Tara VanDeveer has lived through the women’s basketball transition from no opportunties through Title IX to the WNBA

J.P. Plutt
Wednesday, May 11, 2022
Top of the ladder

Stanford University Women’s Basketball Coach Tara Vandeveer, the all-time women’s basketball win record holder, gave the Commencement Address on Saturday to the University of Montana Western graduating class of 2022. J.P. Plutt photo

Stanford women’s basketball coach Tara VanDeveer has posted the most wins by a head coach in women’s basketball history with a stellar 1,157-259 record. As stunning as the win total is, with just 259 losses, her winning percentage is an astonishing 81.7%. In just the last two years since COVID canceled 2019-2020 season, VanDeveer’s Cardinal won the 2021 NCAA National Championship with a 31-2 record, her third national title at Stanford, and then followed with a 32-4 record and Final Four appearance at the most recent March Madness in 2022.

All journeys begin with a first step and surprisingly, VanDeveer’s first win as a college head coach with the University of Idaho Vandals during the 1978-79 season came over the Northern Montana Skylights of the Frontier Conference, 80 to 78. Western is a long-time member of the Frontier Conference.

Vikki Howard, Ph.D., is now a professor of education at the University of Montana Western and the coordinator of the UMW Special Education Program, but in 1978-79 Howard was a senior on the Idaho Vandals team coached by VanDeveer that held on for the win over the Skylights. Howard and VanDeveer would become lifelong friends and VanDeveer first tread the halls of UMW as the guest speaker for the first Night of Stars UMW Education Hall of Fame Ceremony in 2013. That ceremony was organized by Howard and it was through the connection with Howard that the most successful college coach in women’s basketball history addressed the University of Montana Western graduates as the commencement speaker on Saturday.

As surprising as it was to learn that the high profile coach would be the headliner in Dillon, during the ceremony it was revealed that it was her first-ever go as a commencement speaker. You wouldn’t be able to tell as the coach with the engaging personality had the full house at Straugh Gym wrapped around her finger as she told stories of her journey through the world of basketball.

In an interview following the ceremony, VanDeveer expanded on the tidbit. The Western ceremony was the first college graduation ceremony that she had ever attended. She could not make her own college graduations, neither for her undergraduate degree in sociology at Indiana nor for her master’s degree in sports administration at Ohio State. When she graduated from high school, the tradition at the preparatory academy she attended her senior year was to wear the school uniform at graduation, so Saturday was the first time in her life that VanDeveer had worn a graduation ceremony robe.

She has worn an Olympic gold medal, jogged with the President of the United States, played basketball with the female members of the Supreme Court of the United States on the “highest court in all of the land,” three times flashed the smile of an NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament national champion, and given inductee speeches upon her entry into seven different halls of fame, including the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame, the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, and the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

But as a youth in Schnectady, New York, she would have loved the chance to wear a simple basketball uniform in an organized game. She found that boys would more likely let her play in pick-up games if she brought the best ball to the court. “If they wanted to use my ball, they had to let me play.”

“When I was growing up as a young girl, basically there were no sports for girls,” said VanDeveer. “I did not play on any organized teams. I love all sports but I loved, loved, loved basketball. In fact, I tried out as the mascot for the school that I went to so that I could go watch the boys play. I got fired after two weeks because instead of leading the cheers I was watching the game.”

The team’s mascot was a bear, and VanDeveer, focused on the game, took the bear head off and enjoyed the hoops, neglecting her job as a person who was supposed to look away from the court and lead the student section in cheers.

After attending high schools in Schenectady and Niagara Falls, she played her senior season for a college prep school on the Albany campus and graduated high school in 1971. After one college year at Albany, she transferred to Indiana.

“Title IX passed in June of 1972 and I had just finished my freshman year,” recalled VanDeveer. “There were no scholarships for years. I think scholarships came in a year or two after I graduated.”

At Indiana, Vandeveer’s head coach was a graduate assistant while the men’s team was coached by Bobby Knight (three NCAA titles and 902 career wins), “and they had assistant, assistant, assistant, charter planes,” VanDeveer recalled. “We washed our own uniforms, bought our own shoes, stayed four to a room, and rode in vans. I was not on scholarship so I worked as a waitress. I always give a good tip if a waitress is good.”

VanDeveer graduated from Indiana and headed home, intent on pursing a law degree. While she was moping around the house, her dad issued an edict. “You’re going to coach your sisters team.”

