Stanford's Tara VanDerveer on retirement: 'Just felt I'm ready'

Tara VanDerveer: Time felt right to retire from legendary coaching career (0:58)

Stanford coach and all-time college basketball coaching wins leader Tara VanDerveer explains why she was ready to retire. (0:58)

PALO ALTO, Calif. -- Stanford women's basketball coach Tara VanDerveer had flirted with retirement several times before, but she never thought she'd quite be ready to walk away from the job with which she has become synonymous for the better part of the past four decades.

Yet there VanDerveer sat at Stanford's Arrillaga Family Sports Center on Wednesday afternoon, spending roughly 45 minutes answering questions, telling stories and recounting the highs and lows of a legendary career in which she became the NCAA's winningest basketball coach with 1,216 victories at Stanford, Ohio State and Idaho, three national championships and 14 Final Fours at Stanford.

Stanford announced VanDerveer's decision to retire Tuesday night, adding that she will remain affiliated with the university in an advisory role and that Kate Paye, VanDerveer's longtime assistant and former player, was in the middle of negotiations to replace her. VanDerveer's retirement from the coaching position will become official May 8, which will mark exactly 39 years since she was hired as the Cardinal's coach.

"After every year I really evaluate it, I've probably retired at least 20 times in my mind," VanDerveer said. "I just felt I'm ready. I never really thought I would be. I just felt like maybe I would just keel over on the bench because I love it. ... It kind of just came together."

For VanDerveer, it all came together after a season in which she didn't necessarily know it would be her last but checked plenty of boxes if it was going to be, especially with the diminishment of the Pac-12.

But even with the Pac-12's disintegration and Stanford poised to move to the Atlantic Coast Conference next year, a move that will come with a taxing travel schedule, VanDerveer emphasized that didn't play a role in her decision to step away.

"I want to just say that it has nothing to do with going into the ACC," VanDerveer said. "Really, that was a motivator to want to stay, to play that competition because I think it's going to be a great, great league."

According to VanDerveer, the motto for the 2023-24 Cardinal was simply "best year ever," and she was motivated to make it just that.

Along the way, she surpassed Mike Krzyzewski's NCAA record of 1,202 wins Jan. 21 and, more important, coached a team that ranked in the top 10 most of the year before bowing out in the Sweet 16.

As VanDerveer and her team walked off the Maples Pavilion court following a round of 32 overtime win against Iowa State, she allowed herself to ponder the idea that if it was her last game on the sidelines in Palo Alto, it was a fun way to go out.

According to some of her players, VanDerveer had made a habit throughout the season of savoring every moment. It was, perhaps, a clue that retirement might be forthcoming, but nobody was certain.

After Stanford's 77-67 loss to NC State in the Sweet 16, VanDerveer said she did what she usually does, taking some time to assess where she stood and if she wanted to continue. During that period of reflection, VanDerveer considered the amount of work and dedication it took to succeed at her job.

The thoughts struck a similar tone to 10 years ago, when VanDerveer said she came closest to walking away as she struggled with exhaustion. At a dinner with longtime Stanford supporter John Arrillaga and with the blessing of athletics director Bernard Muir, VanDerveer agreed to return but with the caveat that she would need the summer off.

This time, though, VanDerveer thought of playing bridge with her 97-year-old mother, Rita, and the opportunity to go water skiing and sailing without having to worry about the recruiting or any of the many other endless responsibilities of coaching.

Ultimately, VanDerveer decided she couldn't give her all around the clock anymore. She informed the school of her retirement Tuesday night and called her mother before the news broke.

"It's a bittersweet moment," senior guard Hannah Jump said. "I'm very happy for her and everything she's accomplished and all the lives and relationships she has kind of touched here. But also, it's sad. She had such an impact on this sport and all of our lives as well."

Stanford has not yet formally announced Paye as VanDerveer's successor, but all sides are aiming for that to happen sooner than later. Paye played for VanDerveer from 1991 to 1995 and has been on Stanford's staff for the past 17 seasons, during which she emerged as the obvious choice to one day step into the lead job.

On Wednesday, VanDerveer called Paye her "security blanket," and noted that Paye has paid her dues, passing up other head-coaching opportunities to wait her turn in Palo Alto. Now that time is near, and Paye acknowledged Wednesday the challenge that comes with replacing a legend.

"Tara is one of one," Paye said. "That's plain and simple. Nobody could ever replace her or duplicate her."

Paye said that while there will be plenty of change for the program in the next year, she expects to retain the coaching staff as she hopes to "lean into continuity."

And, as Paye and the Stanford program forge a new path, VanDerveer won't be far away. While VanDerveer is looking forward to doing the things her life in basketball have kept her from doing, she said she has more to contribute to the athletic program, whether that's as an ambassador or in an advisory role in which she helps coach other coaches.

"I want to be involved," VanDerveer said. "But it'll be a balance. When you're a coach ... You're on 24/7, and I'm ready for maybe just the seven, not the 24."

VanDerveer's retirement comes at a time when a handful of some of the most successful coaches in sports have also walked away from high-profile jobs, if not retired altogether. Former Alabama football coach Nick Saban retired after winning seven national championships. Former New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick did the same after winning six Super Bowls.

But VanDerveer is also walking away at a time when women's college basketball is thriving at previously unmatched levels. Sunday's NCAA championship game between Iowa Hawkeyes and South Carolina Gamecocks averaged 18.7 million viewers, besting the men's final by nearly four million average viewers, and marking the first time the women's final has drawn a larger number than the men.

While none of that seemed factor into VanDerveer's decision to stay or go, she said it will help her walk away at peace with her choice.

"The support for women's basketball is just growing, and for basketball in general, it's very, very exciting," VanDerveer said. "I feel like I'm leaving it in a good place."