Legendary Coach Tara VanDerveer Ends Four-Decade Reign in Women’s Basketball

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Once upon a time, long before Dawn Staley had ever dreamed of a remarkable undefeated season or hoisted a championship trophy, there was a mentor named Tara VanDerveer. The halls echo her name in reverence. It is a story passed down among the members of the women’s basketball circuit like an old folk tale. It lives in the memories of Cori Close, Lindsay Gottlieb, Charmin Smith, Charli Turner Thorne, and Kate Paye, who has been chosen as the successor of the legendary coach.

In the wood-paneled gymnasiums and polished corridors of women’s basketball, an epic tale could be heard about the Hall of Fame Stanford coach who went out of her way to guide and carve young talent into future champions during her prolifically decorated four-decade career. Now, this guiding light of American women’s basketball announces her retirement and ends her reign with a breathtaking flourish.

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VanDerveer, in a career that has seen 38 seasons of wrestling victories from the competitive fire of the Stanford women’s team, hailed as the winningest basketball coach in NCAA history, decided to turn off the court lights one last time on Tuesday night. Her coaching career spanned 45 years and three universities, racking up an astounding 1,216 victories at Idaho, Ohio State and, of course, Stanford University.

“Basketball,” she often reflected, “is the greatest group project there is…” Her humility somewhat downplaying the staggering trail of victories she leaves behind.

VanDerveer’s farewell to the world of coaching seems to be a passing baton to Kate Paye. A former Stanford player who wore the Cardinal from 1991-95, Paye has coached under VanDerveer’s tutelage for the last seventeen years. The master-apprentice legacy of Tara VanDerveer lives on.

Even opponents recall an extended hand of friendship. Lindsay Gottlieb still vividly remembers how VanDerveer reached out when her Southern California team faced the formidable Georgia Bulldogs. Her kindness extended long after the ball had ceased to bounce on the court. Many others too recall her gracious visits to their locker rooms, offering a postgame pep talk or a pat on the back.

But the times are changing. Stanford, who fell to N.C. State in a regional semi-final after a second-round home defeat to Mississippi last season, now heads to the Atlantic Coast Conference after the dissolution of the Pac-12.

VanDerveer’s hauntingly beautiful farewell echoes in the much-loved court: “The joy for me was in the journey of each season, seeing a group of young women work hard for each other and form an unbreakable bond. Winning was a byproduct…” The legend steps down but leaves behind a game that is so much richer for her presence.

VanDerveer’s last day on the court is due on May 8, marking her 39th anniversary of hiring. A new chapter awaits her in an advisory role to the athletic department.

The heartfelt tributes, from the 2008 Final Four squad’s Rosalyn Gold-Onwude to California coach and former Stanford player and assistant Charmin Smith, echo with gratitude and admiration for a coach who, despite her intimidating accomplishments, was always known for her humility and humanity.

For Tara VanDerveer, every dribble, every dunk, and every triumphant cheer was a step towards promoting the sport she loves dearly. She was, after all, a little girl once who fell in love with a bouncing ball and a netted basket and built an empire out of it. A resounding ‘yes’ echoes across women’s basketball, agreeing that VanDerveer indeed gave far more than a little bit back to the game she so adores. As she steps away, the game will miss her…. This much is certain.