Just weeks after coaching the U.S. women's basketball team to
the Olympic gold medal, Tara VanDerveer stood next to Stanford
junior forward Olympia Scott in the Galleria dell'Accademia in
Florence during the Cardinal's five-game August tour through
Italy. As her teammates stood awestruck before the 18-foot
sculpture David, Scott explained to VanDerveer how Michelangelo
had been criticized for sculpting the body proportions all
wrong: The hands and head, it was said, were too big. "That was
probably intentional," reasoned Scott, a veteran of art history
101. "After all, these are the hands that slew Goliath. You
don't see much of the slingshot because that's not the focus.
And look at the head: The emphasis is clearly on his wits."
"That's when I knew," says VanDerveer, "that I was back with the
After living for a year in an environment in which basketball
was the single focus of everyone around her, VanDerveer is back
in a place where the game has to share time with the nurturing
of wits. Instead of coaching professional athletes, she is
coaching student-athletes (emphasis on student). Instead of an
Olympic gold medal, her goal this year is an NCAA championship.
But anyone who wonders if the 43-year-old VanDerveer is
ambivalent about her return to the Farm, where she had coached
for 10 years before taking a one-year break to head up the
national team, should consider the following. "Last year my
entire focus was on the national team, and I wore nothing with
STANFORD on it--only USA gear, down to the jog bra," says
VanDerveer. "Now I've put my USA things away and am only wearing
Stanford stuff again. I'm totally focused on Stanford."
Not that her thoughts last year didn't frequently turn to the
action taking place at Stanford's Maples Pavilion. VanDerveer
may not have been wearing Cardinal warmups, but she was on the
phone regularly with interim coach Amy Tucker, plotting the
offense that both Stanford and the national team would use. When
her schedule allowed, she attended Cardinal games and practices,
keeping her shouted remarks from the stands to those of a more
cheerleaderly nature. Even as she was taking the national team
to a 60-0 around-the-world tour de force, her presence at
Stanford, somehow, was constant. "We'd joke about Tara's ghost
drifting around Maples," says All-America shooting guard Kate
Starbird. "Even when she wasn't there, we knew she would
eventually see the tapes."
November 15, 1996
As fond as VanDerveer is of video, she doesn't need it to
recognize the potential of the players back in her charge.
Though two-sport star Kristin Folkl has decided to focus on
playing volleyball this year, the Cardinal brings back a group
of nine upperclassmen, including all five starters--seniors
Starbird, Charmin Smith and Jamila Wideman and juniors Scott and
Vanessa Nygaard--from a team that finished last season with a
surprising 29-3 record and a Final Four appearance under Tucker
(who has returned to her assistant's position) and co-coach
Marianne Stanley (who is now the coach at Cal). Stanford ended
its last three seasons at one NCAA regional final and two Final
Fours, which only serves to strengthen its national championship
cause. As one of the signs in the Cardinal locker room reminds
players daily, THE HUNGRY LION HUNTS BEST.
"This isn't about pressure," says Scott. "If I were going in to
do brain surgery, that would be pressure, because I don't know
anything about brain surgery. But we are so prepared for this,
we want this championship so badly. This is about desire, about
Stanford's players may be hungry, but how hungry can their coach
be after all she achieved in the last year? "I was in a state of
pure panic all last year," says VanDerveer. "I knew I had to win
that gold medal. I'd never felt pressure like that. Being back
here with the goal of an NCAA title doesn't feel like pressure.
I just really want it for the players, because winning it is
such a great feeling. I want this year to be exciting, but I do
worry that it won't feel like a challenge. I guess the challenge
will be this: People have said, 'You're going to be exhausted;
you won't have the energy or the concentration to take Stanford
all the way.' That will be the challenge, to take on the
doubters. I know I need to go on vacation, and I look forward to
being on a beach someday. But right now, I can't think about
that. This is where I am, and I'm excited to be here."
And so VanDerveer is back at Stanford, doing what she
half-jokingly calls her mission in life: pushing people out of
their comfort zone. "Just hearing Tara's voice is like hearing
your alarm go off in the morning," says junior center Naomi
Mulitauaopele. "You get a burst of anxiety--it's like a wake-up
"We'll play faster, and we'll be more aggressive on defense and
rebounding," says VanDerveer, who is not going to let her
experience coaching the world's best team go to waste. "We can't
be these nice girls from Palo Alto."
Adds Scott, "I honestly believed I worked as hard as I possibly
could last year, but I am already working harder this year."
That news should delight VanDerveer, who once described her
coaching philosophy in one word: work. When asked to elaborate,
she said, "Hard work."
"Tara is very demanding, very driven, and she works very, very
hard," says Wideman. "I know that when she wakes up every
morning and gets on her bike, her mind is on us and how she can
make us better players."
When she climbs onto one of the two exercise bikes at her home
in Menlo Park, VanDerveer often fixes her eyes on a TV screen,
where she can watch her favorite program any time of day. It
might be Stanford vs. UMass, 1995, or Stanford vs. Holy Cross,
1989, or Stanford vs. Tennessee, 1994. "I'm a video junkie," she
says. "I like using it as a teaching tool, and I like to see
what I missed." Video VanDerveer, as she is known around the
school's state-of-the-art editing facility, is so devoted to the
half-inch tape that she records every Stanford practice as well
as every game. Two assistants spend some 20 hours a week
breaking all the film down by subject --shooting, rebounding,
passing and defense. Every Cardinal player has to watch tape of
her own performance for a minimum of 30 minutes a week. In
addition, each player receives a goal sheet each week with very
specific objectives, like "make your outlet passes higher" or
"go to your right more." "The players are probably thankful that
we're limited to coaching them 20 hours a week," says Tucker.
