Tara VanDerveer becomes winningest coach in NCAA basketball history: Stanford legend recounts journey to 1,203

Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer is officially the winningest coach in NCAA basketball history, as she broke former Duke men’s basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski’s record of 1,202 career victories. VanDerveer’s historic moment, and win No. 1,203, took place Sunday as the Cardinal beat Oregon State at Maples Pavilion. 

Despite Cameron Brink sitting out because of a leg injury, Kiki Iriafen was not going to let VanDerveer leave this weekend without that record. Iriafen lifted Stanford to a 65-56 win with a career-high 36 points, and she added 11 rebounds for a double-double.

Cheers filled the arena as the sold-out crowd helped VanDerveer celebrate the incredible achievement. VanDerveer’s team also showered her with gold confetti. 

“It kind of gets my attention, that’s a lot of games,” VanDerveer told CBS Sports of the record. “The most important thing is just to do a good job, to work really hard for our team and for our players. Good things come when you are playing well and people are improving and having fun.”

According to Stanford, VanDerveer has more career wins to her name than 344 of the country’s 351 Division I programs. But all coaches start somewhere, and for VanDerveer that journey began almost a half-century ago. VanDerveer’s first day as a head coach was in 1978, and she wasn’t exactly sure of what she was supposed to be doing.

“It was pretty funny I think,” VanDerveer said. “The first head coaching job I had was at the University of Idaho. I had an office mate that was the gymnastics coach. I had been an assistant coach, but I think things were, well — when I went to Idaho there wasn’t anyone that was really helping me. It was just, ‘There you go, you gotta start.'”

VanDerveer was determined to figure it out, no matter what, so she remembers paying close attention to what her office mate was doing.

“She goes, ‘Oh, I’m writing recruiting letters.’ I go, ‘I’m going to do that too.'” VanDerveer said with a laugh. “I got into it right away.”

VanDerveer finished her first season at Idaho with a 17–8 record, then outdid herself by going 25-6 the following year. To this day, those 25 wins are the fourth-most in a single-season in program history.

Next up was Ohio State, where VanDerveer registered a 110–37 record from 1980-85. She led the Buckeyes to their first ever Elite Eight in 1985, yet after the season she joined a Stanford team that just went 9-19. VanDerveer has famously recounted that her friends and family told her she was crazy for taking the Cardinal job, but she had faith. 

VanDerveer’s chapter at Stanford is still ongoing, and it’s been quite an impressive one. The program has not had a losing record since 1986, and the Cardinal have made the NCAA Tournament every single year since 1988.

While VanDerveer’s hunger for success didn’t necessarily turn her into a workaholic, she did admit to being a little “intense” over the years. VanDerveer, now 70 years old, is still very much committed to doing her best every day, but experience has taught her to take things a little more lightly — which is the main piece of advice she would give to her younger self.

“I would say work as hard as you can, but enjoy the journey,” VanDerveer said. ” … I just did the best I could knowing what I knew then. Knowing what I know now, I would probably tell myself to relax.”

One perfect example of this happened during the 1990 NCAA Tournament. VanDerveer recalls getting a 78-65 win over Ole Miss in the Sweet 16, but her team played “a very poor game.” As the Cardinal were getting on the court to face Arkansas in the Elite Eight, VanDerveer was handed a note. 

“It was from [former Stanford point guard] Jennifer Azzi,” VanDerveer explained. “She said, ‘Tara, relax. This one’s for you,'”

Azzi and her teammates delivered in outstanding fashion. Stanford finished the night with a dominant 114-87 victory and punched a ticket to its first ever Final Four. VanDerveer and her team soaked in every second of that win.

“I think we were just out there celebrating until four in the morning, and the band was playing,” VanDerveer said. “I just thought, ‘It doesn’t get better than this.’ But then we were going to the Final Four and we ended up winning a national championship. That kind of set the tone for, ‘Hey we are going to have fun and this is going to be a great ride.'”

Fast forward to 1992, and VanDerveer has just won her second national championship and found herself sitting outside the Oval Office chatting with Krzyzewski, whose Blue Devils had collected a second straight national title. That was also Krzyzewski’s second time at the White House.

“I think we were just talking about just how exciting it is to be there,” VanDerveer said of her chat with Krzyzewski. “Our teams were going to do some sort of free throw contest with President Bush on the outside court, so I think we were just joking about that a little bit.”

Krzyzewski, who retired from coaching in 2022, became the winningest coach in college basketball in 2018 when Duke beat Rhode Island in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. With the victory he passed Pat Summitt, who collected 1,098 career wins while coaching Tennessee women’s basketball from 1974 until her retirement in 2012. Following his record-breaking game, Krzyzewski praised Summitt, credited all the players he had ever coached and made a prediction that officially came true.

“It’s an honor, but someone will break it eventually,” Krzyzewski said at the time.

Well, “eventually” is finally here. VanDerveer became women’s basketball’s all-time winningest coach on Dec. 15, 2020, and on Jan. 21, 2024 she claimed the overall wins record. VanDerveer — whose new record will be tested over the years as UConn’s women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma has 1,196 career wins — said she sees these accomplishments as something that lifts basketball as a whole. 

“You can have excellence in men’s basketball and women’s basketball. I don’t know that we always have to compare,” VanDerveer said. “I respect the excellent the excellence that Coach Krzyzewski established at Duke, and I respect the excellence that Geno has at Connecticut, and I’m really proud of the excellence that we have at Stanford.”

VanDerveer, a five-time national Coach of the Year, said the keys to success have been what her parents always preached to her: integrity, being yourself and taking care of the people around you. Having the most wins is the reason she is under the spotlight today, but what VanDerveer is most proud of is seeing what her former players have achieved in their lives after college. Since the league’s inception in 1997, VanDerveer has had 30 players join the WNBA and seven have won championship rings. 

“Honestly, the players I’ve coached, I’ve learned a lot from them. They are very inspiring,” VanDerveer said. “I’ve coached the very best players in the world, whether it was on the Olympic team or at Stanford. So many of them have gone on to great things beyond Stanford, being doctors, lawyers, teachers, leaders in their community. I’ve seen it all, and I’m enjoying every minute of it.”

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