On April 3, Stanford’s women’s basketball lost to Texas A&M in the semifinal round of the NCAA tournament. Though the prospects for a national championship looked strong, the team was eliminated from the tournament.
The following day, head coach Tara VanDerveer was selected to be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, an impressive honor in her collegiate coaching career. That career has spanned over three decades and included two NCAA championships and over 800 wins – an achievement met by only four other NCAA Division I head coaches prior.
A few days after the semifinal loss and the news of her Naismith selection, *The Review *talked to VanDerveer about the tournament, the loss, her induction, and the team.
Carter: Now that it’s been a few days since the Final Four and things have had time to settle a bit, what are your reactions now to the season overall, the team, and its performance throughout the tournament?
VanDerveer: Well I think that we had an awesome, fabulous, extraordinary season. We had a great tournament run and I just feel like we came as close as a team could come – leading our semifinal game with 10 seconds to go. I just felt like we needed just one really good play and our team – I feel like the way we lost in the [Final Four] semifinal game was very uncharacteristic of our team. Our team had been making big plays all season. Honestly, it was surprising and very disappointing.
Carter: I don’t know whether you’ve had very much time to sit down with the team in the past few days, but if you have, what have those interactions been like?
VanDerveer: Well, we met with the team right after the [semifinal] game. And basically, I shared things with them – you don’t have very long because the press comes in the locker room and so you don’t have a long time – but I just thanked our seniors for just an incredible four years. You know, four Pac10 championships, never losing at home, four Final Fours. It’s just incredible.
But, you know, people were very upset, so I didn’t really say very much. And when they went back to the hotel, we had a team meal. And with just our team, each senior spoke. And basically, the gist of each speech was how much they cared about each other, how much they loved playing with each other, and losing a game wasn’t sad – what was sad was moving on and not being together and playing together anymore.
Carter: Do you think that [reaction] is something that is unique to Stanford, unique to this team, unique to this group, or is it something that throughout your career, you’ve seen before?
VanDerveer: I have seen it before. You know, it’s very hard to get that close [to winning]. It’s almost less painful to lose earlier, but it’s very painful to get that close. And it is really upsetting to feel like you have the power to win, but we just didn’t make the plays we needed to make.
And I think people could be upset with themselves, they could be upset with others. I think that that’s human nature, but I think it takes a mature group, which this team is, to not blame other people and not blame themselves, but say, ‘Hey, we gave it our best, and here’s the outcome.’
Carter: So moving on a little more to yourself. The day after the loss, you were selected to be in the Naismith Hall of Fame. What are your reactions to that looking back now?
VanDerveer: You don’t have any control over the timing. It’s pretty hard because it’s kind of a little bit of a roller coaster. You’re really down and depressed and upset and disappointed about how the season ended. You’re sad to see your really exceptional seniors move on. You know that something special is over. And then the next day, you get the news of something so incredible. I think that had we won and we won a national championship, maybe that news, I would have felt differently about it. But your so low that it is good news, you’re excited, but you’re not as receptive to it as you want to be.
Carter: So it sounds like maybe going through your mind that day, you weren’t going through your whole career. Is it fair to say that your mind was pretty much on that game?
VanDerveer: Yeah, I definitely replayed that last play over and over a million times. I didn’t sleep. Definitely my mind was on our game the night before, not on even the year. You know, I think sometimes you just need a little distance and a little time, when you put so much time into something, to heal. And you know, I definitely wasn’t at that point. As I get farther away, and someday I’ll maybe be in my rocking chair, and I’ll say, ‘Wow, that was something special. Going to four Final Fours.’ And I know intellectually that it is. There are not very many teams that have ever done it, so I know that it is very special, but when you want more, then even that didn’t make you feel better.
Carter: What is your take on being honored, getting high achievements. You’ve had a great, tremendous career, but does it really have that much impact on you on a daily basis?What does it mean to you?
VanDerveer: You know, it is kind of interesting because you were coach of the year or Naismith Hall of Fame. I think it’s recognition. It’s not just for me, it’s not about me, but it’s our whole staff, it’s our support from the University, our President and Athletic Director, it’s all of the players, our managers, our trainers, our team doctors, and I’m kind of where the lightning hits. It’s this great attention and great support for all that we do, and I’m very proud of our staff and our team. And to me, we have the bus driver of the year. You know, if you were to talk to [our manager], when we’re in the back, if he wasn’t paying attention, there could be a wreck on the road. We are surrounded by such extraordinary people at Stanford, that the awards that I get–they’re not me. I’m part of it, but it’s everyone. That’s how I feel.
Carter: So if I can take you back to about a month ago, I don’t know if you’ve heard about it, but “The List” story came out and it caused a lot of controversy on campus, yes, but also in the [national] media. I know they were playing a tournament at the time. Do you have any insight into what they were thinking and what kind of impact it had on them?
VanDerveer: I don’t know the details of the list per se. My understanding was that it was classes kind of grouped more so by time and based on when athletes could get classes and filling their schedule. Any class that is offered at Stanford, with a professor that offer the class, is going to be a great class, but for whatever reason, Stanford is so extraordinary and so special that sometimes I think people get a hold of things and try to twist it and make it look like somehow these are “dumb jocks” and they’re not.
I know that the players, the women on our team, as on other teams, are excellent students and they are quintessential student-athletes, and that is not always the case everywhere. So maybe someone had some sort of axe to grind and this was their way to do it. But our team basically went about picking their classes, and they’re not easy classes, and they continue to do well. I think it was a bump in the road, to be honest with you.
Carter: What is this next year looking like? What is the future looking like for you and the team as well?
VanDerveer: Well, I am extremely optimistic about the future of our women’s basketball team. We have great players returning, led by two-time All American Nneka Ogwumike. We have excellent leadership with our upperclassmen. And we’re very excited about a great class of freshmen that will provide, I think, some of the things that we really needed in this game. We’re going to be a quicker team – we’ll be smaller – but we’ll be a quicker team and hopefully we can be a more aggressive team.
We will definitely miss all of our seniors, but I would say especially Jeanette Pohlen and Kayla Pedersen, and Melanie Murphy actually stepped up really well in the semifinal game. But I think they have left a legacy and it will really be a challenge for any class to accomplish what they have accomplished.
I think, kind of, in some ways, the challenge has been laid down by this senior class: ‘Keep up with us. Let’s see if you can do it.’ And I think that hopefully what our returners and incoming freshmen will say, ‘That’s a great challenge. Let’s try to accomplish that too – going to the Final Four – and let’s top it. Let’s win a national championship.’ So I’m very enthusiastic about the returners and incoming freshmen. The team culture is healthy, very vibrant, really upbeat, positive team to play on.