March Madness’s Winningest Coach

Tara VanDerveer has been a basketball coach and icon for many years. Here's what you need to know about March Madness's Winningest Coach.
Tara VanDerveer, March Madness Winning Coach

She’s three months from her 71st birthday and still runs around with a group of college students half a century younger, each one a ball of energy. Their genuine camaraderie is even more unusual because the young ladies of Gen Z must work hard to keep up with the Baby Boomer who could be their grandmother.

We’re not talking about a superwoman septuagenarian who competes in sprints with 20-year-olds or imbibes multiple margaritas without slurring a single syllable.

This 70-year-old is Tara VanDerveer. For those of you who don’t follow women’s sports, she’s been the head women’s basketball coach at Stanford University since 1985, when she was just 31. Quite an accomplishment alone, but during her tenure – so far – she led the Stanford Cardinal team to win a dizzying number of titles, tournaments, and championships. She garnered a string of prestigious awards and honors. And she racked up Olympic and Goodwill Games medals somewhere in between.

Tara earned her biggest accomplishment yet on December 20, 2023, when she won her 1,203rd game. That stat gave her the distinction of becoming the head coach with the most wins in college basketball history, women’s, or men’s!

This week she’s with her winning team in Cleveland to compete in the renowned National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) March Madness Tournament. What’s more, there’s no indication Tara plans to permanently step away from the net any time soon.

Even if you’ve never watched one basketball game, and your interest in sports is below zero, this woman is an inspiration.

Thousands of French citizens may have marched in the streets of Paris last year to protest their government’s decision to raise the retirement age to 64 from 62. The only place 71-year-old Tara plans to march is back to Palo Alto, CA, to continue holding court with the Cardinal.

What Makes Tara Run?

Like 75-year-old actor Meryl Streep, age has not diminished any of the numerous attributes that define Tara’s greatness. Talent, drive, passion, discipline, love of learning, self-confidence, hard work, and adaptability lead the short list.

Oops, one more thing: Humility. While Tara loves winning and might bask in the (literal) moment of victory, she soon reverts to those qualities that make her a winner in the first place. Savoring a record “isn’t in my nature,” she said. Continually pursuing excellence and learning are more her style. 

“Tara VanDerveer is one of the best coaches of any sport on this planet because of her ability to change and to cater to the abilities of her athletes,” said David Shaw, former head coach of the Stanford Cardinal football team.  “She gives them a standard to grow and reach their peak. It’s not just about rolling the balls out there. It’s about practice, expectation, heart, and humility and, at the same time, excellence,” he emphasized.

Tara also identifies with the needs of each team member. “She taught me how to be a true leader, instilled in me how to relate to every single player, from the 1st down to the 15th,” said a former Stanford athlete. “Everyone has to matter, and you have to meet a player where she is in order to bring her with you.”

Where It Began

Tara fell in love with basketball in elementary school. The oldest of five children, she grew up in a buzzing neighborhood in upstate Schenectady, NY. Her educator parents looked forward to taking the siblings to the YMCA on Friday nights to bounce on the trampoline and swim in the pool. 

“I did every sport you could imagine,” Tara once told an interviewer. “I believe it was the fourth grade, in P.E. class, when we learned the three-player weave (a warmup exercise), and I thought that was the coolest thing ever.”  Tara became hooked on that one drill. “I just got crazy about basketball. I played all the time in the neighborhood,” she said.

Tara wouldn’t let anything separate her from her young love. She adored basketball at its core, from its strategies and maneuvers to the skills it required.  When the neighborhood boys didn’t want her to play, she bought “the best basketball” to get them to change their minds. “They’d have to let me play if they wanted the ball,” she reasoned.  And they did.

Her keen abilities to turn potential obstacles like this into opportunities, and adapt to new situations, have only intensified over the decades.

When team personnel were in flux, Tara studied – and embraced – another team’s offensive strategy, deciding it would be a better fit for her players. It worked. The team won.

Unable to play at home during the Covid pandemic, and competing before empty bleachers, Tara and her girls would celebrate with cupcakes back at the hotel, grateful to be together. “It’s more fun to be playing and practicing under those tough conditions than sitting at home,” she said.      

“There’s a joy (in coaching) when it fits you, and I think Tara is wired to do this,” said Jennifer Azzi, who played on Tara’s first national championship team. “She’s not jumping up and down all the time. She has more of an inner joy, just a calmness about her. She’s doing her destiny,” Jennifer added.

Self Confidence & Kindness in Her DNA

Videos of Tara and her 96-year-old mother Rita reveal their mutual love and respect, not to mention their electric energy.  Still vibrant at age 96, Rita revels in Tara’s accomplishments.

“Who would have imagined that the joy you found in 4th grade PE would evolve into a wondrous journey?” Rita wrote in a letter to Tara published on the Stanford website. “…how wonderful it has been to cheer for you along your basketball path. Now what a grand happening as you are celebrated, and we can applaud your achievement.”

Blessed to have non-stop motherly love and understanding, Tara developed a level of self-confidence that eluded many in her generation. Her parents didn’t keep score what they gave each of their five children. “They simply understood what each of us needed,” Tara explained.

This is precisely how this celebrated coach has interacted with hundreds of student athletes over the decades. And, just as Tara knows her self-worth, she’s taught her players to know theirs.

“Tara is one of the first people in my life who really vocalized how limiting non-belief in yourself can be. It’s comfortable being in a safe place. But fearing you won’t attain greatness when you’re seeking it is worse than not trying, and that’s something I learned from her,” said another former player.

Although Tara can’t bottle her greatness and self-confidence for the rest of the world, she offers a bit of wisdom to fellow Baby Boomers on staying relevant in a younger workplace: “Show your younger colleagues that you can take them to a place they can’t reach by themselves.

“Be yourself, but don’t fight change. Young people are the only ones who have grown up with technology — they live on their phones — and with a pandemic. Understand where they’re coming from.”

And remember, “nothing great is ever accomplished without enthusiasm,” said the 71-year-old whose gusto doesn’t go into hiding off the courts. Tara adores water skiing, cycling, and swimming, classical music and playing the piano.

Tara VanDerveer may be called “the winningest person in college basketball,” but that only skims the service.

Feature Image Courtesy of Tony Avelar/AP

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