The Post-Journal

Legendary Career

VanDerveer Never Forgot Chautauqua During Record-Breaking Run

Tara VanDerveer speaks at Chautauqua.
In this July 2021 photo, Stanford women’s basketball coach Tara VanDerveer smiles while answering a question during an appearance at Chautauqua Golf Club. VanDerveer, college basketball’s all-time wins leader, announced her retirement Tuesday. P-J file photo by Scott Kindberg.

When I was a kid, I used to write letters to prominent sports figures in the hopes that they would be kind enough to reply with an autographed photo. I never figured out my “batting average” from the early 1970s, but I’ve got to believe I arrived at my mailbox on Hallock Street in Jamestown pretty happy about 3 out of 10 times.

Among those who responded were stars from Major League Baseball (Hank Aaron and Nolan Ryan); the National Basketball Association (Lew Alcindor — now known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — Walt Frazier, Willis Reed and John Havlicek); and the NFL (Dick Butkus, Alan Page and Sonny Jurgensen).

I’d be willing to bet that Tara VanDerveer, the winningest college basketball coach in history, has also received plenty of similar correspondence — letters and, later, emails and texts — during her 45-year career from fans who rooted for her and the women’s teams she mentored at Utah, Ohio State and Stanford, as well as the 1996 United States squad she guided to a gold medal.

And I’ll also go out on a limb and suggest that Tara’s correspondence percentage is far better than what I experienced with famous athletes a half-century ago. Because, well, that’s just who she is.

Yes, she won a stunning 1,216 games and three NCAA championships, but I assert that the Hall-of-Fame coach, who announced her retirement earlier this week at age 70, is the same person now as she was when she was a counselor at Chautauqua Institution as a teenager.

Tara VanDerveer, left, and World Golf Hall of Famer Nancy Lopez.
Stanford women’s basketball coach Tara VanDerveer, left, and World Golf Hall of Famer Nancy Lopez speak during an 2021 event at Chautauqua Golf Club’s Double Eagle Cafe. P-J file photo by Scott Kindberg.

I went back into the archives to confirm it.


Upon Tara winning her 1,098th game in December 2020 to tie the legendary Pat Summitt, Jamestown resident Dave Turnbull texted his friend.

“(I wanted) to wish her luck on her upcoming record-breaking game,” Dave told me. “She responded exactly how I would have expected: ‘Thanks, Dave! Hope all is well with you and your family! Do you have snow?’

“As great of a basketball coach that Tara is, she is even a better person. She is humble, kind and down to earth.”

Turnbull, who coached girls high school basketball at Maple Grove and Southwestern and is now the women’s basketball coach at Jamestown Community College, noted that Tara provided “several lifelong memories” for his high school players, including allowing the Southwestern team attend Stanford’s closed practice in Columbus, Ohio, prior to playing in the season-opening shootout with UConn, Louisville and Ohio State. At the conclusion of practice, Tara took a team picture at midcourt.

“Tara’s kindness will forever be remembered by all of the girls that were fortunate to be part of these special occasions,” Dave said.

Nancy Bargar and Wendy Lewellen have known Tara since the early 1960s, a bond that was formed when they were counselors at the Boys & Girls Club at Chautauqua.

“I could always see that she, the oldest of five children, was special,” Wendy recalled in 2020. “If pressed to define her in one word, I would choose, ‘focused.’ The rest of us were pinballs. She was a laser. I still feel that to be true today. She had her nose in a book as (the rest of us) prioritized the evenness of our tans and how to sneak out to (Snug Harbor).

“I believe that if it hadn’t been basketball it would have been something else. But for some reason the sport of basketball seized her intellect and her spirit and it clearly, thankfully, has not yet released its grip.”

Tara’s retirement announcement, which came late Tuesday night, means that the 24/7 head coaching demands are over, but that doesn’t mean she will leave Stanford athletics completely.

The Cardinal will be the beneficiaries.

“Tara’s treatment of people overall (and) her understanding of personal relationships goes a long way in motivating everyone she comes in contact with,” Nancy told me in 2020.


Randy Anderson the president of the Chautauqua Sports Hall of Fame, witnessed Tara’s ability to connect with people in June 2010 when she addressed a group of several hundred at the Scharmann Theatre on the campus of Jamestown CC. Prior to her presentation, she received a plaque and ring for being a member of the 2010 CSHOF inductee class.

Since then, Anderson has remained in contact with Tara via email and he even attended a Stanford game when the Cardinal played at the University at Buffalo several years ago.

“On and off the basketball court, Tara VanDerveer is the gold standard for coaching,” he said. “Her accomplishments rank her among the best of the best, but what has always impressed me is that she has done it the right way. She has always treated the game with the highest level of respect. Tara’s legacy is more than wins and championships. It is in the way she treats people. It’s never been about her. It’s been about everyone else.”

And when she has been honored for her coaching accomplishments, she never forgets to remind people where she came from, particularly Chautauqua Institution where she owns a home.

“Tara has been inducted into some of the most prestigious halls of fame in America, yet she has always shown appreciation of her enshrinement in the Chautauqua Sports Hall of Fame,” Anderson said. “She cherishes her long association with Chautauqua Institution and the many friends she has in Chautauqua County.”

In 2013, Tara spoke to a gathering at the United Methodist House on the Institution grounds.

“This is a caring place, this is a compassionate place, this is a we-have-time-for-each-other place,” she said that day. “That’s part of why I’m here.”

So even though Tara has met two U.S. presidents during a career that began in the Carter Administration and is a central figure in the ESPN 30-for-30 documentary “Dream On,” she seems to be most at home on the shores of Chautauqua Lake.

Noted Anderson: “The Chautauqua Sports Hall of Fame wishes Tara sincere congratulations upon her retirement and looks forward to seeing her more often in our community.”

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