They give no trophies or parades or rings as big as headlights for such things, and they don’t put it on plaques or the covers of media guides, but it can fairly be said that Tara VanDerveer is the most underrated great coach in America.
In any sport.
VanDerveer is a chunk of the weekend away from winning her 1,000th college basketball game, either Friday against Southern California or Monday against UCLA. It would make her the third coach in history after Pat Summitt and Mike Krzyzewski to achieve that well-rounded milestone, and you may bet hard American currency that she will answer the hackneyed, “What does this mean to you?” question with a dismissive “It means I’ve been around for a long time.”
Which is part of why she is so underrated. She’s been around for a very long time – next year will be her 40th – and between Idaho (two years), Ohio State (five), Stanford (30) and the U.S. Olympic Team (one), a very long time in this culture is an excuse to overlook, and overlooking leads to dismissing, and dismissing leads to underrating.
Next, she’s done most of her work on the West Coast, which due to the curvature of the earth, has always been undervalued by the opinionmakers in the East and Midwest by virtue of that traditional cultural defining point, bedtime.
Third, most of her career has been as a second banana, first to Summitt and Tennessee and then to Geno Auriemma. She’s taken eleven teams to the Final Four but won only twice, and our culture values silver and bronze medals the way we value dryer lint. It also doesn’t help that her teams lost four times to Auriemma’s Connecticut and twice to Summitt’s Tennessee.
Fourth, she never could muster up a good feud the way Auriemma and Summitt did. She had this annoying habit of getting along with almost all her contemporaries (and maybe all of them; we hold out hope that she disliked at least one coach, and that said hatred was reciprocated), and while she talked willingly and expansively to any medioid with a pen, a tape recorder, a camera or an Etch-A-Sketch, she left no earth scorched in her quotable wake. These days, that is a condemnation, not a laudable trait.
Fifth, being the third person to do anything is a little harder sell these days, especially when you’re not the first in either gender category.
But sixth and most compelling of these already seamless arguments, VanDerveer is mostly an insider’s coach. She has won a steady stream of raves from her peers for decades because she has not only won for three decades but been supportive of both her contemporaries and potential successors while mercilessly kicking their hinders. Her peers regard her as much as collaborator as competitor, but outside that circle she has not done the self-aggrandizing and sometimes degrading things that need to be done to become (ick) famous. Give her a choice between the ESPYs and a clinic in a hot gym in mid-July, and she will unhesitatingly choose option B.
Okay, almost unhesitatingly. The woman has an ego, like every other coach ever, and if some network ever needs to force an award upon her, she’ll find a way to turn up.
For all this, when the list of extraordinary coaches is drawn up, hers will not be a name that comes easily to paper (or laptop, or smartphone, or Etch-A-Sketch). She’s done everything a coach can do except aggressively seek out fame, which makes her underrated by definition.
But maybe if Stanford beats USC Friday, she’ll do the postgame presser drunk, or read from Rickey Henderson’s speech the day he broke Lou Brock’s stolen base record, or offer to beat up any other basketball coach in America, tavern parking lot rules, starting with Steve Kerr.
That’d get her noticed for something other than her technical ubercompetence or lofty success level or absurd longevity or nearly antiseptic reputation among her fellow toilers. But she won’t, of course, because she seems exactly the sort to enjoy her underrated-ness too much.
Which, while exceedingly admirable on nearly every level, isn’t the stuff of good clickbait.