Less than 30 minutes after walking out of practice at Maples Pavilion, Coach Tara VanDerveer is on a different bench.
The sleeves on her red Stanford basketball sweat shirt are pushed up and she is hard at work -- back straight, fingers curved -- playing classical pieces by memory on a piano in her living room.
Besides leading one of the nation’s best women’s basketball teams, Stanford’s 18th-year coach is a third-year piano apprentice.
“I had a 5-foot-1 point guard piano. Now it’s a 7-foot-6 Yao Ming piano,” says VanDerveer, proud of her grand piano. “I went from a point guard to a center.”
VanDerveer just finished her third CD, but only for the enjoyment of family and friends. On road trips, she stays at hotels with pianos so she can fit in her daily practice, and sometimes serenades her team during meals.
Each week, VanDerveer has a 90-minute piano lesson with Jodi Gandolfi -- a session that’s 40 minutes longer than what the average student takes.
“She wants to cover more material,” said Gandolfi, who often plays duets with the coach. “She memorizes very quickly.”
This whole thing began when VanDerveer and her sister, Heidi, were in an electronics store and VanDerveer decided she needed a keyboard to take on road trips so she could teach herself to play.
“I thought it was something I’d do when I retired,” she said. “But you’ve got to be 85 to retire in California.... I really like to play. It’s not a chore, but it’s hard.”
It has even helped her coaching.
VanDerveer earned her sixth Pac-10 coach of the year award and second straight last season when the Cardinal finished an impressive 27-5 and won the inaugural Pac-10 tournament. This year, she has the Cardinal ranked seventh and poised for a deep postseason run.
Playing the piano has become a much-needed diversion for the 50-year-old VanDerveer, who has been reminded just how hard it is to pick up a new skill. She has become more patient with her players, better understands the learning curve and knows the anxiety that comes with performing in front of large groups.
“I’ve learned a lot about coaching being a student,” she said. “I’m used to being the boss all the time.”
During one recital for her coaching staff, Gandolfi gave VanDerveer a gentle reminder: “Posture!”
“It cracked everyone up because they’re not used to having someone boss me around,” VanDerveer said.
Gandolfi usually doesn’t accept beginning students but made an exception for VanDerveer -- “We each decided we’d be on probation,” the coach said. VanDerveer does have a music background, which helped her chances of persuading Gandolfi to teach her. VanDerveer gave up the flute as a teenager.
But she was committed this time.
“She has her music with her all the time,” said leading scorer and All-America candidate Nicole Powell. “She has her books with her in the weight room. You know she’s going to practice. She’s intense about it. You know she’s going to go all out.”
While her mornings are spent working out and walking her two 6-year-old golden retrievers, Scout and Cody -- they often listen to her play from under the piano -- VanDerveer practices for a minimum of an hour each afternoon or evening. She goes for two hours if she can.
VanDerveer has led Stanford to two NCAA championships, five Final Four appearances and 11 Pac-10 titles, and she’s a three-time NCAA coach of the year. She coached the 1996 Olympic team to gold in Atlanta.