On brink of history, Tara VanDerveer still puts peers and players first

Tara VanDerveer, who was enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2011, has a .814 winning percentage and 999-228 all-time record. Jim Rogash/Getty Images

Lindsay Gottlieb was in her senior year at Brown. It was time to figure out what was next. Her friends were applying to law school, medical school, graduate school. Gottlieb wanted to be a basketball coach.

So she sent a letter to every single Division I coach, nearly 300 of them. Her mailbox filled with responses.

"Most of them were form letters, people saying, 'Thank you for your interest, we have no positions, but we will keep you on file,'" Gottlieb said. "But I got one hand-written letter back."

It was from Tara VanDerveer.

Fifteen years later, Gottlieb, now the head coach at Cal, stood outside of the locker room in Spokane Arena, her Bears having just earned a spot in their first Elite Eight.

Her phone buzzed. It was VanDerveer. Her Stanford team had been eliminated in the game before, in the same Spokane Regional, and she was offering to help Gottlieb and her staff prepare for their next game.

"In that moment of disappointment for her program, she reached out," Gottlieb said. "She's not insecure about anyone else's success. She has accomplished all she has without degrading anyone else."

Colorado coach JR Payne got hired at Santa Clara in 2014. Guess who was among the first to call her?

"I didn't know Tara," Payne said. "I don't even know how she got my number. She told me if I needed anything, to call, and she told me she was rooting for us because she always wanted the teams in the Bay Area to do well. It was amazing to me that she would take the time to do that."

VanDerveer, a Naismith Hall of Famer and women's sports pioneer, is about to add to her legacy, poised to become just the third coach in NCAA basketball history to reach 1,000 wins, joining Pat Summitt and Duke's Mike Krzyzewski. She gets her first opportunity to reach the mark Friday against Southern California at Maples Pavilion.

All she has done for the game -- two national championships, 11 Final Fours, an Olympic victory, the stream of All-Americans who can quote "Tara-isms" off the top of their head long after they've left The Farm -- that's all about her. But it has never been only about her.

"You can feel it when she talks to you, she wants you to be successful," said Arizona's Adia Barnes, in her first season as a head coach. "She loves women's basketball, she promotes women's basketball. And she's so comfortable in her own skin because she has nothing to prove."

But after 39 years as a head coach, she has plenty to share.

VanDerveer owns a big family home in upstate New York, near Lake Chautauqua. She opens the home every summer to any coach who wants to come to the lake and talk basketball. And maybe work in a little water skiing.

She is a phone call or a text away for anyone else who needs an ear, a play, pep talk or a little brutal truth.

"I think I've always tried to be available," said VanDerveer, who has a .814 winning percentage and has won 22 Pac-12 regular-season titles. "I'm happy to share my passion for the game. I want to be a mentor for young coaches and all coaches."

Barnes, who competed against VanDerveer's Stanford teams when she starred at Arizona in the late '90s, grabbed a moment with VanDerveer at Pac-12 media day in October. VanDerveer told her to keep a journal of her first season as head coach, to remember the moments, to keep track of the things that did and didn't work.

"She's not insecure about anyone else's success. She has accomplished all she has without degrading anyone else." Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb

Stories from coaches up and down the West Coast are rife with these moments with one of the greatest coaches in basketball history.

VanDerveer's own program has been a training ground for coaches who moved on to build their own programs, such as Arizona State's Charli Turner Thorne, who played for VanDerveer at Stanford, and Washington State's June Daugherty. Dozens of former players such as Jennifer Azzi, Nicole Powell, Vanessa Nygaard and Kate Paye have followed in her coaching footsteps.

Paye, whose father and brother were star athletes at Stanford, was 11 years old when she first met VanDerveer.

"Other than my parents," Paye said, "Tara is the biggest mentor in my life."

Paye played for VanDerveer and then returned to coach for her, having spent 10 years on Stanford's bench. Paye was elevated this season to associate head coach.

"As a player, Tara teaches you that the most important thing is how to be a good teammate," Paye said. "Over the course of your life, you understand that she was really teaching you how to be a good person."

Chiney Ogwumike, an All-American and the Pac-12's all-time scoring leader when she graduated from Stanford in 2014, agrees, adding that VanDerveer always made it a priority for her players to do things "the right way."

"She taught us how to become adults, to be on time, to write thank you notes, to shake someone's hand and look them in the eye," Ogwumike said. "Honestly, it's hard sometimes, to go hard on every possession or to go to class on days when you didn't feel well. But those things really shape you as a person."

Ogwumike said that by graduation time, "Tara becomes your family."

"I've been injured twice now, and my mom's first call isn't to the doctor, it's to Coach Tara, and if she's not coaching a game, she will always answer the phone, even if it's in the middle of practice," said Ogwumike, a forward for the WNBA's Connecticut Sun who underwent surgery on her Achilles in December.

