HAVRE — On Sunday, Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer became the all-time winningest coach in NCAA history when she won her 1,203rd game.
Her career has spanned 46 years, stops at Idaho, Ohio State and Stanford and included 13 apperances in the Final Four and three national championships.
But the very first win of VanDerveer’s career might have been one of toughest of those 1,203 victories.
In her first season as head coach of Idaho, the Vandals faced Northern Montana College (now MSU-Northern) in their season opener at the Kibbie Dome in Moscow, Idaho. The Skylights pushed the Vandals to overtime before falling 70-67.
The Skylights' roster consisted primarily of Montana athletes, including Kelly Veis of Scobey.
"You know, we had most of our team was all Montana kids,” Veis told MTN Sports. "I think there was one girl from Wyoming that played with us, but it was all Montana farm kids that were built tough."
Veis was a sophomore for the Skylights in 1979, and she has memories of that game at the Kibbie Dome in December.
“I remember it well because they were a much bigger program. I think everybody thought we were going to get beat up,” Veis recalled. “And at first it started to look that way. But then we decided to play the game of basketball like we know how.”
The only known record of the game is a recap in the Argonaut, the Idaho student newspaper. Here’s how it describes the early part of the contest:
“In the first half it looked like it might have been a mismatch as Idaho built a 12-point lead. However, Northern Montana came back to tie it up 30-30 two minutes into the second half and from there the see-saw battle began."
The game eventually went to overtime with the Skylights surprising the favored Vandals with their grit. Tied at 67, the Vandals fouled to send Skylight post Stacey Fairbank to the line. She missed the free throw, and Idaho’s Connie Ottman hit a jumper with 13 seconds left for the win.
It was a tough loss to a good team whose coach would go on to set records and win titles. Veis led all scorers with 23 points in the overtime loss.
“We didn't think we lost, because we played to their caliber,” Veis said. “So we thought we were right there in that situation. So it was a loss in the record books, but it was a big boost for us"
After the game, VanderVeer was quoted as saying, “I hope they aren’t all like this.”
Safe to say, wins came easier for VanDerveer from that point on.
But there was nothing easy about women’s college basketball at the time.
The sport was governed by the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) until the NCAA took over in 1982. Scheduling, recruiting and traveling in those early days of women’s sports was a free-for-all.
And Northern Montana only scheduled a game with Idaho because of a mutual connection between VanDerveer and Skylights head coach Linda Ponikvar.
“I had a friend in grad school who knew Tara,” Ponikvar told MTN Sports. “And that’s how we arranged that game.”
Ponvikar remembers VanDerveer as a serious, intellectual coach who was well-positioned to ride the waves of growth and change as the college women’s game slowly, and sometimes painfully, became equitable to the men’s game at universities across the country.
"We didn't know at the time who would survive women’s college basketball at that time because it was a tough go. You know, we weren't paid a ton. We had to do a lot of stuff like drive buses and vans and things like that,” Ponikvar said. “We did all of our own scheduling. There really weren't a lot of leagues put together yet when we competed. We would all schedule whatever we could schedule based on relationships with other coaches and other athletic directors.”
The game is in a much better place today, thanks to pioneers like VanDerveer and programs like Northern Montana College that competed hard and embraced women’s sports early.
“I think Montana was a little ahead of its time in fairness and equity,” Ponikvar said. “So when leagues did start to form, there was easy alignment and built in interest. But if you look at the sport where we were 45 years ago and where we are today, it’s amazing. I shouldn’t say amazing, because it should have happened earlier."
Though Ponikvar and Veis once competed with VanDerveer, they consider her a role model for the game these days. Veis is a longtime coach in Havre, who has helped guide the Blue Ponies to several state titles. She attended the Sweet 16 at Gonzaga in 2008, just so her stepdaughters could watch a program like the Cardinal and their legendary head coach.
“It’s something they’ll never forget. Skill wise, it's so different,” Veis said. "The progression of the game has been tremendous. And Tara was one of the pioneers of that, her and (Tennessee coach) Pat Summitt. And that's the two coaches I look up to.”
Who knows what VanDerveer’s career would have looked like if Northern at upset Idaho in her first-ever game. Veis thinks not much would have changed.
“They just had a tough game and she moved on from it and kept going,” Veis said. “I have all the respect in the world for Tara and what she’s done and the way she coaches. She just wants the kid to have fun, enjoy and love the game of basketball. We could use more of that."