"I'm hard on them, but I want their experience here to be
special," says VanDerveer. "I want them to have fun, but I'm not
comfortable with mediocrity. Stanford stands for more than that."
The school's high standards have been both a blessing and a
curse for VanDerveer in her quest to build the program from one
of deserved obscurity--the hapless Card went a combined 14-42 in
the two years before VanDerveer's arrival in 1985--to a national
powerhouse. When Stanford decided to get serious about women's
basketball and offered the post to VanDerveer, then the coach at
Ohio State, her father, Dunbar, warned her not to take the job.
"With their high academic standards," he told her, "you'll never
be able to get the players you need to win." That view was
shared by a number of VanDerveer's colleagues in the coaching
ranks. When then USC coach Linda Sharp heard that VanDerveer was
trying to recruit some of the nation's top players in her first
year in Palo Alto, Sharp clucked and said, "No, Tara, a Stanford
player has a ponytail and won't take a charge."
VanDerveer has simply outworked others to get the players she
wanted. Her first important recruiting coup came in 1986, when
she used the lure of a Stanford education to whisk All-America
guard Jennifer Azzi, an Oak Ridge, Tenn., native, right out of
the Lady Vols' backyard. Azzi was followed the next year by high
school stars Sonja Henning and Trisha Stevens, who have in turn
been followed by a steady stream of top players.
VanDerveer recruits players who are the opposite of the athlete
she says she was at Indiana in the mid-'70s--"I want people who
can shoot, play defense and are in shape," she says--and she is
usually successful in getting them to buy into her starless team
concept. "I think there is a correlation between good students
and work ethic," she says. "We may not be the most athletic
team, but we'll have the best conditioning. We're going to
outwork everybody else."
That hard-work ethos has done well by the Cardinal. Since 1988,
Stanford has never finished worse than the Sweet 16 and has been
to the Final Four five times, winning the national championship
twice, in 1990 and 1992. Home attendance at Maples has gone from
"I-could-count-them-on-my-fingers," says VanDerveer, to about
5,000 a game, and that success has allowed VanDerveer to command
a salary roughly equal to that of Cardinal men's coach Mike
Montgomery. Stanford led all schools in the number of former
players drafted for the new women's professional American
Basketball League. (VanDerveer thinks her current roster has
eight or nine players who could play professionally.) What's
more, the graduation rate of VanDerveer's players is an
astounding 100%. It is a remarkable success story, but it has
hardly made recruiting a cakewalk.
"There is a perception that players just fall into our laps
here," says Tucker. "That is totally false. We get no breaks
from the admissions office. Nine out of 10 players can't get in
here. We have to find the one who can get in and can compete at
this level. That boils down to about six players we can go after
every year, and it's absolutely critical that we get them. It
doesn't give us a lot of room to consider chemistry. But this
place attracts very motivated people who are already used to
outworking others. When you put them in an environment with
other people like them, they thrive."
Smith, the senior guard, received a recruiting letter from
Stanford during her freshman year in high school in St. Louis.
"I thought it was a nerdy place, and I stuck the letter in the
back of a drawer," says Smith, a civil engineering major
concentrating in structural analysis. She changed her mind when
Stanford won its first NCAA title. "When I heard that, I
thought, Stanford?" she says. "Now I couldn't imagine being
anyplace else. It is the best combination of athletics and
academics you could ask for. You have to compete in both the
classroom and on the court. I love it here."
In Italy, Smith took notes on the structure of the Pantheon and,
like her teammates, was eager to see everything she could cram
in, even sites that weren't originally on the itinerary, like
the Boboli Gardens of Florence. "The tour guide was amazed,"
says Tucker. "He had just been with a men's team that only
wanted to sit in their Paris hotel rooms and play poker."
Tucker and the rest of the Stanford staff are used to dealing
with such unrestrained curiosity. "The university wants
diversity--they want people who are free-spirited, creative
thinkers who challenge the status quo," says Tucker. "Our
players want to know why we are doing something. It's always,
'What's the purpose of this drill?'" Adds VanDerveer, "This
place is not for every student-athlete, and it's not for every
coach. Some coaches would go nuts with all the questions they
VanDerveer knows as well as anybody that this is what a
university experience should be all about. So the question for
her now is, When will coaching at Stanford become a little too
well situated in her comfort zone? Is the Farm still a big
enough pasture? "So many people are so supportive of our program
here," she says. "There's not a better place to be in college
athletics. But you want to feel like you're making a difference.
I felt guilty leaving last year, and I was the happiest person
that Stanford did so well. But it made me think that maybe there
are other things I can do. Last year changed me; it changed all
of us. And the landscape of women's athletics is changing so
much. There are a lot of different opportunities now."
Rumors swirl that VanDerveer might be enticed by an opportunity
in men's sports. "There is no doubt in my mind that a coach can
coach both men and women, just as a professor can teach both men
and women," she says. "But in sports, sexism seems more dominant
than the will to win. If you asked Richard Quick, our women's
swimming coach, if he could coach men, I'm sure he'd say yes. If
you asked Dick Gould, our women's tennis coach, if he could
coach men, I'm sure he'd say yes. But if you ask me, a woman, if
I can coach men and I say yes, people get all bent out of shape.
Besides, I resent the idea that coaching men is somehow a step
up from coaching women. But I might do it for the challenge of
proving wrong the doubters--or if someone were willing to pay me
what [Kentucky coach] Rick Pitino makes."
For now, the famous VanDerveer focus remains in Maples Pavilion,
where the school's three national championship banners (the
Stanford men won the title in 1942) are starting to get a little
lonely. "I've looked a lot at the big banners hanging in there,"
"I think there's room for more."