"She's been there for me in my biggest moments of need. She offered me to stay at her house and rehab at Stanford. She's always been super generous. She knows you gave her your blood, sweat and tears, and she gives you herself in return."

A lifeline to friends and peers

Paye has heard the same story more than once.

"Head coaches, assistant coaches will tell me that they were out recruiting and Tara sat next to them, and she just started talking," Paye said. "She asks them questions, she's interested in what they have to say. It's not what they expect, I guess. Based on the perception of what a legendary Hall of Fame coach is supposed to be like, or what they think Tara might be like. They don't expect how down to earth and personable she is."

Marianne Stanley was out of a job and in a legal battle with USC over equal pay when VanDerveer brought her to Stanford to serve as the Cardinal's co-head coach. While VanDerveer stepped away to coach the 1996 Olympic team, Stanley and longtime Stanford assistant Amy Tucker led the Cardinal to the Final Four. Her career rejuvenated, Stanley moved on to coach at Cal and then to the WNBA.

Beth Burns had lost her job at Ohio State in 2004 when VanDerveer brought her in to serve as the Cardinal's strength and conditioning coach for two seasons. Burns eventually took the head-coaching job at San Diego State for the second time in her career and is currently the associate head coach at USC, which will try to postpone VanDerveer's milestone Friday.

"I affectionately call our program a recycling bin," said VanDerveer, who has guided Stanford to 28 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances. "We've tried to be a place for people who needed a reboot."

Burns chuckled, recalling the "recycling bin" reference from way back. And she means way back. Burns was a graduate assistant for VanDerveer at Ohio State in the early 1980s.

"Without question, Tara is all about 'lean on me,'" Burns said. "She's beloved among other coaches because she is the person next door. She doesn't care if you are a JV coach or an NBA coach, she just wants to talk basketball.

"She doesn't have self-importance. She has an ego -- you can't be that successful without it -- but she's good at making people feel valued."

"You can feel it when she talks to you, she wants you to be successful." Arizona coach Adia Barnes

Daugherty has coached against her mentor for more than two decades. But Daugherty began her coaching career for VanDerveer, as a graduate assistant at Ohio State, and she was an assistant at Stanford from 1985-89.

She remembers the early days on The Farm, walking from Maples Pavilion back to the athletic department building with VanDerveer, marveling at the head coach's single-mindedness in the face of decisive defeats.

"I just remember asking her what motivated her to be so fired up every single day," Daugherty said. "And I remember her saying, 'June, we just got beat by Kentucky by 50 points. We need to get better.' And she just kept walking to go break down film and prepare. She's so self-motivated about being great. Not good, great."

Azzi said VanDerveer "very appropriately cautioned me" when she took her first head-coaching job at USF in 2010.

"The program was so down when I took it over, and she was concerned about me," Azzi said. "But once I said yes, she was there for me, whatever I needed. All I had to do was pick up the phone. It meant a lot to me to have her in my life in that capacity."

VanDerveer -- who led Stanford to five consecutive Final Fours from 2008-12 -- has been the consummate advocate for West Coast basketball, even when the conference's profile wasn't nearly what it is now. She continues to root for her conference brethren, even as they improve their programs and threaten Stanford's dominance in the league she has owned for nearly three decades.

Make no mistake, Powell said -- for all of her sage advice, VanDerveer is still the competitive perfectionist she always was.

"She is always striving for the perfect game," Powell said. "It's what drives her. She's her own motivator. It's all internal. She has never been overwhelmed with her own success where she thinks she doesn't need to do things the hard way. She doesn't cut corners, and that's why she's the best of the best."

VanDerveer will share this hallowed place in women's basketball history with Summitt, her longtime friend who died at age 64 in June 2016, five years after being diagnosed with early onset dementia, Alzheimer's type.

"The thing they have in common is their love for women's basketball and the way they genuinely care about the kids they coach," said Tennessee coach Holly Warlick, Summitt's successor. "They are pioneers, but they are more than that. They hold their programs to high standards, they have their beliefs about how things should be done and they stick to them."

"She doesn't have self-importance. She has an ego -- you can't be that successful without it -- but she's good at making people feel valued." Beth Burns, associate head coach at USC

Twenty-five years have passed since VanDerveer won an NCAA title. Only those without regard for history would say that gap diminishes her legacy.

"Maybe what she's done for the game is lost a little bit on this generation," Daugherty said, "but anyone who has been around the game for more than a couple of decades appreciates what she's accomplished and continues to accomplish."

For VanDerveer, sharing this place in history with Summitt is a mixed blessing.

"Actually, it makes me sad," VanDerveer said. "Pat accomplished so much and she couldn't enjoy it. It's bittersweet, and it makes me feel old. Maybe it will hit me later. I think in the moment I will feel excited for my team, that this team will get to be part of a special night.

"What's more important to me is the 1,000 positive interactions you have with players and other coaches. The memories you have of the people who played for you and who are important to you. That, to me, is most important."