Only fitting that Azzi was part of VanDerveer's landmark victory
SAN FRANCISCO -- Tara VanDerveer didn't mean for it to work out the way it did. The Stanford coach would have been perfectly happy to join the 800-win club on the road, either at DePaul last week or in Tennessee last Sunday.
But it took three tries to get No. 800. And the eventual setting seemed, as she said, "so apropos."
The venue for VanDerveer to join a group that includes just five other women's coaches was the University of San Francisco, just 30 miles from the Stanford campus. That turned the eventual celebration into a virtual home game for the Cardinal, with many of the fans who have been supporting VanDerveer for two decades in the stands waving red "800" signs.
More significantly, sitting on the other bench, coaching the home team, was Jennifer Azzi. Her efforts helped VanDerveer get to No. 800 quite a few years earlier than she might have otherwise.
"I didn't plan it this way, I didn't want it to happen this way," said VanDerveer, who was honored with the game ball and flowers at midcourt. "But it was very moving and very memorable to me."
Azzi is in her first year coaching at USF. Katy Steding is her assistant coach. The two were part of VanDerveer's first recruiting class.
During Azzi's four years at Stanford, VanDerveer won 101 games, transforming her team from bottom feeder to NCAA champion.
Azzi later was part of the USA Basketball team that won 60 straight games under VanDerveer, culminating with a gold medal at the 1996 Olympic Games.
"I've played more games for her than anyone," Azzi said, as she contemplated VanDerveer's march toward 800. VanDerveer joins Pat Summit, Jody Conradt, Sylvia Hatchell, C. Vivian Stringer and Barbara Stevens of Division II Bentley, who just hit No. 800 on Sunday.
Azzi is trying to do what VanDerveer did a quarter century ago -- rebuild a moribund program. But she needs to sign her own Azzi and Steding to do it. The class she inherited at USF -- after being hired in April --has only won two games. Azzi wasn't thrilled when she saw Stanford on her pre-conference schedule when she took the job. And on Wednesday, after starting out with an inspired effort in the first half, Azzi's team was hopelessly outmatched for most of the game, losing 100-45.
But it was another learning experience, complete with the Hall of Fame coach from the other team coming into the USF locker room and giving the team a postgame pep talk about having self-belief and an identity.
"She's such a brilliant mind and has had such an impact on my life, not just in basketball," Azzi said. "I'm really happy, on some odd level, that this happened here at USF."
So is VanDerveer, because USF provided a window of opportunity for No. 800 in her by-design brutal pre-conference schedule. The stunning 20-point loss at No. 22 DePaul came with preseason All-American forward Kayla Pedersen on the bench, suffering from headaches.
Attempt No. 2 came days later at Tennessee. That series has continued since 1988, when VanDerveer started playing the Lady Vols, in part because Azzi was from nearby Oak Ridge, Tennessee. VanDerveer joked that if Azzi had been from somewhere else she would have hit No. 800 a year ago, since her team has lost 22 games in the series against Tennessee.
Next up on Stanford's schedule: home games against No. 4 Xavier and world-conquering top-ranked UConn. The UConn game on Dec. 30 is a rematch of last year's national title game. UConn won that game but neither team can look back fondly on how it played -- both shot miserably (Stanford a miserable .265 and the Huskies not much better at .328).
Stanford was the last team to beat UConn, in the 2008 Final Four semifinal game and there's some thought the Huskies might be ripe for a letdown after setting the NCAA record for consecutive wins.
"It's exciting," VanDerveer said. "That's what Jennifer and Katy created by winning a national championship and putting us on the national map. Now we play teams like Xavier and Connecticut."
It was a full circle kind of night. And at the end of it, the two coaches -- mentor and protégé -- had dinner plans.
"I'm paying," Azzi said. "We lost."