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Hall of Fame Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer approaches NCAA career wins record

STANFORD, Calif. — “What milestone?”

Tara VanDerveer asked the question so matter-of-factly she clearly had little idea what the fuss is all about.

Walking out of Maples Pavilion one afternoon last month after another Stanford win that added to her remarkable total, VanDerveer had to be reminded just what she’s about to do now given her decorated career features such a long list of accomplishments.

Yes, THAT milestone. The one that will make her the winningest coach in college basketball — not just in the women’s game, but all of men’s and women’s basketball. Surpassing the great Mike Krzyzewski.

“We can talk about this thing if it happens,” she said. “And I don’t keep track, so I don’t know when it’s going to happen. I hope it does, though.”

The Hall of Fame coach is on the cusp of breaking Krzyzewski’s record of 1,202 victories, with a chance to tie his mark when the eighth-ranked Cardinal host Oregon. At least a couple dozen of VanDerveer’s former players plan to travel to be there if she’s in position to make history Sunday against Oregon State.

“It’s going to be a lot of people and it’s going to be awesome,” former Cardinal guard Ros Gold-Onwude said. “This is so huge.”

Even if her coach downplays it all.

Everybody is used to VanDerveer’s understated nature, her humility.

“I don’t think Tara’s ever been somebody who makes it about herself, although she’s been the steady drumbeat, heartbeat of this program for decades,” Gold-Onwude said. "... You can’t deny her, you can’t deny what she’s meant not only to the women’s game but the men’s game. You can’t deny her statistical significance, her historical significance, her significance over eras, her significance in the WNBA, the transfer of talent from college to the professional level.”

So many of VanDerveer’s former players have gone on to successful careers in basketball and beyond. Coach K she considers an icon who has led the way.

“Anyone that stays in it that long loves the game of basketball, and you can see his passion and you can also see the respect that he has from his players and the love that he has from his players,” VanDerveer said, “and that’s what every coach aspires to.”

VanDerveer’s Stanford teams won national titles in 1990, ’92 and 2021 and she took a year away from coaching college to guide the 1996 U.S. Olympic team to a gold medal in the Atlanta Games. She has long been the example for other coaches, yet the five-time national coach of the year and 17-time Pac-12 coach of the year also looks to learn from her coaching colleagues.

In November near the start of her 38th season at Stanford, VanDerveer exchanged scouting reports with the Albany staff and took time to speak to the players in the program where she began her college career, just as she did for Dawn Staley years ago when the South Carolina coach was getting started.

“She really has no ego about finding help from other people and asking other people what they think and learning from other people. Basketball, there’s no patent on anything, you can take anything you want from anybody,” said Amy Tucker, VanDerveer’s former player at Ohio State and longtime top assistant at Stanford. “So I think the lifelong learner has served her really well.”

A basketball junkie who also loves to play piano, cycle, water ski and swim, VanDerveer still relishes every aspect of her job, from the practices and preparation to the film study, recruiting and play-calling.

“I do,” the 45th-year coach said. “The journey. I love practice more than the games. Games make me nervous.”

Even if she no longer takes charges at practice. VanDerveer learned a hard lesson nine years ago on New Year’s Eve when she stepped in front of 6-foot-5 Tess Picknell and fell.

“Tess broke my wrist,” she said, “I think I have arthritis in it because of it.”

Gold-Onwude considers it a disservice when people question how long VanDerveer might keep coaching, strictly based on her achievements and the fact she will be 71 in June.

“As long as you’re doing what you love and you can still execute what it takes at a high level, why not?” said Gold-Onwude, part of the 2008 team that got Stanford to the Final Four for the first time in 11 years. “I don’t necessarily love people quantifying how long someone should do something based off of their success or age.”

Early on, VanDerveer quickly led impressive turnarounds of three programs: at Idaho in her first job, then over five-year spans at Ohio State and Stanford.

“The amazing consistency and excellence over 45 years of coaching, it’s kind of hard to wrap your head around it,” Tucker said. “On top of that the fact she took three major rebuilds to do it.”

VanDerveer’s kind gestures at every stop, with everybody, mean so much.

When Gold-Onwude chose Stanford, VanDerveer assured the prospect from Queens, New York, this wouldn’t be a “four-year commitment” but rather a “40-year commitment.” And then, as Gold-Onwude was just embarking on a sports broadcasting career, VanDerveer called her in for an impromptu film study to examine her style calling games — a surprise to Gold-Onwude “during a time when I really needed any type of guidance or adult love with my father being in Nigeria and my mother being sick.”

That’s Tara.

Stephen Curry has noticed. The Warriors star is a regular at Stanford watching friend and god sister Cameron Brink.

“Absolutely amazing. She’s a legend and icon — what that program means for women’s basketball, what it means for basketball in general,” Curry said. “She’s a hoop head, like Cam was talking about how much film she watches and how hard she works even with all that success that she’s had and amount of wins. So pretty amazing, the milestone. When she hopefully surpasses the all time, I hope she gets her flowers. I know she’s been getting them year after year, but that’s something. That’s a record that needs to be acknowledged.”