Stanford women's basketball coach Tara VanDerveer defined by sustained excellence

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)

Christy Hedgpeth and her family had just watched on television as Stanford's women's basketball team beat Auburn for the 1990 NCAA title. About an hour later, the phone rang. "It's for you," Hedgpeth's mom said. "It's Tara."

Tara VanDerveer, the coach who had just won her first national championship, was calling Hedgpeth, a high school senior standout in North Carolina who was leaning toward Stanford but hadn't committed.

"I was just a little bit reluctant to go that far away from home," said Hedgpeth, now the WNBA's chief operating officer. "Tara said, 'Hey, Christy, we really believe if you join us, you'll be part of future championships.' I kind of got butterflies. And it was just like Tara: Even right after winning the title, she was already thinking ahead."

That was victory No. 266 for VanDerveer, and it sealed the deal on the recruitment of Hedgpeth, who then helped Stanford win the 1992 NCAA title.

On Tuesday, VanDerveer became the all-time leader in Division I women's basketball with her 1,099th win, passing late Tennessee legend Pat Summitt. The record-breaker came at Pacific, a 104-61 victory with no fans present because of the coronavirus pandemic. The low-key environment to culminate such a colossal achievement -- spread over 42 years of both growing the sport and growing with it -- fit VanDerveer.

"I've gotten to know her a little bit over the years, and I've always loved her sort of understated presence," Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. "She's understated, but she's clearly in charge. When you're in the room with her, you feel like, 'OK, she's the boss.' But she doesn't need to yell and scream. It's more just poise and knowledge, and players feel that."

Like any coach who is at the top for so long, VanDerveer has had to make adjustments and change with the times. Now 67, she still has the hilarious dry sarcasm, but she has gained perspective, an appreciation for the everyday moments in practice and in communicating with players. There is something so fundamentally dependable about VanDerveer. She has such bedrock decency, dignity and compassion.

The number of victories puts her in the spotlight now, where she deserves to be. But that isn't where she is most comfortable, and the victories are not what defines her. Neither, for that matter, are the national championships. Stanford hasn't won it all since 1992, despite 10 subsequent trips to the Final Four.

"They've come so close so many times. All of us are tuned in, and we couldn't be rooting any harder," Hedgpeth said of Stanford alumnae. "But the sustained excellence is incredible. Returning to the Final Four, graduating players, innovating the game -- all these things, I feel like, are still a little underappreciated."

VanDerveer honors Summitt after reaching coaching milestone

Tara VanDerveer joins SVP to discuss her coaching milestone, passing Pat Summitt and the challenges of playing during the pandemic. VanDerveer also gives a shout-out to her mom.

They shouldn't be. VanDerveer hasn't just been a coach with terrific teams for decades. She has also been the paragon of success for all of West Coast women's basketball. The Pac-12 is now one of the top leagues in women's basketball. VanDerveer, who has won or shared 23 Pac-12 regular-season titles and won 13 of the 19 league tournaments, always used her pulpit to build up the entire conference, even in years when the talent beyond the Cardinal was on the lean side.

VanDerveer's insistence on being the best drove the 1996 U.S. Olympic team to a gold medal, and the Americans haven't lost at the Summer Games since. Several Stanford graduates have gone on to succeed in the WNBA.

VanDerveer not only has a coaching tree, but also several of her former players have important positions administratively in professional basketball. That includes Hedgpeth, Bethany Donaphin and Jayne Appel-Marinelli at the WNBA level and Amy Brooks and Jamila Wideman in the NBA.

Stanford University prepares student-athletes for high achievement. But it still takes the right person at the helm to make the most of the opportunity.

"The program Tara cultured most definitely prepared me for roles I didn't realize I'd have in the future," said Los Angeles Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike, who is president of the WNBA Players Association's executive committee. "Through diligence and hard work, she helped me understand that there is excellence in the smallest tasks, both on and off the court. It's certainly a part of my leadership style to this day."

Ogwumike went to the Final Four four times with Stanford, was the WNBA's No. 1 draft pick in 2012 and was the league's MVP in 2016, when the Sparks won the title. In the past year, Ogwumike has been a critical part of negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement, reaching a deal on playing the 2020 season in a "bubble" and making sure the league followed through on promises to players that social justice would be paramount in 2020 and going forward.

That is a lot beyond being a professional athlete, and it reflects the lessons on preparation and responsibility that VanDerveer has always taught.

As Kerr said, "There's just this army of players who she recruits to come through there, and then she coaches them up, and just year after year, they win. It's not easy to do that as a coach. Your voice can get old."

Tara VanDerveer, Stanford celebrate wins record

Tara VanDerveer surpasses Pat Summitt for most wins in NCAA women's college basketball (1,099) with a win vs. Pacific, and the Cardinal celebrate the accomplishment.

But VanDerveer has stayed contemporary. She has dealt with the disappointment of not winning another NCAA title with some pragmatism. Consider that in the 11 Women's Final Fours they didn't win, the Cardinal have lost to the eventual champion nine times. Six of those were to UConn or Tennessee, the two most successful programs in women's hoops history, which combine for 19 of the sport's 38 NCAA titles. The closest Stanford has come to winning the title since 1992 was a 2008 NCAA final loss to Candace Parker-led Tennessee and a 2010 NCAA final loss to Maya Moore-led UConn. Those are two of the greatest players in women's basketball history.

Stanford has had plenty of stars, too, from Jennifer Azzi to Val Whiting to Kate Starbird to Nicole Powell to Candice Wiggins to Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike to Erica McCall to Alanna Smith to current standouts Kiana Williams and Haley Jones.

Maybe there is another NCAA championship (or even more than one) still out there for VanDerveer. Regardless, her legacy is set. VanDerveer is at 1,099 victories and counting. But what counts most is that her influence on basketball will continue indefinitely.

"College is formative for everyone, but I'd say Tara in particular has a huge influence on her players that lasts, I think, forever," Hedgpeth said. "Settling for nothing less than your best. Challenging yourself with ambitious goals. Gaining what becomes an innate understanding of teamwork and sacrificing to accomplish things that matter. It's super-imprinted in all of us. What's so great about coaches like Tara is that they live on in so many ways beyond wins."