Moments before her team tipped off against Ohio State on Friday at St. John Arena, Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer traveled across the baseline on the south side of the building, giving and receiving a series of hugs and handshakes.
VanDerveer hasn’t been Ohio State’s coach in 32 years, but seeing so many former players brought back memories.
“It was probably more emotional than I wanted it to be,” VanDerveer said after Stanford’s 85-64 loss to Ohio State. “I coached some great, great players here at Ohio State. I think we were here with the (1996) Olympic team but that was really different. It was really fun to see everyone and I had a great experience when I was here. I didn’t want (the moment) in any way to distract (from) the game.”
VanDerveer, who coached at Ohio State from 1981-85 before leaving for Stanford, admired a photo of the 1981-82 women’s basketball team before Friday’s game. She met with Theresa Busch, Kristin Watt and Yvette Angel, three of the four members of her first recruiting class at Ohio State. She saw Phyllis Bailey, Ohio State’s first women’s basketball coach.
“It’s kind of emotional, but I think that I just really wonder, ‘Where did all the time go?’” VanDerveer said Saturday at Nationwide Arena. “Ohio State, it was great to be back and I would love to come back with our team (for the Final Four).”
Ohio State went 16-18 in 1979-80, the season before VanDerveer took over, and 17-15 in her first year. She went 93-22 in her final four seasons, winning three straight Big Ten regular season titles from 1983-85.
VanDerveer took a similar approach to improving Ohio State and Idaho, where she spent her first two seasons as a head coach before coming to Columbus.
“It was challenging. I kind of took over each of them (Idaho, Ohio State and Stanford) with a losing (team), so I learned three things: Recruit, recruit, recruit,” she said. “And we got great players in our first recruiting class at Ohio State. We had great players in our first class at Stanford, so that’s obviously a big key to being successful is having great players.”
There’s a rewarding feeling to building something, VanDerveer said, and it’s a process she faces now with a talented but young and inexperienced Stanford team. The Cardinal lost three seniors from a team that made the Final Four a season ago and don’t have many players with a wealth of high-stress minutes against talented opponents.
“This particular Stanford team I think can be one of the most improved teams that I’ve coached. I’d be thrilled to see that,” she said. “We’ve had teams that have been ranked No. 1, but this I think is going to be really special. I feel like we’ve got to get better.”
Even great programs occasionally take their medicine, and it doesn’t taste good. The Cardinal might get another dose Sunday at Nationwide Arena against top-ranked Connecticut, but at the very least VanDerveer hopes to see improvement. She said after Friday’s game she saw fight, but lamented her team losing the rebounding battle 64-41 and giving up 32 second-chance points.
“We’re gonna need people to be resilient and determined and make plays,” she said. “We missed so many layups and I mean rebounding was not in our vocabulary last night. It was horrible.”
VanDerveer has had just one team win less than 20 games this century. At Stanford, even the toughest losses don’t linger.
“What we’re trying to do is give ourselves the best chance of being who we can be,” VanDerveer said. “So we’re taking this path, but it’s hard.”