Women’s basketball was still a couple decades away from the professional opportunities of the WNBA and basketball, which had been a passion of VanDeveer’s for most of her life, still had a hold of the girls heart who, “Loved, loved, loved basketball.”

The season coaching her sister’s high school team lead to working basketball camps. With high school and college basketball program’s popping up all over the country, there was a definite shortage of female coaches.

“If you were at camp and they were hiring somebody and they would say, ‘Who do you know?’ They’d call these people that ran these camps, so I got a volunteer job as a coach for two years at Ohio State University,” stated VanDeveer.

While at Columbus, VanDeveer earned a master’s degree and then accepted an offer to be the head coach at the University of Idaho. In two season, from 1978-80, VanDeveer posted a 41-14 record and established a winning template that would carry her to the pinnacle of women’s basketball coaching. Ohio State hired her from Idaho and in five years heading the Buckeyes, she posted a 110-37 record. VanDeveer took the Stanford job in 1986 and her first year the team put up a 13-15 record. By year three, her team went 27-5 and earned an NCAA tournament bid, a tourney experience that has repeated every single season since the first time in 1988,

VanDeveer’s tenure at Stanford, which this past Sunday reached exactly 38 years, endured a self-imposed hiatus in 1996 when she accepted the task of coaching the USA Basketball’s Women’s National Team. In 1992, the USA men’s “Dream Team” of professional basketball stars captured the world’s attention during their gold medal run at Barcelona, Spain. The women limped to a bronze medal win over Cuba. With the 1996 Olympic Games set for Atlanta, Georgia there would be only one result option on the women’s team menu.

VanDeveer said that the plan did not include bronze, it did not include silver, it was about gold. In previous Olympics, the team and coach would get together shortly before the games, practice for a short time, get in a few games and then head off to the Olympics.

The 1996 team committed to the plan and when they stood atop the podium at Atlanta to put their hands over their hearts during the playing of the National Anthem, they had just run their record as the USA National Team to 60-0.

David Stern, the commissioner of the NBA, had taken a personal interest in TEAM USA.

“The NBA supported the national team which I coached before it became the Olympic team,” said VanDeveer. “I met with David Stern and basically, they were setting up the WNBA through the National Team. David Stern was behind the WNBA and getting that going.”

Stern founded the WNBA in 1996 and the league began playing games in 1997. The league is still viable and playing at arenas near you.

VanDeveer, after enjoying an incredible Olympic victory tour as the coach of the darlings of the 1996 Games, returned to Stanford and resumed her coaching excellence knowing that the 1996 gold sparked a focus for the women and they have won all seven Olympic gold medals in women’s basketball since the 1996 run at Atlanta.

So VanDeveer’s life has spanned a time when a little girl couldn’t even play organized basketball, to the 1972 adoption of Title IX that promised equal access to sport opportunities for women, to a wildly successful coaching career that has her wearing the mantle of all-time winner. Her coaching acumen merged with the brilliant business mind of NBA Commissioner David Stern and the magical energy of the 1996 United States of America Women’s Basketball National Team and their highly-publicized run to Olympic Gold, to spawn the WNBA.’

“Now, when I tell this story at basketball camps to eight-year-old girls about not being able to play, not having a basketball camp, no scholarship, no games on television, no professional basketball, no Olympics for women, they look at me like I have two heads,” said VanDeveer. “I think it has really changed. There is a lot of basketball for girls and boys. A lot of stuff we never did have. I think boys are more accepting of girls playing sports. Back in the day it was an oddity. Now all girls play sports. We live in a different age.”

But for the long-time advocate for equity in women’s athletics, VanDeveer feels there is still room to improve that position.

“We’re celebrating the 50th anniversary of Title IX this June but still last year (2021) they had the bubbles for NCAA men’s basketball and NCAA women’s basketball and the NCAA was exposed for the disparity that was the difference between what was happening with the men’s tournament versus the women’s tournament, it went viral on social media,” commented VanDeveer. “Now the NCAA did a big study and hopefully there is change that is going to happen. This year there was some changes. The women were able to use the branding of March Madness. The men had not allowed the women to do that until this year and that does not even cost them any money. Sometimes you feel like you’re taking two steps forward and one step back. It has been very frustrating, very painful, so we’re just hoping that going forward moms and dads say ‘I want fairness going forward.’”