For much of their early history, the Stanford Women’s Basketball team rarely made an impact in the NCAA. While their teams weren’t terrible, they also were not dominant on a consistent basis. That all changed when the Cardinal hired Tara VanDerveer as their coach in 1985. Between the Springs of 1989 and 1995, the Cardinal basketball team went to two Sweet Sixteen’s, two Elite Eight’s, two Final Four’s and won two National Championships. Since the beginning of that magnificent stretch, there has hardly been a year where the Cardinal has not made a serious contention for the National Championship. They earned respect within the ranks of the NCAA and are now considered to be a powerhouse. What follows is the story of their rise to greatness.
Tara VanDerveer was born on June 26, 1953 in Melrose, Massachusetts. Later growing up in upstate New York, there were no sports for females at her high school, so she had to improvise by playing on recreational teams and pickup games. Though her father opposed her obsession of the game, she continued to pursue her love of basketball.
Her first experience with a basketball team in a formal setting was with Buffalo Seminary, an all-girls college preparatory school. After playing at Albany as a freshman, she decided to transfer to Indiana to give herself a bigger challenge. Following her graduation in 1975, she briefly attended law school but basketball still called. She ran out of money for law school and returned home but her parents would not let her sit idly by. They encouraged her to coach her sister’s basketball team.
The idea of coaching intrigued her and she set out to learn as much as possible about how to be an effective coach. After stints as an assistant coach with Ohio State and Old Dominion, VanDerveer became the head coach of the University of Idaho in 1978. It was an interesting start to a legendary career as the Vandals were independent from any particular conference. Going 17-8 in that first year, Idaho moved to the Northwest Empire League in 1979. They went 10-2 in their conference and 25-6 overall, losing in the first round of the AIAW Tournament.
In 1980, she moved on to Ohio State where she would lead the Buckeyes for the next five years. After finishing her inaugural season in Columbus with a less than stellar 17-15 record, she led Ohio State to the NCAA Tournament each of the next four years. They only made it as far as the first round until her final year in 1984-1985, where they would make the Elite Eight. With a 110-37 record in Columbus, VanDerveer became a target for offers from other schools, including the Stanford Cardinal. She accepted Stanford’s offer in 1985 and made her way to Palo Alto, California.
When Tara VanDerveer arrived in Palo Alto, the Cardinal had been in a downward slide for the past couple of years, bottoming out at 5-23 in the 1983-1984 season. Taking over a team which had finished 9-19 the year before she arrived was a daunting task, but it was one which she had been preparing for the past decade. The first two years were frustrating, with Stanford losing slightly more than they won.
The program made a turn for the better in the 1987-1988 season, going 27-5 and finishing ranked 13th in the nation. Though they lost to Texas in the Sweet 16, the Cardinal knew that better days were ahead. The 1988-1989 season was another step closer to the top. Stanford went 28-3 and finished fourth in the nation. They lost to Louisiana Tech in the Elite Eight but the best was yet to come.
The First Championship
The 1989-1990 Cardinal was on a mission to win their first national championship. Led by Jennifer Azzi and Sonja Henning, they started the season winning their first 20 games before losing to Washington 81-78. It would be the only blemish in an otherwise perfect season. They handled Hawaii, Mississippi and Arkansas with ease before vanquishing Virginia 75-66, setting up a national championship clash with the Auburn Tigers. On April 4, 1989, Stanford beat Auburn 88-81 to win their first national championship. While they were thrilled, the weight of defending that title weighed heavily on their shoulders.
The 1990-1991 season was a tougher road to travel for the Lady Cardinal. Due to their recent National Championship, every opponent they faced gave them every ounce of effort that they could muster. They lost the first game of the year to Tennessee 95-80, but rebounded to win 17 out of the next 19 games, finishing the season a respectable 26-6. However, their troubles with Pat Summitt and her Tennessee Volunteers continued, losing to them 68-60 in the Final Four.
The following season was one of redemption for the Cardinal. Val Whiting, the eventual recipient of two Pac-10 Women’s Basketball Player of the Year awards, led this resilient bunch and kept them focused on the prize all year. After starting the season by winning their first five games, they faced off against their nemesis from the previous year, Tennessee. They exacted a measure of revenge against the Volunteers, defeating them in overtime 96-95. When the game concluded, they knew that they could win another national championship. There were still some close games in the season but they never lost hope and finished with a 30-3 record, defeating Western Kentucky 78-62 in the National Championship Game.
The Cardinal continued their ways of excellence in 1992-1993, winning 26 and losing six games. Tennessee won their annual matchup 84-79. Stanford finished the season ranked sixth in the nation but lost to Colorado 80-67 in the Sweet Sixteen.
The 1993-1994 season was much the same. Once again they lost to the Volunteers in the regular season (81-75) and they finished the season 25-6. They lost to Purdue in the Elite Eight by a score of 82-65. The next two years were excellent, with Kate Starbird leading the Cardinal to the Final Four in each year. They lost to Connecticut (87-60) in 1995 and to Georgia (86-76) in 1996. Little did they know that this era of success would stretch far into the 21st century.
Following this magnificent stretch, the Stanford Cardinal Women’s Basketball team has been to the NCAA Tournament every year since. VanDerveer took a year off in 1995-1996 to coach Team USA. The team didn’t skip a beat with Amy Tucker and Marianne Stanley both coaching in VanDerveer’s absence and returned to the Final Four when she returned the following year. Since that year, Stanford has been to seven Final Four’s and have been to two National Championships, losing both. Along the way, Stanford has been the home of some excellent talent including the Ogwumike sisters, Kayla Pederson, Candice Wiggins, Korel Engin and Nicole Powell. They’re current level of dominance would not have been possible without the legacy of the early teams.