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Game On

Tara VanDerveer took the Cardinal from doormat to dynamo and helped boost women's athletics. But as far as she's concerned, it's still a work in progress.

Photo: Manuello Paganelli

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Watch photographer Manuello Paganelli capture the energy of women's basketball coach Tara VanDerveer and players Nnemkadi Ogumwike, '10, Jeanette Pohlen, '11, Jayne Appel, '10, and Rosalyn Gold-Onwude, '10.

By Mike Antonucci

Her father told her that Stanford was a coach's graveyard. Her friends reminded her that she already had a terrific job, where her success had been quick and durable. But when the time for a decision arrived, Tara VanDerveer gambled on her vision of what Stanford women's basketball could become.

"In retrospect," she says, "it was a little crazy."

Perhaps only VanDerveer remembers exactly how fragile things were when she moved to the Farm in the spring of 1985. She left a robust program she built at Ohio State—110 wins and four Big Ten titles in five years—to lead a Stanford team coming off 5-23 and 9-19 seasons. Indeed, VanDerveer's Buckeyes had defeated the Stanford team she would inherit 79-47. Before leaving Columbus, VanDerveer, a former guard at Indiana University, played in a pickup game against her Ohio State players. She played another with her new Cardinal players upon arriving in Palo Alto. Shocked by the disparity in talent at the two schools, VanDerveer wondered if she had signed on to a nightmare.

But she was enticed by the beauty of the campus, the magnitude of the University and the very adversities that argued against her decision. "It was kind of like the ultimate challenge," she says.

Five seasons later, Stanford went 32-1 and won the NCAA title.

van derveer piano video poster
VIDEO: Stanford women's basketball coach Tara VanDerveer provides an unabashed sample of her piano technique.

As she looks back now, VanDerveer, 56, is crystal clear about how good a fit Stanford has been for her. The cascade of her accomplishments includes NCAA tournament appearances every year since 1987, 17 Pac-10 titles and two national championships. And she started this season with her team ranked No. 2 in the nation. "I go to work happy every day," she declares.

Much of her sense of fulfillment comes from guiding Stanford's brand of academically excellent athletes: "The reward is the opportunity to coach the type of person that is attracted to Stanford." She remains exuberant about life on campus, as when she jumped on Twitter recently to proclaim "Wow" about meeting U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts Jr.

But no matter how gratifying each additional season is, she can't or won't feel as confident as her record would seem to warrant. Told that a newspaper columnist referred to her program as a flourishing "dynasty," VanDerveer makes a face suggesting both discomfort and scorn. "A coach is always on thin ice," she says.

With everything she has achieved, plus a current squad that may be as talented and deep as her best teams from the past, could one of the most successful basketball coaches in Division I really be that wary about the future?

Heidi VanDerveer, head coach of the women's team at Occidental College, says that when her sister talks like that, "It just shows how competitive and driven she is. That doesn't mean you don't enjoy the success you've had. You just don't linger on it. You stay focused."

Over the years, the image of VanDerveer has taken two forms, one warm and engaging, one not so much. People close to her extol the congenial Tara, reeling off anecdotes about her deadpan wisecracks and nonchalant candor. The "other" Tara has been characterized as humorless and unapproachable—a description that dumbfounds friends and colleagues, even allowing for differences between a coach's on- and off-court personalities.

VanDerveer is self-aware about all of it. "Who knows why people get ideas about you?" she says. But then she recites the reasons, including the distance she sometimes needs to keep between herself and others to make the difficult decisions that come with being a head coach. There's also the influence of what she calls "video Tara," the accumulation of dozens of televised games in which her stern sideline presence makes her appear more severe than she is in person. Finally, there is this: "I'm actually shy."

At some times and in some ways, VanDerveer's reserve is evident. It doesn't stop her, however, from pursuing a vast range of activities and fascinations. Her midlife plunge into learning the piano is one example. She makes CDs of herself tackling composers such as Diabelli and Mozart and hands them out to almost anyone curious to listen. She always requests a piano in the hotels when the Cardinal is on the road and plays unguardedly for kitchen staffs. The workers often are around when she practices, and she delights in their comments about how much she has improved from one year's visit to the next.

She also has performed for sportswriters, and they found more than just a diverting slice-of-life story in reporting about it. "When she took up piano," recalls Ann Killion, a former columnist at the San Jose Mercury News, "a lot of her players and friends said it really changed her. It made her less obsessed professionally and made her more sympathetic to players because of how difficult things can be to learn."

