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VanDerveer passes Coach K for most wins in college basketball history

On the day she became the college basketball coach with the most wins in history, Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer didn’t deviate from her regular schedule. She planned to play bridge.

Yes, you read that correctly. A woman who has won three national titles and been to 14 Final Fours, the person widely considered the best strategist to ever coach in the women’s game, someone whose career win-loss record (1,203-267) has no match, plays bridge. Every day, if she can. 

And it might be the secret to her longevity.

VanDerveer, 70, passed Hall of Famer and former Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski as the winningest coach in college basketball on Sunday with her 1,203rd victory. No. 8 Stanford defeated Oregon State 65-56 two days after she tied the record on Friday with an 88-63 over Oregon. In between those wins, she had planned to do her best to schedule her daily game of bridge against her mom, 96-year-old Rita VanDerveer. 

“I think bridge is a lot like basketball,” VanDerveer told USA TODAY Sports. “You’ve gotta play the hand you’re dealt. You’ve gotta maximize the cards you have. Sometimes you’ve got a lot of aces, and sometimes you don’t.” 

During the pandemic, when Rita was isolated in Colorado, Tara and her sisters — she’s the oldest of five children — played bridge every day to help their mom fend off loneliness. Tara continues to find time for it now, adding to an already packed schedule that includes practice, staff meetings, walking her dogs and morning workout swims with Katie Ledecky (seriously). 

VanDerveer, now in her 45th year of coaching and 38th at Stanford, has always been good about finding balance. Other interests were necessary, probably because of what her parents told her when she was a kid. Get inside and finish your algebra homework, they’d say, because “basketball won’t take you anywhere.” 

Throughout the years, as she traveled the world coaching games with Stanford and the 1996 Olympic team, VanDerveer sent them postcards from all her international stops, letting them know just where hoops had, in fact, helped her go. 

Coaching for 45 years, Tara VanDerveer says, ‘What’s not to be happy about?’

But for all the accolades and passport stamps Tara has accumulated, Rita is most impressed by this: Her daughter, she told USA TODAY Sports, is a happy person. 

“She’s always had the capacity to enjoy life, enjoy people,” Rita said. “I just think it’s wonderful to be around someone who chooses to be happy.” 

Tara’s take: “I mean, look where I live. I work at Stanford, we’ve got a beautiful campus, I get to swim outside every morning with Olympians. I work with great people, we have a fantastic team. Basketball is an upbeat sport. What’s not to be happy about?”

When was the last time you talked to a college football coach with that perspective? 

In working at one of the most elite academic institutions in America, few would expect VanDerveer to regularly compete for national championships. It’s so tough to get into Stanford, VanDerveer’s recruiting pool is significantly smaller than her peers’. (At the 2022 Final Four, former All-American Diana Taurasi said the school told her she “was not Stanford material.” She played at UConn instead.)

And yet, someone who’s won more than 1,200 games clearly has standards for herself. 

“The idea of pressure, it’s all I know,” VanDerveer said. “I’ve been a head coach since I was 24 … but at the same time, I don’t think I’m defined by just being a basketball coach. I want to be a good daughter, a good sister, a good friend.” 

Again, not the big-picture take you hear often from people in big-time college sports. 

And yes, women’s basketball is big-time now, something VanDerveer has waited for her whole life. She’s not sure if it’s accurate to label the current explosion in popularity as “a women’s basketball renaissance,” but she knows this much: people are finally paying attention to the game she has loved for more than 50 years. 

“I think that sometimes, the public thinks that women’s basketball just sprouted up out of nowhere,” she said. “But we’ve had great players and a great game for a long time. I dreamed about what I’m seeing now — and isn’t it cool to see your dreams come true?” 

Don’t expect Coach K-type celebration

How much longer VanDerveer will stick around on the sidelines is anyone’s guess. Yes, four-plus decades of coaching have taken a toll on her. (Last week during the Cardinal’s 71-59 loss at No. 3 Colorado, Buffs point guard Jaylyn Sherrod collided with her on the sideline, cracking one of VanDerveer’s ribs). But every time Rita checks in on her oldest daughter after a stinging loss or a tough season, Tara’s answer is the same: “Mother, we just have to regroup, and work hard again.”

When Tara won her 1,000th game in 2017, the Cardinal celebrated with an on-court ceremony where Tara quipped she was “moving on to win 1,001.” Insiders understood the subtext: Can we please stop talking about this already? She probably feels similarly now. And while specials celebrating Coach K’s achievements have aired on ESPN, don’t expect anything similar when Tara hits the milestone. 

Said sister Heidi, the head coach at UC-San Diego and one of Tara’s closest confidants: “If we tried to do something like that for Tara, she wouldn’t come to the gym.” 

Though Tara acknowledged that being the winningest coach in the history of college basketball is noteworthy, she’s not motivated by records. If she were, she wouldn’t have taken the 1995-96 season off to coach the Olympic team; if she’d stayed at Stanford then instead of handing the reins to long-time assistant Amy Tucker, this record would have happened last January. 

What she cares about is helping her players get better. 

“I want to be able to take a player somewhere they can’t get by themselves,” she said. 

So she’s ready to stop all this talk about a record. She needs to watch more film, study a different opponent, talk to another recruit on the phone. And yes, play another bridge game. 

Follow Lindsay Schnell on social media @Lindsay_Schnell

This post appeared first on USA TODAY

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