Tara VanDerveer's side(line) project

The record-setting coach is doggedly dedicated to gender equality in coaching.

Hi, friends. I hope you are all hanging in there as this odd holiday season is upon us. I am sending you e-rays of love and strength and hope.

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I’ve got a vintage Power Plays here for you all today — some reflections on the legendary Tara VanDerveer and women in coaching, and an archival find you are not going to want to miss. There’s a short programming note at the bottom, too.

Okay, friends. Let’s do this.

Tara VanDerveer hasn’t hired a male assistant coach in 35 straight years

VanDerveer and assistant coach Britney Anderson, associate head coach Kate Paye, and assistant coach Katy Steding during her record-setting win (via Getty)

Last Tuesday night, Stanford women’s basketball head coach Tara VanDerveer passed the late, great Pat Summitt in the record books to become the winningest coach in NCAA women’s Division I basketball history, when her top-ranked Stanford Cardinal defeated the Pacific Tigers 104-61. It was her team’s fifth victory of the season, and the 1,099th victory of VanDerveer’s storied career. (The team has since won two more games, moving VanDerveer’s tally to 1,101.)

Over the past week, there have been many wonderful retrospectives about the living legend’s on-court and off-court impact, and it’s been truly thrilling to see the often woefully under-the-radar VanDerveer get the spotlight.

But there’s one part of her legacy that I fear is getting lost in the shuffle: Her unwavering, life-long commitment to lifting up women in coaching.

In her 35 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.

One! (1)

“I actually think that all basketball staffs, male and female, would benefit from having both men and women on it,” VanDerveer told me last year, 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 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 just 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; 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 Tempe 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.

Last year, 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 1,101 college basketball games and having a top-ranked team 42 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 dto 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.”

From the Archives: May 22, 1990, Albuquerque Journal

I could stop and write a book about every single part of this 30-year-old full-page spread in the Albuquerque Journal, but that seems awfully time consuming, so instead I’ve just screenshotted it all so you can all enjoy. Please leave your favorite parts in the comments. (Mine is VanDerveer’s response to the inquiry about coaching the men’s team, lol.)

Robert, keep your pants on, please.

Hey friends. I’m going to get raw for a second. It’s probably going to get too long and rambly and be TMI, but it’s where I’m at right now, and I want to share.

As some of you know, in the past four months, my mom’s health declined suddenly, leaving her in and out and back in again of hospitals and care facilities in the middle of the pandemic, and leaving me to become her power of attorney and take over managing all of her health care and finances. (She’s still here and doing a bit, we both have phenomenal support systems, and I am extremely lucky.)

If you’ve ever dealt with something similar, this probably doesn’t surprise you, but every step of this process has been 10 times more complicated and consuming than anticipated.

Work has, clearly, has suffered during this time span. I’ve been trying, excrutiatingly, every day. My drafts are filled with unfinished newsletters and untranscribed interviews and incomplete investigations and scattered sentences. I’ve been overcome with frustration that I’ve been unable to keep up, and I’ve kept assuring myself — and, at times, publicly promising you all — that I was getting a handle on things and that the elusive “tomorrow” was the day that things would settle and I’d get caught up. But every time I’ve thought I was turning a corner with my move and my mom’s health and this whole saga, it’s turned into a loop.

A few days ago, Mo and I officially moved into a condo in Greensboro, NC. For the first time in four months, I’m not in limbo. My stuff is in one place. And I can feel the cobwebs that have consumed my brain beginning to clear. My first instinct was to throw myself fully back into Power Plays, and spend the next two weeks doing nothing but finishing and publishing newsletters and at least partially fulfilling my promises.

But I’m countering those instincts, and instead, am giving myself permission to settle into my new home, enjoy a socially-distanced holiday, and truly get re-engaged with the women’s sports world. Big things are on the horizon in this space, and I cannot wait to share. But first, I need to exhale and process, or this loop will never end.

This is a long-winded way of saying that this is my last free newsletter of 2020. Paid subscribers, you’ll hear from me next week about some discounts and deals and goodies. (Merch, anyone?) I will make this up to you.

I’ll be fully re-emerging on Slack and Twitter over the next few days, and I’ll see you back in your inbox ready to topple the cis heteronormative sports patriarchy in 2021. Love and blessings and endless amounts of gratitude to you all.

To quote the great Pat Summitt, “Left foot. Right foot. Breathe. Repeat.”