or Midwestern states where VanDerveer spent the majority of her formative years — a childhood in Massachusetts and New York, her early years in college basketball at Indiana, Idaho and Ohio State. But when she moved to Northern California in 1985 to become Stanford’s head coach, she was awestruck by the mighty redwoods.

There’s no definitive explanation why redwoods grow so tall. Part of it is their lifespans; some age up to 2,000 years largely due to their bark, which protects them from disease, and a thick husk that shields them against fires. They are completely different from most other trees in that way. But why they reach such heights? No one knows exactly.

In the 1960s when author John Steinbeck traveled across the country and came upon Northern California, he wrote, “The redwoods, once seen, leave a mark or create a vision that stays with you always. … From them comes silence and awe. It’s not only their unbelievable stature, nor the color which seems to shift and vary under your eyes, no, they are not like any trees we know, they are ambassadors from another time.”

VanDerveer sees her best teams as these redwoods. Players who stood on their own, but whose roots stretched underground and toward one another, supporting each other while withstanding drought and fire, becoming ambassadors of a changing game. If that is so, then she is that mysterious element answering the question: How do they grow so tall?

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From Idaho to iconic titles: Top 10 Tara VanDerveer moments as Stanford coach nears all-time wins record

“It was her high standards, which start with herself,” says Jennifer Azzi, who played for VanDerveer at Stanford from 1986-90 and won a gold medal with VanDerveer in the 1996 Olympics. “If there’s one word that describes her it’s excellence. Excellence in every single thing she does and attempts. … That has never changed over the years. She has never compromised herself or her values.”

Few coaches have lasted as long on a sideline as she, and they only got there by finding these special players and developing teams. Mostly, they stay by winning. It was maybe the first lesson she learned in basketball. With no girls’ teams to play on, the golden rule she learned during pick-up games at the park: Winner stays. It remains true in college coaching, too.

On Sunday, she could pass former Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski as the winningest college basketball coach of all time with 1,203 wins. Even to her, that number is hard to comprehend. She didn’t set out to get to this pinnacle, but here she is. For every 100 wins, Stanford presented her with a custom-painted basketball. Eventually, she had so many she had to move them from a bookshelf to a wall shelf, and now that shelf — which stretches across the full length of her office — houses all 12 basketballs. It can’t get any longer at this point, so she just keeps moving the basketballs closer together.

She has 17 30-win seasons, more than the rest of the Pac-12 schools combined. She has won three national titles and led the Cardinal to 14 Final Fours. She has been named the national coach of the year five times and the Pac-12 coach of the year 17 times. VanDerveer has won more games than 344 Division I programs.


And while those numbers lay out the framework of this moment, they don’t explain how she got to this point. To accomplish that, she has seemingly done the impossible — remaining steady yet constantly evolving, being flexible yet obstinate in the ways that mattered, remaining curious but never losing her focus.

VanDerveer credits her parents — both educators — for teaching her to value education and relationships. She cites her mom’s wisdom — “be a duck, let it roll off your back” — with her ability to keep focused on what matters most and trying not to fret about the rest.

She often tells about an interview for a coaching job in which she was asked to explain her philosophy. She responded: Work. When asked to expand, she said: Hard work.

As a coach, she maintained a standard no matter the team or season, from her JV squad at Ohio State to her national championship teams in Palo Alto. Even in her first year at Stanford — the only one in her 45 seasons with a losing record — she operated the same way. Stanford was rebuilding and not as elite as the school from which she had come, Ohio State, but she wanted the team to bond and build, to grow strong and tall. That was a non-negotiable. So she sought out feedback for that growth. She asked her players and assistants questions. She even pulled aside the team’s trainer after practice to ask for her thoughts on the day.

“She was always interested in other people’s insights and observations,” said Charli Turner Thorne, who played for VanDerveer at Stanford from 1985-88 and coached against her at Arizona State from 1996-2022. “We’re like, ‘Tara, the athletic trainer doesn’t know anything about basketball.’ But she was this visionary who was always looking to shape her teams.”

When VanDerveer started at Stanford, there was no 3-point line in the college game. The Cardinal, like many, used a power approach and took high-percentage shots close to the basket. But when the line was introduced before the 1987-88 season, VanDerveer did the simple math and informed her players they were going to learn outside shooting. Within five seasons, Stanford was attempting 13 a game — a key part of their first national title run.


With the 3-point shot, VanDerveer and Stanford mastered the triangle offense. In 2008, Stanford played UC Davis, which had just transitioned to Division I. Stanford easily won by 35, but after the game, VanDerveer pulled aside head coach Sandy Simpson and said she was impressed with the mechanisms of the Princeton offense that UC Davis had run. Simpson pointed VanDerveer in the direction of one of her young assistants, Jennifer Gross.

