Chiney Ogwumike: Tara VanDerveer taught Stanford women's basketball to be 'great in the little things'

Tara VanDerveer's climb to 1,099 wins (2:53)

Chiney Ogwumike tells the story of Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer's rise to the top of women's college basketball. (2:53)

Flanked by a Naismith Hall of Fame trophy and multiple WNBA MVP awards in her home office, Lisa Leslie smiles, beaming widest as she pulls out a picture of an Olympic gold medal printed on computer paper and protected by a clear plastic sleeve.

More than two dozen years ago, Tara VanDerveer -- who stepped away from her head-coaching duties at Stanford to coach the U.S. women's national team -- gave every member of Team USA a similar piece of paper to embody their goal of winning Olympic gold in the upcoming 1996 Atlanta Games. It was a small gesture to signify the importance of delivering the ultimate achievement for the American women -- not knowing that their success on the world stage would be the catalyst for what would become the longest-standing U.S. women's professional sports league.

Today, VanDerveer is still inspiring Leslie, who says she continues to apply the coach's lessons and mantras to everyday life.

"[VanDerveer] gave all of us this medal before we ever won our first gold medal, and we always had this to look at," Leslie said. "And then all of these quotes. 'If you think you can, you can.' I love all of these positive quotes and affirmations that [she] has given to us."

On Tuesday, Coach Tara continued to do what she has always done: win. Stanford (5-0), the No. 1 women's college basketball team in the nation, beat Pacific 104-61 and took its coach's win total to 1,099. With that, VanDerveer surpassed the legendary Pat Summitt of Tennessee for the most victories all time in the women's game.

There were no fans to celebrate the achievement. No media scrums to deal with. Just a coach and her team.

But if you really know Coach Tara, you would understand that that's how she prefers it. She constantly preaches that "less is more." That strategy has worked for decades, and her routine is simple: study, scout, work hard. Rinse and repeat. She has been doing it every day for more than 40 years at Stanford, winning games and learning valuable lessons along the way. Throughout those experiences, Coach Tara naturally became a teacher, with a tremendous impact on so many.

No one understands this better than Billie Jean King. In October 2018, the icon and former Grand Slam champion teamed up with the Women's Sports Foundation to create the Tara VanDerveer Fund for the Advancement of Women in Coaching, which honors her work and passion for women in sport. King calls Coach Tara a "true leader, coach, teacher that has taught us how to win on and off the court."

It is one thing to watch history and another thing to be a part of it. As a high school junior from Cypress, Texas, in 2008, I took an official recruiting visit to Stanford and was blown away. It was the "Nerd Super Bowl." At the pregame tailgate for a Stanford football team that was making national waves boasting the likes of Andrew Luck, Richard Sherman and Doug Baldwin, I was instead floored by the chance to meet U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice before the game.

Coach Tara set that up for me. At that moment, I knew that in Tara I had found my new teacher, one who would push my horizons on and off the court beyond my imagination. I played for Stanford from 2010 to 2014.

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Condoleezza Rice, Billie Jean King, Steve Kerr, John Elway, Nneka Ogwumike and Lisa Leslie congratulate Tara VanDerveer on breaking the record for the most women's college basketball wins.

The highlight of my freshman year was ending UConn's 90-game winning streak. But in the locker room after that victory, Secretary Rice remembered from that pregame tailgate a couple of years before that I had an interest in international relations. She became my major advisor, eventually handing me my diploma on graduation day.

Then one day during the 2017 WNBA season, I was invited by Billie Jean King to present a lifetime coaching award to Coach Tara, and at the same event, I watched Secretary Rice win the tennis legend's namesake leadership award.

That is when things started to come full circle. Learning and achieving is a mindset you should surround yourself with each and every day, especially when it is hard. Trust me. I know this because I still get timely reminders from Coach Tara that she is available for film sessions because there is always room for improvement -- no matter what job you are doing or how successful you are.

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Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr often uses Coach Tara's campus, not only to train his team but also as an opportunity to pick the brain of one of the game's best. On Monday, one day after NBA preseason action tipped off, Kerr spent a portion of his media availability acknowledging Coach Tara's milestone.

"There are a lot of coaches that have had success for short periods of time, and very few have been able to sustain excellence for decades," he said. "The list is very short, and [Tara is] on that list."

Former Stanford quarterback John Elway, whose daughter, Jessica, played for Coach Tara in 2004-05, echoed those sentiments.

"I have learned that you can -- as she has proven -- win on the court as well as off the court and in the classroom," the Denver Broncos general manager and president of football operations said Sunday on the field at Bank of America Stadium before his team beat the Carolina Panthers.

Coach Tara and everything she has accomplished seems to be a story about basketball, but the truth is, it has always been about family. Coach Tara has dedicated her life to attention to detail and using her keen eye to help others succeed. That simple thing has now separated her in the history books.

Before she saw me, she saw my older sister, Nneka Ogwumike. She saw greatness in a young Nigerian-American girl from Houston, Texas, who had three sisters -- not knowing they would become All-Stars and champions.

When I asked my big sis what Coach Tara taught her, she responded without hesitation: "You can be great in the little things." Those little things can take you a long way.