One of Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer’s favorite analogies is that good basketball teams are like an orchestra. Everyone keeps the beat alive while a different soloist shines each night.
It was the conductor’s turn to stand in the spotlight again and take a bow, not only for No. 8 Stanford's 65-56 Pac-12 victory over Oregon State, but for a lifetime of success not yet seen in the sport. VanDerveer is now the all-time winningest coach in Division I college basketball history with 1,203 career victories after surpassing legendary Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s record of 1,202.
"It means I’ve coached a lot of great players, have a great staff, worked at great universities," VanDerveer said on the broadcast. "I’m just so blessed and so thankful."
Chants of “TARA” from the crowd as the clock ticks down pic.twitter.com/Vtqhdj9Xbe
— marisa ingemi ✨ (@Marisa_Ingemi) January 21, 2024
VanDerveer started the 2023-24 season 17 wins from breaking the record. The Cardinal lost to Gonzaga in December and on the road to Colorado on Jan. 14, delaying VanDerveer's pursuit but setting up the opportunity to break the mark in front of the home crowd at Maples Pavilion.
VanDerveer already held the NCAA Division I women’s basketball wins record after passing the late legend Pat Summitt in December 2020. The pair are among six women's coaches who have reached 1,000 wins. Summit won 1,098 games at Tennessee, which stood as the all-time mark until Krzyzewski eclipsed it in March 2018. He retired four years later.
The Stanford team presented VanDerveer with an oversized black jacket that read “T-Dawg” on the back after she eclipsed Summitt's mark. Senior Cameron Brink promised on the “Nothing But Net” podcast the team was planning something special for VanDerveer's latest record-breaking moment.
Connecticut head coach Geno Auriemma is third on the all-time list with 1,196 wins and should pass Krzyzewski’s mark by the end of the season. Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder holds the third-most wins of active Division I women’s coaches with 868. All three lead teams are favored to win their conferences and make deep runs in the NCAA tournament.
VanDerveer’s consistency leads to record
VanDerveer, 70, is in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame (2011) and the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame (2002) largely for her success over 38 years at Stanford. She is 1,203-267 (.818) all time in her 45-year career that includes two seasons at Idaho (42-14) and five seasons at Ohio State (110-37).
“Anybody who is capable of putting up those kinds of numbers has obviously benefited from longevity and being consistent,” Auriemma told reporters at the Hall of Fame Showcase in December. “I don’t know any coaches that have been able to reach these kinds of milestones that haven’t been incredibly consistent. That there’s very little variance from year to year to year where you can expect certain things from their team.”
She took over the Cardinal program ahead of the 1985-86 season and missed the NCAA tournament her first two years before leading Stanford to every tourney that's taken place since. The Cardinal won it all in 1990, 1992 and 2021. The 29-year gap between titles is the longest for a coach of any NCAA Division I sport. After a disappointing second-round exit as a No. 1 seed last season, Stanford is looking to return to the Final Four for a 16th time.
“That's probably the one thing that when you look at Tara’s career at Ohio State or Stanford, there’s a style of play that they have and it hasn’t changed,” Auriemma said. “And she’s been immensely successful and it obviously is not an easy thing to do, especially in today’s day and age and the world that we live in today.”
Stanford hasn’t had a losing season since VanDerveer’s first. The program has lost 10 or more games in a season only six times and has won 20 or more in a season 38 times, an NCAA college basketball record. The team finished .900 or better 14 times. She was named national coach of the year five times ('88, ’89, ’90, ’91 and ’21) and Pac-12 Coach of the Year 17 times. Stanford has won 25 Pac-12 regular-season titles and 15 Pac-12 tournament titles in her tenure. She also took Idaho to the AIAW tournament and Ohio State to two NCAA tournaments with a Big Ten Coach of the Year award.
“Tara’s been a winner all her life and the fact that she’s able to serve our game for as long as she has means that she’s put herself in a situation where you just rattle off some stats. I’m really not surprised,” South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley, who is nearing 600 wins, told reporters at the Hall of Fame Showcase in December.
Two of VanDerveer’s players won the Wade Trophy (Candice Wiggins and Jennifer Azzi) and two won the Naismith (Kate Starbird and Azzi) as the nation’s best players. Thirty Stanford players have competed in WNBA regular-season games since the league began in 1997 and 13 of the 28 Stanford players drafted were first-round picks, including No. 1 overall pick siblings Nneka Ogwumike in 2012 and Chiney Ogwumike in 2014. Brink is a projected lottery pick in April’s draft.
VanDerveer's career highlighted by push for gender equality
VanDerveer, an Upstate New York native, grew up before Title IX prohibited sex discrimination in educational programs and activities that receive federal funds. She began playing basketball as a junior at Buffalo Seminary and eventually attended Indiana in the years after Title IX passed in 1972, though the NCAA didn't sponsor the sport until a decade later.
Over her career, she became a leader in Title IX issues and gender equality, calling the NCAA out for “blatant sexism” after the weight room disparities at the 2021 NCAA tournament. An ensuing equity report outlined "underlying gender, systemic equality issues" between the men's and women's tournaments, some of which have been rectified. She is one of the most vocal advocates for growing the collegiate game on the women’s side, from premier programs such as Stanford down to new DI schools attempting to make their way.
“I think when you look at some of the very top teams [in college] and you look at the scores of the games, we want to be a deeper sport,” VanDerveer told Yahoo Sports in 2019. “We want all teams to be somewhat competitive. We have a ways to go in terms of parity — not maybe [in the] top 20, top 30 or so, but developing all the way through Division I, all  teams. You’re always going to have some teams that are better than others. But really we want to have a deep, competitive field throughout.”
The record could have fallen earlier for VanDerveer. The COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of the NCAA tournament in 2020 and created scheduling problems in the 2020-21 season. She entered that season needing five wins to pass Summitt, but multiple games were canceled or postponed due to health and safety protocols. Stanford took a nine-week road trip when Santa Clara County restricted contact sports amid rising cases.
VanDerveer took a sabbatical from Stanford in the 1995-96 season to coach the USA Basketball team for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. The team went 52-0 in exhibition play and won gold, the first of an active streak of seven golds heading to the 2024 Paris Olympics in August.
Many of her Cardinal and Team USA players have gone on to coaching careers or executive jobs within basketball. Staley, the 1996 gold medal-winning point guard, went from playing for VanDerveer nearly three decades ago to coaching against her in highly ranked matchups. Stanford and South Carolina each reached the 2021 and 2022 Final Four.
“Tara is a coach who taught me a whole lot as a player,” Staley, who won championships coaching South Carolina in 2017 and 2022, said. “And the things that she taught me, I bring to coaching. My coaching style, breaking down film, making sure that players understand [and] are communicated with directly. Those are great qualities of a great coach.”