The other women’s basketball milestone: 800 wins

Lost amid the power of the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team and the debate over how to compare men’s and women’s and sports, Tara VanDerveer quietly earned her 800th career coaching victory at Stanford.

It doesn’t seem like much of a surprise that VanDerveer’s accomplishment, while covered and praised, has been somewhat muted. Strong and competitive and knowledgeable, she doesn’t have the cult of personality of Geno Auriemma or Pat Summitt.

As Michelle Smith wrote in a great piece at AOL Fanhouse, VanDerveer is the professor of the top collegiate coaches. Her studious ways in the shadow of bigger-than-life coaches and her West Coast presence (which doesn’t make for good deadline copy on the East Coast) often underscore just what she’s accomplished.

VanDerveer became the fifth Division I coach to reach 800 career wins when Stanford defeated San Francisco Wednesday night. It was almost too perfect of a storyline to boot — VanDerveer’s record win came against a team coached by Jennifer Azzi, the first player VanDerveer ever recruited to Stanford.

To be honest, this excites me more than the 89 straight wins for UConn.

Growing up a sports fanatic, I looked for any opportunity to watch women on television, not just because I was a girl but because it helped to know that there were other girls who also liked sports. Girls could be athletes too, not just watch them. Outside of the Olympics my best bet was women’s college basketball, which was on sporadically. As I got older and understood the rarity of women’s sports on television, it was exciting to watch Stanford in the early 1990s win. Azzi was one of my favorite all-time players, vying with Dawn Staley for best point guard ever in my mind.

Later I learned that VanDerveer was from Buffalo. Well, kind of. Her family moved to Western New York while she was in high school. She graduated from Buffalo Seminary and spent most of her summers at the Chautauqua Institution — about 70 miles southeast of Buffalo. She went to college in Indiana and after a brief stint back home, left for a job at Ohio State then landed at Stanford in 1985.

She’s not exactly a native daughter. But we in Buffalo still like to claim her as our own.

And VanDerveer has returned to Buffalo several times, speaking at her high school alma mater, patiently answering questions from the media gathered to speak with her after the Cardinal have again rose to national attention, albeit as the perennial No. 2 to Connecticut. Part of her job is to be an ambassador for the sport and an ambassador for women’s sports — something she does with ease and poise, eschewing (at least publicly) carrying the gender torch which, while nobel, often becomes heavy and burdensome and can accidentally burn the well-intentioned bearer.

But of all the things about VanDerveer that make her a great coach and role model, the thing which strikes me most is this — she learned to play the piano as an adult. Frankly, it’s not exactly the image one has of a successful basketball coach, but often the unconventional is what is truly transforming. She thought she’d take up the piano when she retired. But why wait? The bonus, she has said, is that learning the piano reminded her what it was like to be a student, to pick up new skills, and hence made her more patient with her players. The new challenge that drew in VanDerveer also helped her rebuild the Stanford program in the new century. There’s a rich life lesson by example.

Ask any coach about reaching a milestone win, like 800, and usually the response has something to do with being old. Getting to 800 wins means you’ve been around a long time.

Sometimes just staying around long enough to get those 800 wins is a testament to your ability not just to gain traditional victories but to help create lasting change whether it be systematically or individually. You have to not just be good, but be passionate and compassionate, in order to have longevity — particularly in a collegiate coaching career.

Here’s to being smart, caring and ready to tackle new challenges.

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