Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 17, 2020

A Quiet Climb To The Top

There are any number of more famous college coaches. Even fans who have time for only professional games know the historical figures, like Bear Bryant or John Wooden. One need not be a devoted follower of college sports to recognize the names of active coaches who have achieved celebrity status, whether it’s Nick Saban or Mike Krzyzewski, to name but two. Perhaps proving that there is no such thing as bad publicity, even those with tarnished reputations, say Rick Pitino for example, will elicit a nod of recognition from most fans when their names are called.

All those and others come quickly to mind, but one can narrow the field down to just the single collegiate sport in question – women’s basketball – and still other names, such as the late Pat Summitt or the still very active Geno Auriemma will roll off the tongues of fans, including close followers of the annual march to the Women’s Final Four, before they will think to mention Tara VanDerveer. But Tuesday night, when her Stanford squad overwhelmed Pacific 104-61, sports fans were reminded that she ranks with all those more prominent coaches, for with the win VanDerveer notched her 1,099th career victory, one more than Summitt and a handful ahead of Auriemma, making her the winningest coach in the history of women’s college basketball.

Statistics are the lifeblood of sports, and every one of our games is littered with scores of “most” records. Sometimes the holders have earned their place simply through longevity. A coach doesn’t come to the very brink of 1,100 wins without spending many years guiding teams from the sideline, but those at the top of women’s college basketball’s victory list, whether VanDerveer, Summitt, or Auriemma, have done far more than simply hang around.

For many years, and right up until the dread diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s forced her into retirement in 2012, Summitt was the face of women’s basketball. It was a visage that was, on game days at least, almost always stern. The icy Summitt Stare, as it came to be known, could cause opponents, officials, and sportswriters to quail, but it was at its most frigid when directed at a player on one of her University of Tennessee teams. She expected something close to perfection from her charges, and what is remarkable given the inherently impossible nature of that demand was how hard members of the Lady Vols worked to give just that to Summitt, and how remarkably close they often came.

In contrast, Auriemma has steadfastly cultivated a public image that is more outgoing and garrulous. After her diagnosis Summitt organized a foundation to raise money and awareness about her disease, and naturally started a website for the charity. Auriemma’s self-named website is all about him and his various commercial ventures. But while he seldom passes by a microphone – when the Associated Press needed a quote on the NCAA’s recent decision to stage next spring’s women’s tournament in a single location, he was readily available to provide one – on the court Auriemma inspires confidence and loyalty from his UConn Huskies players every bit as great as that which Tennessee women gave to Summitt.

VanDerveer is neither as severe as Summitt nor as media savvy as Auriemma. But she is every bit as single-minded and brings a life spent in basketball to the sideline of every game. Despite a lack of family encouragement – what good was basketball for a young girl’s future – she fell in love with the game while growing up west of Albany, New York. She played in both high school and college, with the last three years of the latter at the University of Indiana. There she would attend practices of the men’s team, watching the coaching methods of Bobby Knight. That experience gave her valuable insights without infecting her with Knight’s outrageous temper and bullying style. She put what she learned to good use, first at the University of Idaho, then at Ohio State, before taking over what was then a dreadful Stanford team in 1985. VanDerveer’s Buckeyes had climbed into the top ten in the national rankings and advanced to the Elite Eight at the 1985 women’s tournament, while the Cardinal women’s most recent record of 9-19 looked good only when compared to their previous season’s 5-23 mark.

But by her third season in California, the first with her own recruits, Stanford’s record was 27-5. Two years later the Cardinal won the 1990 national championship, an achievement that VanDerveer’s squad duplicated in 1992. Since then, Stanford has been a constant in the NCAA tournament while never posting a losing regular season record and only twice failing to win at least 20 games. The days when Cardinal home games were played in front of 300 or fewer fans, as was the case when VanDerveer arrived on campus, are a very distant memory.

Last spring the Cardinal finished the regular season at 27-6, ranked number 6 in the country. Her charges were looking forward to a deep run into March Madness when the tournament, like all sports, suddenly stopped. Now college basketball is back, though VanDerveer is quick to question the logic of that as the pandemic rages ever more fiercely. She’s joined in her concerns by Auriemma, and Krzyzewski, and even Pitino, though all of them, at least so far, have concluded that they alone cannot pull the plug on the season. In VanDerveer’s case, that means taking her team to Las Vegas for recent “home” games, after Santa Clara County officials barred games and practices from taking place.

Stanford was the visiting squad on Pacific’s campus Tuesday night, though that hardly mattered as the Cardinal overwhelmed the Tigers. With her team ranked number one in the country and her place at the top of her profession in hand, one might expect VanDerveer to bask in the limelight. But that is not her style. In advance of the record win she said, “I’m not going to get a day off. And I’ll hope our country is one step closer to being healthy and that things can go back to normal.” Short on Summitt’s drama, lacking Auriemma’s style, but reflecting a lifetime of commitment and common sense. And winning, of course. A whole lot of winning.

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