Tara and Heidi VanDerveer have coaching records few can match
With over 1,400 wins and decades of coaching between them, the VanDerveers have helped women’s basketball flourish
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If you’re a fan of women’s college basketball, you almost certainly know Tara VanDerveer, the Stanford head coach who recently broke the sport’s all-time wins record. But you should also know Heidi VanDerveer, Tara’s younger sister and a veteran coach in her own right.
Coincidentally, Heidi began her career as a graduate assistant for the woman whose record Tara broke, former Tennessee head coach Pat Summitt. Heidi is now the head coach at UC San Diego, a program playing its first season in Division I after five straight regular-season conference titles at the Division II level. She is perhaps uniquely equipped to shepherd the Tritons through the transition process because of her experience coaching at practically every level: Divisions I through III and the WNBA, as well as a stint as a scout for USA Basketball.
Born ten and a half years apart, Tara and Heidi are the oldest and youngest of five siblings, and they spent much of their childhood in Chautauqua, a lakeside town in western New York State. Tara frequently played basketball with boys at the Boys and Girls Club there, but she also enjoyed sailing, swimming, and performing in the town’s annual opera.
Growing up in the 1960s, Tara had few opportunities to play organized basketball because of her gender, but she remained passionate about the sport. Her parents bought her a driveway hoop for Christmas her sophomore year in high school, and Heidi remembers earning quarters as a kid by rebounding for Tara.
Both sisters played in college before turning to coaching, and Heidi credits Tara for inspiring her to enter the profession. “I’ve been learning things from her since I was 10,” Heidi told The Spokesman-Review in 1997. Heidi worked at Tara’s summer basketball camps, driving to local ones in Tara’s green Volkswagen Bug and traveling across the country for others. “I wanted to go to camp with her, I begged, and my father finally said yes and got her some new wheels for her car and got her new brakes,” Heidi said in 2007.
As I have done with many basketball families, let’s compare the VanDerveers’ statistics and see how they stack up. Out of necessity, this comparison will focus primarily on their head coaching records, as most of their playing statistics have been lost to history.
However, here’s what we know about their playing careers:
Tara played one season at Albany in 1971-72 and reportedly led her team in scoring, rebounding, assists, and blocked shots. Looking for a bigger challenge and more of a “team experience,” she transferred to Indiana, where she was a three-year starter and was invited to try out for the national team twice. In two of her three seasons, the Hoosiers ended the season as one of the top ten teams in the country.
Heidi played at the College of Charleston from 1982 through 1986, earning four varsity letters and twice being named team captain. Archival data provided by the school’s athletic communications staff show that she played in 69 career games and averaged 2.4 points, 2.5 assists, and 1.6 rebounds per game. In her four seasons, College of Charleston had a record of 93-26 and made the postseason three times.
After graduation, Tara planned to travel around the country for a year and then attend law school. She ran out of money partway through her trip and returned to New York, where her father Dunbar suggested that she help coach her sister Marie’s high school basketball team. Her law school plans quickly gave way to coaching aspirations, and she got her start as a graduate assistant at Ohio State.
Tara landed her first head coaching job at Idaho in 1978, and in 1980, she returned to Ohio State and won four Big Ten championships in five seasons. Despite that success, VanDerveer left in 1985 for Stanford, a program that had had a 14-42 record in the previous two seasons and that Dunbar reportedly told her was “a coach’s graveyard.”
Tara thought of it slightly differently: “It was kind of like the ultimate challenge,” she said in 2010.
Yet Tara also questioned her decision at least once, when she played pickup with her new players and noticed a clear drop-off in talent from Ohio State. At that point, Stanford Magazine’s Mike Antonucci wrote in 2010, “VanDerveer wondered if she had signed on to a nightmare.”
When Tara arrived in Palo Alto, Heidi was still playing at the College of Charleston. After graduation, Heidi worked for Summitt at Tennessee, winning a national championship in her first season in 1987. She then spent six years as an assistant coach at the University of South Carolina from 1988 to 1994.
