Tara VanDerveer has had an all-female coaching staff for four decades
“When I got to Stanford, I hired three women, and they worked really well, and I just kept hiring women.”
On Sunday afternoon in California, when No. 8 Stanford defeated Oregon State 65-56, Tara VanDerveer became the winningest coach in college basketball history, surpassing former Duke men’s basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski with the 1,203rd victory of her career.
This remarkable achievement has given us time to pause and appreciate what VanDerveer has meant to the sport, and I’ve loved reading some of my favorite writers wax poetically about VanDerveer and dive into her past. Here are a few must-reads:
It matters that such a significant record now belongs to a coach in women’s college basketball, and it matters that said coach is a woman.
It especially matters that this woman has dedicated her life not only to empowering her players, but to growing the number of women in the coaching ranks. I focused on this often-overlooked part of VanDerveer’s legacy in a newsletter back in 2020, when she passed Pat Summitt in the record books to become the winningest coach in NCAA women’s Division I basketball history.
And, because I think this is such an important topic, and the newsletter from 2020 is behind the paywall, I have updated and republished that piece below. Enjoy, friends.
Tara VanDerveer’s side(line) project
In her 39 years as the head coach at Stanford, VanDerveer has never once hired a male assistant coach. In fact, in her entire head coaching career — which began at Idaho from 1978-1980 (where she amassed her first 42 wins) and continued at Ohio State from 1980-1985 (where she notched another 110 victories) — VanDerveer has only hired one male assistant coach.
“I actually think that all basketball staffs, male and female, would benefit from having both men and women on it,” VanDerveer told me just days before the 2019 NCAA tournament tipped off. “But because we’re not included in men’s basketball, I feel a responsibility to help develop women in women’s basketball.”
At the time, I was reporting out my ThinkProgress feature on former Notre Dame women’s basketball coach Muffet McGraw and her all-female coaching staff.
That profile ended up making waves — a.k.a Making Men Mad — because when I asked McGraw if she would ever hire another male assistant coach, she resolutely told me, “No.” McGraw started exclusively hiring female assistant coaches in 2012. I, embarrassingly, wasn’t aware until far along into that reporting project that VanDerveer was almost 30 years ahead of her.
If, perhaps, you’re wondering why it’s such a big deal to hire women to coach a women’s sport, I’m going to take a shortcut and just refer to some of the context I provided in my McGraw article last year:
Before Title IX, the federal law that bans sex discrimination in education, men’s and women’s athletics programs were more or less separate. Women’s sports were, for the most part, run by women. After Title IX was introduced, most athletic departments merged, and male athletic directors took over. The women were kept around as secretaries.
This had an immediate and long-lasting impact on who got hired to coach women’s sports.
When Title IX was enacted in 1972, 90 percent of the coaches of women’s college sports were women. These days, it’s about 41.5 percent. The numbers are slightly better for women’s basketball, the most popular women’s collegiate sport. [In 2018], 59.3 percent of women’s college basketball teams were coached by women, down from 79.4 percent in 1977.
The opportunity gap is magnified by the fact that the number of women coaching in men’s college sports has remained below 3.5 percent since before Title IX. [In 2019, there was] only one female assistant coach in all of NCAA men’s college basketball — Edniesha Curry of the University of Maine. Compared to men’s college basketball, the NFL and the NBA look like bastions of inclusion.
Altogether, women only hold one out of every 4.5 head coaching jobs in collegiate athletics. And that’s at a time when there are more girls playing sports than ever before.
So, yeah, it’s a big deal for women in positions of power to use that power to lift up other women. VanDerveer has done that, and then some. Only one quote from our phone call in 2019 made it into the McGraw profile, but I found myself revisiting the transcript this week. What I loved so much about the conversation was how, just like McGraw, VanDerveer made zero apologies for her choices.
She told me her first hire at Idaho in 1978 was a woman, but then a man who was working in the area began coming by practices and volunteering his services, and she really liked working with him. So when she got the head coaching job at Ohio State, she hired him to come with her. But when she left Ohio State for Stanford in 1985, he decided he wanted to pursue head coaching opportunities.
(In case you’re wondering, the mystery man was Lubomyr ‘Luby’ Lichonczak, who has had a long career in the college ranks and in the WNBA, including as an assistant at Old Dominion and Texas A&M, a long-time head coach at Radford, and most recently as the head coach of the University of Texas-San Antonio from 2013-2017.)
With a fresh start on the west coast, VanDerveer got back to hiring women, and never stopped.
“When I got to Stanford, I hired three women, and they worked really well, and I just kept hiring women,” she said, making it sound exactly as simple as it is.
Of course, it helped that she had the institutional support at Stanford. When I asked if she’d ever experienced any pushback on her all-female staffs, VanDerveer said, “No. Not at all.
“I mean, first of all, the women I hire are really competent and hardworking,” she said. “And, you know, they've all done well.”
That, I believe, is the definition of “to put it mildly.”
VanDerveer’s coaching tree of former players and assistants is one of the most impressive in the business — a few of the most notable names are Charmin Smith, the current head coach at the University of California; Charli Turner-Thorne, the long-time head coach at Arizona State who retired in 2022; and Women’s Basketball Hall of Famer and former University of San Francisco head coach Jennifer Azzi.
And it continues to grow. After the truncated 2020 season, two of her assistants left — Lindy La Rocque, a former Stanford player who had been on staff for three seasons, took the head coaching job at the University of Nevada - Las Vegas, and Tempie Brown took time off to spend more time with her family. True to form, VanDerveer quickly hired Britney Anderson and Katy Steding to fill out her 2020-21 staff, along with associate head coach Kate Paye, who is in her 13th season with the team. [Update: For the 2023-24 season, Brown returned as assistant coach and VanDerveer added former Stanford great Erica McCall to the staff; Anderson is currently an assistant coach at Illinois.]
In 2019, VanDerveer also launched the Tara VanDerveer Fund for the Advancement of Women in Coaching with the Women’s Sports Foundation, which supports coaching and strength and conditioning fellowships for women in a variety of collegiate sports across the country. This year, the fund will provide $200,000 to 10 colleges and universities to support these fellows, as well as mentorship and hands-on training and professional development opportunities.
It’s hard to imagine anything more impressive than a head coach winning 1,203 college basketball games and having a top-10 ranked team 46 years into her career. But VanDerveer’s decades-long, deliberate, and dogged dedication to providing women with opportunities in coaching comes awfully close.
One of the things I appreciate the most about VanDerveer is how generous and genuine this pursuit is for her. She stressed in our conversation that she truly wants to see coaching gender equality in men’s and women’s basketball, and is committed to helping promote women in men’s basketball, too, both collegiately and professionally. And, when I asked her the dreaded motherhood question — about whether the coaching profession was accessible enough to mothers — she rightly pointed out that everyone would benefit from rules that allow coaches to live more well-rounded lives.
“It's not just women that want to spend time with their children,” she said. “Men do, too.”
VanDerveer is doing everything in her power to build an undeniable pipeline of women in coaching. Now it’s up to those with hiring power — mainly white, male athletic directors — to do their part, and follow the advice of the winningest coach in her profession.
“Athletic directors, when they're looking to hire, they want to hire competent people … and, you know, there are a lot of extremely competent women that want the jobs,” she said. “Women have a lot to add in terms of being great teachers, being great coaches.”
Well said, coach.