The defining yin and yang for VanDerveer appears to be toughness and tenderness. She demonstrates the former as needed; it's the latter that people close to her often mention.

"You can't show both sides to everybody and be successful," says Jennifer Azzi, '90, a star on Stanford's first national champion team who also played for VanDerveer on the U.S. Olympic squad that won the 1996 gold medal. "She's very sensitive and caring and compassionate, but balances that with an on-off switch in order to be successful."

Azzi, inducted last year into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame, has a flood of memories about playing for VanDerveer. They were two determined individuals who were figuring out how to deal with each other while leading a program to national prominence. "Was she hard on me? Absolutely," Azzi says. "There were times when I felt like I must be the worst player who ever lived." On the other hand, "I felt she was really good at listening to players and being responsive to them. . . . I don't think there was ever a time when we couldn't get on the same page."

Her friendship with VanDerveer keeps growing. "I can call her up any hour of the day, and she's going to be there for me. And that also would be true for many other players," Azzi says.

The kinder, gentler Tara is instantly apparent upon a visit to her Menlo Park home. As visitors are ushered in, they quickly notice a cooing sound—it's VanDerveer making baby talk to her beloved dogs, Scout, a golden retriever, and Buddy, a Labrador-golden retriever mix. The house seems a refuge of contentment, where VanDerveer can reflect on her life beyond coaching.

The house features, no surprise, a grand piano. When VanDerveer sits down to play, Scout spreads out on the floor behind her while Buddy sprawls under the piano, close to her feet. "He's my biggest fan," she says dryly. "My mother might be second."

Conversation can range from her affection for sailing and the cabin she owns in Minnesota to her fondness for cooking ("I make a lot of salmon"). She points out a coffee-table book about Chautauqua, N.Y., where she spent childhood summers. Raised in upstate New York, the eldest of five children, VanDerveer says her experiences in Chautauqua were so formative that "If there's anything that's me, that's me."

Chautauqua, a small lakeside town in the western corner of the state, is famous for a cultural center and resort founded in the 19th century. Her time there, says VanDerveer, kindled an enduring love of the arts and education. The family house was mostly used as an inn, but continuing the business was a problem after her father's death. "My mother said she felt she had to sell it," explains VanDerveer, "so I said, 'Then I have to buy it.'" VanDerveer visits every summer without fail. "I just feel like I'm trying to recreate my youth."

Practice is over and the Stanford women's basketball team is gathered with VanDerveer and her assistant coaches at center court. "OK," she says to the group, "who got yelled at a little bit today?"

More than a few raise their hands. Later, VanDerveer explains that players who get yelled at generally have improved to a critical threshold: Now she's counting on them. "If you're getting yelled at, we're going to need you. Be ready for a higher standard."

The current team includes some of the nation's most highly prized recruits, a collection only a few elite programs can match. And in November, VanDerveer received a commitment from the country's top-ranked high school player, Chiney Ogwumike.

Her recruiting prowess is probably VanDerveer's most crucial attribute. Prior to her arrival, says Andy Geiger, the former athletic director who lured VanDerveer from Ohio State, Stanford did not land the best recruits from the relatively small pool of players who qualified for admission. He figured that VanDerveer could change that.

Almost immediately, his hunch was proven right. Azzi was part of VanDerveer's first class of recruits, helping to set the tone for the extraordinary success that followed.

Associate head coach and recruiting coordinator Amy Tucker says VanDerveer excels at evaluating potential recruits and projecting how they might fit in and improve at Stanford. But beyond that, says Tucker, is her skill at making a connection with prospects early in the process. "The first contact with a player is likely to be on the phone. And Tara is great on the phone," notes Tucker. "She's a great listener. She's very engaged with kids about what's important to them. I don't think that is always easy."

Once they're in the fold, players encounter the full effect of VanDerveer as a demanding teacher, ferocious trainer and superior strategist. That covers everything from a mastery of the fundamentals—tutoring players in handling a ball or releasing a shot, for example—to dissecting game film of opponents. Assistant coach and former player Bobbie Kelsey, '95, says VanDerveer's analysis of film to gain an edge is a signature strength. "Especially with the big opponents—Duke, Tennessee, UConn, for example—I bet for each one of them she watches 10 of their games, whole games, all by herself. That separates her from other coaches. Most other coaches don't put in that kind of work."

When she was a player, adds Kelsey, she always felt the trickle-down effect as VanDerveer readied her team for games. "I always felt better prepared because I knew she knew. She had it hands down."