Heidi’s aptitude for coaching was apparent early in her career, including after Stanford suffered a 23-point loss to Tennessee in 1988 that left Tara distraught. “‘I remember going back to my hotel room and … I laid down on the bed and just started crying, thinking that we were never going to be that good,’” Tara told ESPN’s Michelle Smith in 2011. “‘Heidi came in and said, ‘Are you going to have a pity party or are you going to get to work?’ So we got out the video and we broke it down frame by frame.’”
Heidi got her first head coaching job at Eastern Washington University in 1994, and in January 1997, midway through Heidi’s third season, Tara watched her little sister coach in person for the first time. “Big sister was into it Saturday night, leaning forward, elbows on knees, standing and shouting while nearly everyone else remained seated,” The Spokesman-Review reported.
That season ended up being Heidi’s last at Eastern Washington, but she returned to the college ranks in 2004 as an assistant at the University of San Francisco. She was also a video coordinator for Tara at Stanford and the associate head coach at San Diego State before landing the head coaching position at Division III Occidental College in 2008. Four years and two NCAA Tournament berths later, she was hired at UCSD, where she has remained despite an offer in 2019 to become the head coach at her alma mater.
Note: Data includes head coaching positions only. The better number for each category is highlighted in gray.
*All three games were exhibition games, played when UCSD was competing in Division II.
Sources: Stanford, UCSD, and Eastern Washington women’s basketball; Los Angeles Times; Wikipedia
Unsurprisingly, the NCAA’s all-time wins leader in women’s basketball comes out on top in many of these categories, including national championships, Final Four appearances, and Coach of the Year honors. Tara has made the NCAA or AIAW Tournament in 83% of her 41 seasons as a head coach, advanced to the Final Four in 29% of those seasons, and won a national title in 5%. Additionally, she has coached the conference Player of the Year and won conference Coach of the Year honors in over 40% of her seasons.
Tara entered the 2020-21 season just five wins shy of the all-time record of 1,099, and she got there on December 15 with a 104-61 win over Pacific.
“This is special because of, I think, the magnitude of that many wins,” Tara said postgame. “… I never thought, ‘Well, I'm going to try to win a thousand games’ or anything like that. But this is special, having currently the No. 1 team, being undefeated, playing in a pandemic. I will never forget this for sure.”
That night, Tara also recalled her very first win, which came against Northern Montana on December 1, 1978. “We were ahead going into the last couple seconds of the game and there was a timeout,” she said. “And I remember telling our team, ‘All right, just play great defense. Don't foul.’ And of course we fouled and we went into overtime and I said to myself, ‘This is going to be harder than it looks.’” (Editor’s note: For the record, the Idaho media guide lists the game as ending in regulation, but we’re not going to argue with Tara.)
Despite Tara’s dominance in this comparison, Heidi’s coaching resume is stellar as well—and Tara told the San Diego Union-Tribune in 2014 that Heidi is the best coach in the family. Heidi’s teams have advanced to the NCAA Tournament in 47% of her seasons as head coach, and she has won conference championships at an even more impressive rate than her sister, taking home the regular-season title in 60% of her seasons and the tournament title in 33%. She has won over 68% of her games in her career and averaged nearly 20 wins per season, behind Tara’s absurd 81% winning percentage and 26.7 wins per season but ahead of so many others in the profession.
Tara and Heidi have only been Division I head coaches simultaneously for a few seasons, but they have nevertheless gone head-to-head a few times. They played three exhibition games between 2014 and 2017, when Heidi’s UCSD team was still in Division II, and Stanford won all three by an average of 27 points per game. They were slated to play in the regular season for the first time in November 2020, but the game was canceled due to scheduling changes brought on by COVID-19. “Maybe next year,” Tara told Hoopfeed’s Cheryl Coward.
