Sullivan: Tara VanDerveer, basketball's iron lady, going strong at Stanford

Jerry Sullivan

It’s difficult to fathom now, after all the wins and championships and Halls of Fame. But there was a time, as a young girl newly arrived in Niagara Falls, when Tara VanDerveer told her parents she was finished with basketball. She said she was too old.

She was 15 at the time.

Oh, VanDerveer loved the game as much as her next breath. When she was in junior high, the school librarian at the Milne School in Albany called her father to say she was worried about Tara. She had read every book on basketball in the library.

In the seventh grade, she served as the mascot at the boys' games — there was no girls junior high team — but lost the gig after two weeks because she was too busy watching and analyzing the action and wasn’t leading the cheers.

VanDerveer would play pickup with the boys back in Schenectady. She still has her junior high yearbook, in which the boys coach said she was the best player in the school, boy or girl. One of the top boys players wrote that she would be in the Olympics some day.

Then her father, Dunbar, moved the family to Niagara Falls to take a job with the school district. Like any teenager, Tara was crushed to leave her old school and friends behind. It was even worse when she discovered the Falls didn’t have a girls basketball team.

“It was in November of my sophomore year,” VanDerveer recalled by phone on Tuesday, basking in the sunshine outside her home in Northern California after leading Stanford to the NCAA title. “I was so unhappy that my parents moved. It was really hard for me, really challenging. I was really mad at my parents for that.

“I said, ‘I’m done with basketball.’ It was like a love-hate relationship. I loved playing so much. I loved watching so much. But not being able to play was so painful for me.”

That spring, she decided to try out for the Falls' boys tennis team. There was no girls team. The Board of Education told her they would consider her request at the June meeting. By then, she knew, the season would be over.

“I got very frustrated and discouraged,” VanDerveer said, “and I ended up transferring to Buffalo Seminary. My sister did play on the boys tennis team and she was No. 1 singles. My other sister swam on the boys swim team at Niagara Falls High School.”

At Buffalo Seminary, a private girls school with a hoop team, she became a star and a Hall of Famer. She wasn’t too old for basketball after all, but a little too young for Title IX, the landmark federal legislation that was passed in 1972, a year after she graduated from high school. Title IX prohibits sex-based discrimination in any school or educational program that receives federal funds.

She still loved the game, of course. VanDerveer says everything happens for a reason. One great benefit of moving to the Falls was getting to watch Calvin Murphy at Niagara, and to witness the true glory days of Little Three hoops in Buffalo. She would go to the games when she could, and listen to the rest on the radio, creating the action in her mind.

Those were great days for sports in Western New York. Tara remembers watching Randy Smith most of all. She has a vivid memory of a Buffalo sports fan’s perfect weekend in that time.

“I was like a pig in slop,” she said. “My friend’s dad used to own a store called Jenns. I went with her to a Friday night Buffalo Braves game, a Saturday night Sabres hockey game, and a Sunday Buffalo Bills game. That was the trifecta at the time. I was like, ‘Wow, this is living!’ I loved it.”

After graduation from Buff Sem, VanDerveer played for a year at SUNY Albany, then transferred to Indiana to face better competition. She started for three years under Bea Gorton, who took IU to the Final Four of the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women. She had two coaching mentors there. You've probably heard of the other one.

“I watched Bobby Knight’s practice every day,” she said. “Every day. But coaching was not an option. There were no jobs for women in coaching. So I majored in sociology and said, ‘Well, I’ll go to law school.’ But I didn’t want to go right after college.

“I took a year off. I went down to Hilton Head and sailed. At Christmas, I came home and my parents said, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘Nothing.’”

Well, you’re going to go coach your sister’s team at Niagara Falls, they told her. Title IX had been passed. There were 15 girls, and a coach who seemed more interested in going bowling.

“So I helped out with that team,” said VanDerveer, who has four siblings. “I love my sister, Marie. But she’s not into basketball like I am. She would never go shoot. She just wanted to play for fun and socializing. So when I got home from the game, they’re like ‘Why didn’t you play Marie more?’ I said, 'Mom, she can’t even shoot.'”

“That was a good experience, to start out that way.”

VanDerveer learned that you’ll be judged by results, not being nice. But coaching her sister also taught her to keep mind in that every player she coaches in someone’s sister or daughter (incidentally, her youngest sister, Heidi, is the head coach at UC San Diego).

Her parents knew she had a passion for coaching. It just needed igniting. Tara wrote to 20 different schools, looking for jobs. She landed a graduate assistant’s job at Ohio State, one of two that replied. She was on food stamps. Her car had bad brakes. Talk about a love-hate relationship.

Still, the door was open a crack. It never swings all the way, to this day. But the women’s game was growing. She became a full-time assistant her second year at Ohio State, then got her first head job at Idaho in 1978. It paid $13,000. It felt like a million.

Two years later, VanDerveer returned to Ohio State and turned that program around. But the resources were scant for women. It was tough to leave, but after five years, Stanford came calling. Stanford, which has become a Mecca for women’s sports in America.

The rest is women’s hoop history. Tara took Stanford, which had been 5-23 and 9-19 the two years before, and made it a national power, the standard for the women’s game along with Tennessee under the late Pat Summitt, and, later, Connecticut under Geno Auriemma.

VanDerveer has won 1,125 games in her career. Earlier this season, she passed Summitt to become the winningest women’s coach in Division I history. She’s taken the Cardinal to 13 Final Fours. In 1996, she took a year off to coach the U.S. women’s Olympic team, which had finished third four years earlier and coasted to a gold medal under Tara in Atlanta.