Charli Turner Thorne, '88, is in her 14th season as head women's coach at Arizona State. She was a sophomore at Stanford when VanDerveer began remaking the program. "I thought the first year [under VanDerveer's predecessor] was really hard," recalls Turner Thorne, "and then I sat down with Tara and she was like, 'You better be the best conditioned player you can be.' She's going to get the best out of you. She's going to challenge you and push you. It helped me get the most out of my experience. I felt like I gave everything I had."

Virginia Sourlis, '86, was a senior when VanDerveer arrived. Before VanDerveer, says Sourlis, the team's identity amounted to "playing and having fun." That was replaced immediately by "playing and wanting to win a national championship."

The payoff came quickly. The first NCAA title occurred in the 1989-90 season with a talent-laden team that included Azzi, Sonja Henning, '91, Katy Steding, '90, and Trisha Stevens, '91. Two seasons later, a squad led by Val Whiting, '93, and Molly Goodenbour, '93, captured the second championship banner.

When VanDerveer took a season away to coach the Olympic team, she presided over a roster of charismatic players that included Lisa Leslie, Teresa Edwards, Sheryl Swoopes and Azzi. The squad went 52-0 leading up to the Games and 8-0 in Olympic competition, winning by an average margin of 29 points. The team's dominating success sent interest in the women's game soaring, as VanDerveer noted in an autobiography that followed: Shooting from the Outside: How a Coach and Her Olympic Team Transformed Women's Basketball.

VanDerveer says she began to feel more relaxed after the Olympics and that her coaching style became more flexible and patient. In recent seasons, she has become particularly sensitive to the way her time with players flies by.

"In some ways," she says, "it's as if you go from being a parent to a grandparent. You realize the time is so short. Thinking about that, I feel like I enjoy being their coach even more. . . . A lot less bothers me now."

For confirmation of this, says VanDerveer, ask Kelsey or Kate Paye, '95, JD/MBA '03, who played for the Cardinal and are assistant coaches now. For Kelsey, the question is amusingly tricky. Has VanDerveer really changed? "Yes and no," says Kelsey, chuckling.

"She used to be a little tougher—but that's not to say she's not tough on these kids, too. It's like going home and seeing a younger sibling do some things you would never have gotten away with. Kate and I tell her, 'Momma, you would never have let us pull that.'"

VanDerveer's most recent contract extension runs through the 2011-12 season. She says the pact prohibits her from talking about what she earns, so that leaves to speculation how much of a raise she got over a previous deal that was estimated in the range of $500,000 annually. The most successful women's coach, eight-time national title winner Pat Summitt of Tennessee, reportedly has a contract that paid her a base salary of $325,000 last season and includes bonuses that brings her total salary to over $1.5 million.

Summitt's epic success, and that of Connecticut's Geno Auriemma, whose Huskies have won six national titles, gives critics an opening with VanDerveer. To some, the failure to win it all in recent years smudges VanDerveer's otherwise stellar résumé.

She set the bar by winning two national championships early in her Stanford tenure. But there hasn't been another, even though the Cardinal has reached the Elite Eight three times and the Final Four twice over the last six seasons. The Candice Wiggins-led team of 2007-08 lost the championship game to Tennessee. Sportswriters who were entertained with informal piano concerts from VanDerveer in the Elite Eight years ('04, '05 and '06) decided they needed to abandon them so that the team could break the jinx and make it through to the Final Four ('08 and '09). "I think it's a spurious correlation," VanDerveer quips.

She admits to disappointment about the way some seasons turned out. But she believes her teams "have overachieved much more than underachieved" and argues that it's unrealistic to judge a coach by something as elusive as the NCAA title.

The issue will either be pointedly defused or increasingly prominent in the next few years. Not only is this season's team a national contender, the next couple of squads could be as well. Star center Jayne Appel and feisty guard Rosalyn Gold-Onwude are the only seniors. Versatile forward Kayla Pedersen and guard Jeanette Pohlen are juniors, as is J.J. Hones, a guard and ballhandling quarterback who's fighting back from injury. Sophomore forward Nnemkadi Ogwumike is fast maturing into one of the country's top players, and next season will be joined by her sister, Chiney, for what figures to be a formidable front line. Beyond all those names are others of potential all-star caliber who provide exceptional depth to the roster.

Will everyone develop in sync? Will the team adapt and thrive as each new challenge comes its way? These are the pivotal questions and the ones that VanDerveer recognizes as being about life, not just hoops.

"I'm like our team—a work in progress," she says. "And I like working at it."

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