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The Sure Thing

No less an authority than Benjamin Franklin once said that, "in this world, nothing is certain except death and taxes."

If he were alive today, Franklin would’ve added something else: Stanford women's basketball.

Over the last 35 years, year in and year out, Tara VanDerveer's teams have been as much of a sure thing as, well, death and taxes. Always talented, always disciplined, always well-coached, and always highly successful.

In December VanDerveer became the winningest women's basketball coach of all-time, passing the legendary Pat Summitt and staying just ahead of Connecticut icon Geno Auriemma. She now sports a career record of 1,116 wins and 255 losses, including a 964-204 mark at Stanford.

VanDerveer inherited a failing program that had gone 9-19 and 5-23 the two previous seasons. Her first two Stanford teams were 13-15 and 14-14, but once she established her system and brought in her own players, things immediately started to jell.

Vanderveer’s third team (1987-88) posted a 27-5 record and reached the NCAA Sweet Sixteen, beginning a run of 32 straight appearances in the national tourney until last year’s event was cancelled because of COVID. (She missed the ’95-96 season while coaching the U.S. team to a gold medal in the Olympic Games).

Her consistency is remarkable. Consider some of these stats:

NCAA Sweet Sixteen -- 25 times

NCAA Elite Eight -- 19 times

NCAA Final Four -- 12 times

NCAA Runner-up -- 2 times (2008 and 2010)

NCAA Champion -- 2 times (1990 and 1992)

Pac-12/Pac-10 Regular Season Champions –- 23 times

Pac-12/Pac-10 Tournament Champions –- 13 times

National Coach of the Year -- 4 times

Pac-12/Pac-10 Coach of the Year -- 16 times

We don't have enough space here to list all of her great players, but VanDerveer’s standouts include names like Jennifer Azzi, Candice Wiggins, Nicole Powell, Kate Starbird, Jayne Appel, Sonja Henning and sisters Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike. Nineteen of her players and former assistants have gone on to pursue careers in coaching and basketball management.

This year’s Stanford team opened with 11 straight wins before losing two straight to Colorado (in overtime) and No. 8 UCLA, then won another 11 straight to claim the Pac-12 regular season crown.

Barring a collapse in the conference tourney, the Cardinal will get a No. 1 NCAA seed and have a good shot to win it all.

The team lacks a true superstar but plays great defense and has several excellent players who can assume the scoring load on any given night.

Senior guard Kiana Williams, the team’s leading scorer, has a knack for coming up big at crunch time. Sophomore Haley Jones, the nation's No. 1 recruit out of San Jose's Mitty H.S. two years ago, is second on the team in scoring and leads in rebounding. Junior Lexie Hull, a terrific all-around player, scores in double figures and leads the team in steals. Williams, Jones and Hull were named to the All-Pac-12 team yesterday.

Point guard Ana Wilson, sister of Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson is one of the nation’s best defenders and was named Pac-12 Co-defensive Player of the Year. Freshman Cameron Brink, an impressive inside scorer and shot blocker, rounds out the starting five.

Lacie Hull, Lexie’s twin, is the Pac-12’s “Sixth Player of the Year.” Hannah Jump, from nearby powerhouse Pinewood School, is one of the best three point shooters this side of Steph Curry. Fran Belibi (of dunking fame) and Ashton Prechtel add size and depth up front.

The Pac-12 tourney begins this week and the NCAA Championships start later this month in San Antonio. No. 1 Connecticut, No. 2 Texas A&M and No. 3 North Carolina State, along with perennial powers South Carolina and Baylor stand in the way, but as always, No. 4 Stanford will be in the hunt.

Stanford’s Greatest Coaches: I’ve often been asked the question, “who’s the greatest Stanford coach of all time?” Having been involved with Stanford sports on and off since 1968, when I was assistant sports information director while an undergraduate, I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to work with and closely observe the university’s coaches for over 50 years. As co-founder and CEO of the American Basketball League, I got deep in the weeds of women’s basketball, and as co-founder and executive director of a college football bowl game, I worked with great coaches from all over the country.

But picking the best Stanford coach is a very difficult task. Stanford has had an incredible roster of great coaches, and it’s difficult to rank or compare coaches from different sports and different eras.

With those qualifiers, there’s no question Tara VanDerveer is one of the best Stanford has ever had, if not the best. With apologies to several other deserving names, here’s my subjective list of the top coaches in Stanford sports history:

Football—Pop Warner, Bill Walsh, John Ralston, Clark Shaughnessy, David Shaw

Basketball—Tara VanDerveer, John Bunn, Everett Dean, Mike Montgomery

Tennis—Dick Gould, Frank Brennan, Lele Forood

Track—Dink Templeton, Payton Jordan

Swimming—Skip Kenney, Richard Quick, Ernie Bransten, Tom Haynie

Baseball—Mark Marquess, Dutch Fehring

Golf—Eddie Twiggs

Water Polo—Dante Dettamanti, John Tanner

Volleyball—John Dunning, Don Shaw

Soccer—Jeremy Gunn, Paul Ratcliffe

Not to take anything away from the so-called "minor" or "Olympic Sports" coaches, but there is no comparison in terms of the pressure, media exposure, criticism, or quality and volume of competition faced by the coaches in football and basketball. Some Olympic sports are only contested by 30 or 40 schools nationally.

Of the top group, Dick Gould comes the closest to VanDerveer, given the fact that he built the tennis program from the ground up and maintained a level of excellence over 38 years, roughly the same length as Tara's tenure at Stanford. But Gould won 17 national titles, and he faced extremely tough competition from USC, Trinity, Georgia, UCLA, Tennessee, Pepperdine and many other top schools.

So my vote for the best of all time, given the development and maintenance of a great program over three decades, would have to be VanDerveer or Gould.


Gary Cavalli - Bowl and League co-founder, author, speaker 

Gary Cavalli, the former Sports Information Director and Associate Athletic Director at Stanford University, was co-founder and executive director of the college football bowl game played in the Bay Area, and previously was co-founder and President of the American Basketball League.

Get in touch//@cavalli49//

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