Local media covered the first exhibition game in detail, reporting that the teams played “almost identical” styles, that the VanDerveers’ mother Rita donned a gray sweatshirt “diplomatically emblazoned” with both Stanford and UCSD logos, and that Tara and Heidi planned to share a turkey dinner and talk hoops after the game. The media also quoted Heidi discussing how much it would mean to her for UCSD to play the right way against Stanford:
“More than anything, because we are so close, I want [Tara] to be proud,” Heidi said. “… The values I’ve heard her preach for 30 years are very similar [to] the things I try to articulate to our team. I want it to be that she watches and sees us doing those things – that we are huddling at the free throw line, that we have good body language. All the things I know are important, that have made her so consistent and able to win, are the things I want for our program.”
Beyond their head-to-head matchups, Heidi and Tara’s coaching careers overlap in another way: Heidi spent over a decade in the WNBA, where she coached former Stanford players Kristin Folkl, Kate Paye, Charmin Smith, and Val Whiting-Raymond on the Minnesota Lynx. Heidi was also a scout for USA Basketball in 2006 and 2008, a decade-plus after Tara led the U.S. team to gold in the 1996 Olympics.
Note: Heidi was named head coach midway through the 1997 and 2002 seasons.
Sources: Basketball-Reference; UCSD women’s basketball; Wikipedia
Although Heidi’s time as a WNBA head coach does not look very successful, she was put into difficult situations. In both Sacramento and Minnesota, she became the head coach midseason, inheriting teams that had only won about one-third of their games in those seasons.
Unlike Tara, who has been a head coach for nearly her entire career, Heidi has shuffled between head, assistant coach, and scout positions at various levels. While some coaches don’t want to take roles as assistants after losing a head coaching job, Heidi has been unfazed by moving down (or up) a chair. In 2007, when she was an assistant coach for the Seattle Storm, she said:
“I’m very content and enjoy the role I have, and I know that if people do their jobs, they’re all important. If you get a ring at the end of the year, it doesn’t matter what ring it is; they’re all the same. …
“Obviously those 12 inches, one chair to the left or right, mean a big difference. But I think you take the wins and losses the same because if you have 100 percent investment in something, no matter what you are, and you take a lot of pride in your job, then when you win, you feel it's important, and if you lose, you feel that part of it is your responsibility.”
Tara and Heidi have remained very close over the years. “It’s amazing the relationship we have,” Tara told the San Diego Union-Tribune in 2014. “… I can’t remember ever having any kind of a fight.” She added that she and Heidi talk every day, vacation together, and share a cell phone plan.
The family home in Chautauqua is still a big part of their lives, as Tara purchased it from Rita about two decades ago after Dunbar’s death. Tara, Heidi, and their siblings still travel there in the summer as their schedules allow. “I feel this calm come over me as soon as I enter the gates,” Tara said in 2010.
Off the court, Tara remains as well-rounded as she was as a kid in Chautauqua, though she has traded singing in the opera for playing the piano. (She is known to practice at team hotels on road trips, often performing for the hotel staff.) She also plays bridge with Rita and enjoys swimming, waterskiing, sailing, and biking on her Peloton.
In part, that well-roundedness has made Tara the record-setting coach that she is today. Friends and former players have said that learning piano as an adult made her “less obsessed professionally” and more able to empathize with players who were struggling to learn a new skill. In addition, she considered retiring four or five years ago but felt rejuvenated after taking a summer off, so she now makes sure to have more balance in her regular routine.
In the postgame press conference after she got her 1,099th win, a reporter asked Tara what she wanted to tell girls who aspire to follow in her footsteps.
“Whether it's me or my assistants, like Katy Steding or Kate Paye or Britney Anderson, to see those coaches and to see the women on our sideline is the best message,” she said. “To be able to see them doing that, I think then [young girls] can see themselves doing it.
“But I would just say have confidence and be passionate about whatever you do, whatever it is. And if it's basketball, more power to you.”
Families previously featured in this series include the Cavinders, Stephanie Mavunga and Jeanette Pohlen-Mavunga, the McGees, the twins in the West Coast Conference, the Vanderquigs, Erica McCall and DeWanna Bonner, Chennedy Carter and Jia Perkins, the Joneses, the Samuelsons, the Ogwumikes (Part 1 and Part 2), and the Mabreys.