Harvard's Very Own Coach K
Kathy Delaney-Smith Has Special Bonds On and Off Court
The great Vince Lombardi once said, "Winning is a habit." For Harvard women's basketball coach Kathy Delaney-Smith, it seems that winning is a habit she can't quite shake.
In a career which has spanned over 25 years--the last 15 at Harvard--Delaney-Smith has garnered incomparable success. Beyond her impressive accomplishments on the court, there is an engaging and generous side to Kathy Delaney-Smith off the court.
The very characteristics that make the Crimson's head coach a champion in basketball have allowed her to forge uniquely meaningful relationships with her family, her players and her community. In fact, upon a careful examination of Delaney-Smith's personality, one finds a determined and caring individual who is as deeply sensitive as she is successful.
The first thing one notices about Kathy Delaney-Smith is her magnetic personality. Her mere presence conveys an unmistakable confidence which is surpassed only by the subtle blend of sincerity and witty humor in her words. However, she admits that this self-assurance was not always present.
"I was very shy [in high school]," says Delaney-Smith. "It was so painful to live that way that I just said, 'Screw it! I don't care what people think about me.' I just was very, very shy. No one believes that because I am entirely different now."
Today, Delaney-Smith possesses a candid demeanor, and she is not afraid to speak her mind. But she describes her character, more importantly, as "fair," and this trait becomes evident in the bonds she forms with her players.
Delaney-Smith has that rare ability to blend authority with friendship when dealing with her players, creating special relationships with them. She calls this an "informal" style of coaching and stresses its importance in developing a chemistry between the players themselves.
"My big thing is roles, team spirit and a do-it-for-the-team-put-your-self-second kind of thing," Delaney-Smith says. "When [your opponents are] playing above their level of ability, that's when you need to call on that chemistry, that cohesion, that rhythm. And if you don't have it, you're not going to win as many [games] as you can."
She admits that her coaching style is often criticized. For Delaney-Smith, however, it is a love of people that drives her in her professional career, and she is not about to change the way she works, especially while the results are so positive.
"I am in the profession because I love the people and the women that I work with. If I felt that my informality equaled disrespect... then I would change, but it doesn't. My satisfaction is my relationship with my players. If I'm supposed to be more distant, then I would leave the profession."
Beyond the personal rewards, Delaney-Smith's method of coaching has translated into success with which no one can argue. Before coming to Harvard in 1982, she compiled a spectacular 204-31 record at Westwood (MA) High School.
She led Westwood to six undefeated regular seasons, one state championship and a stretch of 96 consecutive regular season victories. From the high school ranks she went on to revive a struggling Division I college basketball program.
The year before Delaney-Smith came to Harvard, the Crimson posted a dismal record of 4-21. Within four years of Delaney-Smith's arrival, Harvard completed a 20-win season and captured its first ever Ivy League Title.
Since then, the Crimson has won four more Ivy championships (including back-to-back crowns the last two seasons), earned two consecutive NCAA Tournament berths and made history this season by becoming the first team ever to complete an undefeated Ivy League season. Delaney-Smith is now the all-time winningest basketball coach--men's or women's--in Harvard history with 214 career victories.
That is not a bad showing for someone who originally had no desire to coach basketball. Still, Delaney-Smith is not impressed.
"I think you can always do better," Delaney-Smith points out. "I'm not critical of myself, but [I am] very demanding of myself."
One area of her life which Delaney-Smith feels cannot be improved, however, is her family support. Her husband of 22 years, Francis, and their 10-year-old son, Jared, are at every Harvard game cheering for her and the Crimson. They are the first to congratulate her after a victory, and they share her pain after a defeat.
"It's the best," says Delaney-Smith, referring to their support. "I take my job home with me all the time. I am sometimes very bothered by a situation, and [Francis] is always there. He's a great listener. And my son is just like him; my son is great."
Her obvious ability and success as a coach and mother she attributes to her own mother, who was her coach in high school.
"My mother was great," Delaney-Smith says. "[She] was my coach and my biggest fan. She was a great coach. She coached back when no one cared about girls, so I'm sure I learned a lot from her."
While playing for her mother, Delaney-Smith became the first Massachusetts high school women's basketball player to score 1,000 career points. Little did she know that this honor would be followed by many more in an illustrious coaching career.
She has received four coach of the year awards, and in 1986 she became the first woman inducted into the Massachusetts Basketball Coaches Hall of Fame.
Last year she was nominated for the New England Women's Leadership Award honoring outstanding women in the region. This season, for guiding her squad to a perfect 14-0 Ivy League record, she was voted Ivy League Coach of the Year.
This is quite an impressive resume, yet Delaney-Smith does not place much importance on all of these distinctions.
"Awards don't really mean that much to me," she says. "I love getting them and that's really nice, but I don't think about them very much."
What is more important than awards for Delaney-Smith is her community involvement. She runs a summer basketball clinic at Harvard, owns the Net Results Basketball Summer Camp and frequently speaks at youth leagues for girls.
She believes that female athletes and coaches can contribute significantly to the lives of children, particularly young girls. However, according to Delaney-Smith, the process requires more action than that which is currently being taken.
"I have a great interest and belief that we should be out in the class-rooms talking to these kids more," she says. "It's an enormous task, but I believe it should be done."
The prospects for community outreach excite Delaney-Smith in the same manner as the future of women's athletics. But, having fought numerous battles over gender equity in her career, she knows that there is still a long road to travel before parity between genders is reached in athletics.
"I think [the development of women's athletics in this country] is so exciting," says Delaney-Smith, "but it is still painful to do what we've done a number of years and never pack [Lavietes Pavilion.] But I don't think that's Harvard, I think that's society. I just think you need marketing, and the schools that have hired marketing people and win are successful. I believe it's in our future."
As for her own future, Delaney-Smith cannot speak with absolute certainty.
"I think I'm in the best place in the world for me, in what I want to get on a daily basis in quality of life and quality of profession," Delaney-Smith says. "I can't predict how long I will stay here, but I love it here. I want to stop coaching when I am not effective or when I don't enjoy it."
It is difficult to imagine her not enjoying it or being ineffective; both characteristics appear to be incongruous with Kathy Delaney-Smith, the coach and the person. Indeed, Delaney-Smith seems to live her life the same way that she coaches the game of basketball--with and intoxicating enthusiasm which one cannot help but enjoy and respect.
While Crimson basketball fans want to see Delaney-Smith on the Harvard hardwood for many more years, there is no doubt that she has already earned her place in history. Her young son already noted that fact.
Referring to Harvard's perfect Ivy League record this season, Jared said to his father last week, "Dad, guess what? Mom's record can never be broken."
For Delaney-Smith, however, there will always be more to accomplish. Admirably, she not only takes pride in the products of her labor, but also in the labor itself. When asked what she hopes people remember about her, her reply is simple: "I want them to know how hard I worked and how much I cared."