“Here I am, a new assistant coach at a former Division II school, and Tara’s like, ‘Who can I talk to about learning this offense? Would you be able to help?’” said Gross, now the UC Davis head coach. “It was a bit of a ‘What is going on here?’ … But she’s like, ‘I’m going to learn from anybody.’”

Over the next several years, VanDerveer and Gross talked about the offense often, with Gross and her husband, Joe Teramoto, making multiple trips to Palo Alto to walk through the offense on the floor and watch film with VanDerveer. In 2021, the Cardinal won the national title running VanDerveer’s version of this offense.

In her personal life, VanDerveer, 70, takes the same approach. In her 40s, she started piano lessons and dove in. The teacher, Jodi Gandolfi suggested a 30-minute lesson. VanDerveer countered with 90 minutes. They compromised … at 90. With lessons beginning in February, VanDerveer requested Stanford’s team schedulers to ensure every road-game hotel had a piano available so she could practice.

Gandolfi, who hadn’t worked with beginners in decades, assumed that like most novices, VanDerveer would want to start where most beginners started — learning a simple song. But Gandolfi was struck by her student’s approach. Recalled Gandolfi: “She wanted to learn how to practice. She wanted to learn music theory.”

While at Stanford, VanDerveer took up swimming laps and visited the pool three mornings a week. On mornings when Olympians like Katie Ledecky and Simone Manuel were in their lanes, she’d study their form and compare it to her own. When VanDerveer bought a ski boat about a decade ago, she sought out skilled ski partners who’d hit the water with her every summer morning and offer feedback on her technique.


Tara VanDerVeer applauds her team during the 2009 Final Four game against Connecticut. (Tim Vizer / Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

But, as in hoops, much about VanDerveer remains unchanged. Namely, the haircut, the iconic bob that has been her signature look for decades. When she moved to Palo Alto, VanDerveer had a stylist cut her hair, but when that woman retired, the stylist’s daughter began cutting it. No one else has had VanDerveer in a salon chair since.

“There’s slight variation, but it is pretty similar,” VanDerveer admits.

In the past few seasons, college sports has changed at a faster-than-ever pace. NIL was introduced. The transfer portal opened up. And next season, VanDerveer and the Cardinal will join the ACC as the Pac-12 (as it’s currently set up) will fold. “She just really understands the big picture,” says Stanford associate head coach Kate Paye, who played for VanDerveer from 1991-95. “It isn’t all about winning for her, it’s about building lifetime relationships and mentoring women and empowering women.”

 

She has stayed on top of changes and worked to shepherd the next generation of women’s basketball, its players and coaches. Her recent teams have loosely formed committees on food, travel and entertainment so she can take more input from the players. She has become a mentor and sounding board to not only the coaches she knows well, but even to those she doesn’t. This fall, when Florida State coach Brooke Wyckoff was diagnosed with breast cancer, VanDerveer sent her a hand-written letter. The two had never met. When the Cardinal played Albany earlier this season, she suggested swapping scouting reports so each team could learn more about themselves, something she has done with several other nonconference opponents over the years. When the Cardinals’ NCAA Tournament runs have ended early, she’s sometimes handed over her own scouting reports of potential March Madness opponents to her fellow Pac-12 coaches.

Most of this has been done without fanfare or attention — the way she likes it.

When VanDerveer passed Pat Summitt to become the winningest women’s college basketball coach in the 2020-21 season, the Cardinal were on the road at Pacific with no fans in the crowd because of pandemic protocols. The bench was spaced with six feet between each chair. Everyone wore masks except the players on the floor. Her achievement was met with a subdued celebration that included only the team. Admittedly, VanDerveer enjoyed the intimacy of that.

Players presented her with a fleece jacket to wear to the pool. “T-DAWG,” it read on the back.

This next milestone will be different. Stanford is celebrating alumni weekend with dozens of former players coming into town. Pomp and circumstance, two words VanDerveer doesn’t love, will be directed at her. Even with No. 8 Stanford at 15-2, VanDerveer has been fitting in interviews and photoshoots in every spare moment. Everyone wants to know the secrets to her success, wants to know how she did it.

Unlike the redwoods, the answer is quite obvious.

She evolved but stayed the same. She was flexible yet unwavering. She remained a student and a teacher whose roots have allowed her to finally reach heights that no others have.

(Illustration and data visual: John Bradford / The Athletic; Photos of Tara VanDerveer: Cody Glenn / Icon Sportswire, Jack Dempsey / Getty Images)



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