Ann Killion
Thursday December 16th, 2010

Tonight Tara VanDerveer will attempt to record her 800th career win, a number that is mindboggling even to those who know her best.

"It's hard to wrap your brain around that kind of success," said Jennifer Azzi, who played more games for VanDerveer than any other player, first as a breakthrough star for Stanford and then on the 1996 Olympic team.

Azzi is even more impressed by VanDerveer's accomplishment these days. In her first year of coaching, she inherited a struggling program at the University of San Francisco. On Wednesday her team lost to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, bringing its record to 2-8. Next week, Azzi has the daunting task of facing her mentor, hosting Stanford.

VanDerveer, whose undefeated team will play at DePaul tonight, is now in her 32nd year of Division I coaching. She has averaged more than 25 wins a season. She is on the verge of joining an elite group that includes her friendly nemesis Pat Summitt of Tennessee, her mentor Bobby Knight and just a handful of other men and women.

"It means I'm old," said VanDerveer, 57.

But it also means that she's been able to withstand the forces of change in the women's game better than just about anyone, other than Summitt. She started out coaching in AIAW, before women's athletics joined the NCAA. She took over an unremarkable program at Stanford in 1985 and turned it into a national champion in five seasons. She won another title two seasons later.

VanDerveer took a sabbatical to guide the most high profile women's basketball team in history -- the 1996 Olympic team -- to a gold medal.

She returned to Stanford exhausted, and found it difficult to keep up with the very changes she helped to sow. Stanford lost an infamous first-round game to Harvard in 1998, the first in a string of frustrating seasons. But just when Stanford seemed to be left behind by the sea change happening in women's sports, VanDerveer adjusted. Her team has made the past three Final Fours and two of past three title games.

In the past two years, the Cardinal's season has ended with a loss to UConn. The two teams will meet again at Maples Pavilion on Dec. 30 in a title game rematch.

At a school known for much more than its sports programs, VanDerveer has created a lasting, legendary standard of excellence on the West Coast. "I'm thankful for the timing in my life," she said. "I didn't have a scholarship to play basketball. But I had the opportunity to coach."

She remembers her first win -- at her first Division I job in Idaho in 1978. "We were ahead and I said, 'Don't foul,' " she recalled. "So our team went out and fouled. I think we won in overtime."

And she remembers her very first game as a coach. After graduating from Indiana -- where she played basketball and spent every free minute watching Knight run practice -- she was planning to travel and then to go to law school. But she ran out of money and came home to her parents in upstate New York. Her father told her to go down to the high school and coach her sister Marie's team. They had lost 99-11 the night before and, as Mr. VanDerveer pointed out, they could use some help.

VanDerveer loved it.

"I don't think we won a game," she said. "But I knew I wanted to do it at a different level.

"And it reminded me that everyone is someone's sister. That's a lesson I learned right from the beginning. If I yelled at Marie, she would have quit and I would've been in trouble. Because I wouldn't have a place to live."

VanDerveer thinks that if she pursued a career as a lawyer she would have become a public defender, a champion of the underdog. Instead she pursued what was, at the time, an underdog of a career. Women's programs were just gaining strength, three years after the passage of Title IX.

She wrote letters to the top 20 schools in the country. Only Ohio State and USC responded and she went to Ohio State as a volunteer coach. She coached the junior varsity team to an 8-0 record, an accomplishment she proudly notes was her first undefeated team; her second was the 1996 Olympic team, which went 80-0.

VanDerveer worked at the school recreation center at 6 every morning, checking in students while wrapped in a sleeping bag in the freezing Quonset Hut building. She was on food stamps. She lived in a friend's trailer. "But I was happy," she said.

She turned down a job offer from Marianne Stanley for $15,000 so that she could finish her master's degree at Ohio State, instead accepting a $3,500 stipend to stay in Columbus. And then she got her job offer at Idaho.

Now she is a well-paid legend at one of the nation's finest universities. And the wins keep coming.

"I do not see myself as Joe Paterno," she said. "But I think I have some tread left on my tire."

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