But the 2020-21 season might go down as her crowning achievement. In the season of COVID-19, the Cardinal were exiled from their home at Maples Pavilion. They practiced at a high school gym in Santa Cruz. They lived in hotels for 87 days. They spent 10 days in Las Vegas. They couldn’t return to Stanford, because that would mean a two-week quarantine.

Somehow, she held them together. VanDerveer said it’s interesting to note that she had a set of twin sisters on the team, Lexie and Lacie Hull.

“There’s a real sisterhood on this team, which is exciting,” said VanDerveer, who was inducted into the Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame in 1999. “It is a really connected team, they’re very close.

“We’ve had 10 teams go to the Final Four since we won in 1992. Those were some great teams. But we did not have a bunch of injuries the whole year, which is incredible. We’re wearing a mask the whole time, we’re isolated, no one is getting sick.

“Also, just the determination and resilience this group showed. We were nomads. The team did not go home for Christmas. We got tested every day, sometimes nine times in a week. There were major, major sacrifices that people made.”

For women, the sacrifices are typically greater. During March, the disparity between the men’s and women’s games became a big issue. There was gender discrimination in food, facilities, weight rooms, even in COVID-19 protocols. And why is it March Madness only for the men?

VanDerveer spoke of “blatant sexism” that is “purposeful and hurtful” and made her program feel betrayed by the NCAA. “Women athletes and coaches are done waiting,” she said.

Of course, she spent a lot of time waiting and reminds her players what it was like half a century or mores ago, when there were no teams at all for females.

“I met with the 8-year-olds at our basketball camp,” she said. “There’s like 100 of them. I tell them, ‘I never went to basketball camp.’ I go through the whole litany: I never had scholarships. We were never on television. I never played on a junior high team.

“One little girl says, ‘Why?’ Another little 8-year-old raises her hand and says ‘Sexism.’ Things are very different, but they still have a ways to go. At some point, we need a vaccine not just for COVID, but the other viruses in our culture and our society, too.”

The Stanford women appreciated what they did have. When they got to the three-week “bubble” in San Antonio for the NCAA women’s tourney, they said, ‘This is nothing!.’

As Tara said, they were a resilient team with a powerful bond. They played with skill and intelligence, reflecting all the fundamental hoop lessons their coach had learned along the way. They kept their poise in the big moments.

They trailed by 14 to Louisville in the regional final and won. They became the first team to win both the national semifinal and final by one point. On Sunday, they beat Arizona, 54-53, giving VanDerveer a third national title, 29 years after her last.

“I’m not greedy. I’m realistic,” she said. “I call it the stars being in alignment. Anyone we played in that tournament we could have lost to. If we’re in a different bracket, maybe we don’t make it to the Final Four.

“When I first coached in the Final Four, I looked around and said, ‘I don’t know if I’m ever coming back, so let’s win this time.’ People acted like there was some drought, or something was wrong. There was nothing wrong. It’s competitive. It’s all good.”

She says the Cardinal were blessed by a certain karma. Maybe it derives from Chautauqua, the place in Western New York where people go to enjoy the finer things in life and culture, to relax and find intellectual peace and contemplation.

Last summer, after the NCAA Tournament was wiped out by the pandemic, VanDerveer went to Chautauqua. She calls herself a “proud Western New Yorker” and likes to “recreate Chautauqua” in her coaching life. Maybe she passed some of that mental equanimity on to her players this season.

“I’ve gone there almost every summer for the last 59 years,” she said. “I love it. I just love it. If you’re in the Athenaeum (hotel) and the lake is to your right and the amphitheater to your left, my house is directly in front of you. It’s the green house on the corner.

“My parents bought it when I was 20 years old. It’s called the Lakeside Lodge. It was a dump. Since then, I’ve renovated it. We have a family house on the top three stories and an apartment, three-bedroom, two-bath, on the downstairs. My mother’s 93 and she’s gone every summer, too.”

VanDerveer is now tied for the third-most women’s titles with Baylor’s Kim Mulkey. Auriemma has 11 NCAA championships and Summitt had eight.

“This program is what it is because of Tara," sophomore Haley Jones said after being named MVP of the tournament. ”The legacy she has created and just being recruited by her, and be a part of the team and take it a step further and win a national title, after 29 years, it’s a blessing. It’s just surreal.”

VanDerveer used the same word. Surreal. After a wild season, during which she doubted publicly whether they should even be playing, she hasn’t had time to process it all.

“Everything feels just weird,” she said. “You’re so out of whack. You’re like, ‘OK, did that really happen? Yeah, it did. So I guess it will take a while.”

She’s taken 13 teams to the Final Four in 35 years at Stanford. It took 29 years to win a third title — according to ESPN, the longest break between titles of any Division I coach in any sport.

Someone pointed out that Meryl Streep went 29 years between Oscar wins — from “Sophie’s Choice in 1982 to “The Iron Lady” 2011.

“Was it really?” VanDerveer said. “Oh, wow. I’m in good company then, right?”

Some would suggest that Streep is in good company. Basketball’s iron lady has been a head coach for 42 years and shows no signs of slowing down. Stanford has three top players coming back — Lexie Hull, Cameron Brink and Haley Jones. The Cardinal will have a good chance to repeat in 2022.

“Well, I can’t say that hasn’t crossed my mind,” she said. “It’s so early. I’m in Day One of 363 more days of enjoying being the national champion.”

VanDerveer will turn 68 in June. She’s 10 years younger than the President. Cutting down the nets last week, she looked like a kid. It’s not always easy, but you’re never too old for this game, right?

Jerry Sullivan is a sports columnist with over 30 years experience in Western New York. Follow him on Twitter @ByJerrySullivan or respond via email at scoreboard@gnnewspaper.com.

Trending Video

Recommended for you