In the next few weeks, when she wins her 1,203rd game, Tara VanDerveer at Stanford will surpass Mike Krzyzewski at Duke as the college basketball coach – male or female – with the most wins ever.
It took Krzyzewski, known as Coach K, 47 seasons to reach that milestone. T-Dog, affectionately known as VanDerveer on campus, will be there at 45, 38 of whom will be at Stanford. She would also do it with a higher winning percentage – about 82 percent of her games compared to Krzyzewski’s 77 percent. She has won three NCAA championships, even though many of the country’s best female basketball athletes cannot play for her because they do not meet Stanford’s academic standards.
Most CEOs are lucky to have a decade of success in the job. How could a leader who had a winning record every season at Stanford since her inaugural season in 1985 remain so successful for nearly half a century?
Then there’s also the fact that NCAA sports have changed rapidly in recent years. Now, a host of big donors at rival schools are paying big bucks to attract and retain athletes not only in football but also in other sports, including women’s basketball. (Vanderveer’s own players have rejected substantial offers.) And soon, universities may be allowed to pay athletes directly. But Stanford’s donors, no matter how wealthy, have not yet been as forthcoming as other schools.
At 70, VanDerveer is a decade or two older than many of her most successful competitors. She is old enough to become a grandmother to her players. But through generational cultural change and changes in college athletics, he has found ways to adapt. Their success perhaps has lessons for other boomers who find themselves in a workplace full of younger coworkers.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
When you took this coaching job four decades ago, your father said you were crazy because you couldn’t win in basketball at Stanford. Were you crazy?
In 1985, I got a great coaching job at Ohio State (28-3 the previous season, while Stanford was 9-19). We beat Stanford by 32 points. But one player we recruited, Emily Wagner, chose Stanford over Ohio State, because if she got hurt or things didn’t work out on the court, Stanford would have been a place she would have been happier. Emily was probably the reason I got hired, because she told the athletic director she wanted to play for me.
I said no the first time, then came back and met with Stanford track coach Brooks Johnson. Brooks, who is black, said that the entire Stanford team was almost white and that he could help me recruit a great diverse team. He was brilliant.
As far as my father was concerned, I told him, “We just have to bring three or four best players from across the country.” And we did that.
Your own rules for leading a winning team?
Rent right. As my dad said, “You can’t win the Kentucky Derby by riding a donkey.” And not just the players but also the staff. Make sure they praise you more than they praise you.
Have a vision for your players and give them the tools. Maximize people’s strengths and minimize their weaknesses.
Don’t be the center of attention. Don’t micromanage, and seek input.
Beat your team players. Take care of yourself – eat and sleep right, and exercise – so you can take care of each other. If you can’t swim, you can’t save the other swimmer, and you will both go down.
You cannot have 15 personalities, one for each player. But you can recognize everyone individually, and get to know them and understand where they are.
Every behavior is communication – not just words but also eye contact and body language.
Know that if your senior leaders are unhappy, your entire team will be unhappy.
Learn the art of a controlled meltdown.
Controlled recession. Can you elaborate on that?
I try to stay balanced – not too high or too low. I’m intense, but I’m not a screamer who falls prey to technical glitches. I want to set a good example for my players by demonstrating self-control. Only once have I gone completely crazy – about 35 years ago. We were going to play the No. 1 team, Purdue. We had lost a few games, and I implemented a routine of handling the ball more during my practices. They were not doing it with any enthusiasm. I went ballistic. In the locker room before the game, each player got a piece of my mind. Yes, we beat them. This was the only game lost by Purdue in their 34–1 national-championship season. But I didn’t like it. These were college women, and I wanted to treat them like adults. This wasn’t who I wanted to be.
Are there any other secrets to your success as a leader?
I love what I do. And I have very good people around me – supportive coaches who complement me with different strengths. My associate head coach, Kate Peay, is incredibly organized. I have more pie in the sky. My assistants are better at technical stuff, like editing game videos. They are scouts through and through. And sometimes players need to talk to someone besides the head coach — and they’re going to listen attentively.
I’m also not afraid to take risks and experiment. We ran a type of offense very successfully for at least 12 years. When our team’s personnel changed, I studied the “Princeton Offense” and thought it suited our team better. We won NCAAs in 2021 running that offense.
Plus, I’m a lifelong learner – from professors, assistants, players. I watch other Stanford teams practice and ask the coaches about their training methods. And I watch too much basketball. I’m a copier who gets ideas from other basketball coaches.
My parents in New York were the people I learned the most about leadership from. They were teachers and we didn’t have much money, but we did incredible things.
He laid emphasis on the common good. We were five children. He supported all of us in different ways. I was sent to a private school. My sister was given a car. They didn’t keep score. He simply understood what each child needed. I’m just trying to understand what each player needs, and the needs are different.
You’ve mentioned your piano teacher as an inspiration. Why?
She took me where I couldn’t reach alone. That’s what a great coach does.
Twenty-five years ago, at Christmas, when I was about 40 years old, I decided to learn piano. My sister Heidi (head women’s coach at UC San Diego) bought me a keyboard. After two weeks, I thought, I can’t do this, so I got a teacher, Jody Gandolfi. So now I’m suddenly a student. I was not used to being a student. You make yourself vulnerable. You get to play in a recital, and I’ll throw bombs, like a kid missing free throws at the end of the game. So it helped me connect with our players better.
Within a year, I got a lot better and when people were surprised, I said, “It’s not me, it’s Jodi!” It wasn’t just that she was technically very good, it was that You wanted to make him happy. When I didn’t have time to practice, she would say, “Don’t worry, we can play doubles this time.” She really understood me.
And I learned that if you want to get better, don’t be afraid to ask for help.
What advice would you give your fellow Boomers as they struggle to stay relevant in the young workplace?
Most importantly, we can show our younger colleagues that, like my piano teacher, we can take them to places they can’t reach alone.
Be yourself, but don’t fight change. Young people are the only ones who have grown up with technology – they live on their phones – and with a pandemic. Understand where they are coming from.
How is your job different now that your competitors’ fans are forming groups to pay their players hundreds of thousands of dollars per year for the use of their “name, image and likeness (void)” and your all-American, Attracting stars like Cameron. The verge. And what would it mean if universities started paying athletes directly?
Now I have to work hard to convince families that the return on investment of a Stanford education will be zero or greater than the collective wealth. But the new Stanford team is very important to our team’s success. And if universities could pay athletes directly, that would help ensure that women would get paid the same as men because of Title IX. We have worked very hard for equity. I have struggled with this all my life.
We draw inspiration from the people who play (and work) for us. Tell us about some players who inspire you.
Angela Taylor was on a national title-winning team with two All-American guards, so she almost never got a chance to play. I asked him about his role. “To spread sunshine,” she said.
Jennifer Azzi was boarding my national team bus at 3:30 a.m. on a cold night in Ukraine when we passed a group of struggling women in thin coats. She went outside the bus and opened her purse and suitcase for them. His companions followed him.
Jane Appel played her final game at Stanford with a broken leg and after the game she didn’t want to take off her uniform – she loved playing so much.
After Old Dominion upset us in the semi-finals, Jamila Wideman told her teammates to get their heads up, and they were on the floor crying. I couldn’t get his attention, but Jamila prompted him to say: “I’d rather lose with you than win with anyone else.”