Harvard has boasted among its ranks coaches who have made profound, indelible changes in the history of college athletics. There’s Harold Ulen, who, starting in 1929, developed a winning men’s swimming program over his 30-year tenure. John “Jack” Barnaby spent 40 years in charge of the men’s and women’s squash programs and trained some of the game’s greatest players. In his 30 seasons as head coach of the track and field program, William McCurdy racked up 445 wins and was considered one of the great instructors of his age. And nobody can forget legendary crew coach Harry Parker, who, after his appointment in 1961, has won numerous national championships and has raised Harvard crew into the highest echelon of sporting excellence.
In this 2011-2012 season, another Crimson coach will join the ranks of these dedicated mentors. Kathy Delaney-Smith enters her 30th season at the helm of the Harvard women’s basketball program as the winningest Ivy League women’s coach in history with a 456-319 overall record. Delaney-Smith is second in Ivy League victories with 274 (legendary former Princeton men’s basketball coach Pete Carril holds the top mark with 315 in 29 years). She has coached nine 20-win seasons and her teams have posted records of .500 or better in 22 of the last 23 years.
Delaney-Smith has many impressive numbers to her name, but the one that matters the most to the coach is the 11 Ivy League titles that Harvard has won in its history, all under her guidance.
“All the titles are big successes,” Delaney-Smith says. “Every time we can win an Ivy League title, I feel terrific about that. I think the first title was the easiest, and then they get progressively harder after that. ... It’s easier to get to the top than it is to stay on the top. Anyone that can stay on the top, hats off to those people.”
The Massachusetts native has made sure that Harvard contends for the title every year. After her appointment in the 1983 season, Delaney-Smith has never had a title drought longer than four years and has specifically enjoyed much success in the last decade, winning five of her titles during that span. Under her guidance, the Crimson women’s basketball program has qualified for the NCAA Tournament six times and the NIT Tournament twice.
But if Delaney-Smith had her way in the early 70’s, all of this would have never happened.
Originally passionate about swimming, Delaney-Smith was forced to train the basketball team when her school’s superintendent added that stipulation to the terms of her dream job as a teacher and swimming instructor. The future Harvard and USA national team coach had played basketball in high school under the tutelage of her mother, Peg Delaney, but was thrust into a coaching role without much experience.
“I didn’t want to be a basketball coach,” Delaney-Smith recalls. “I wanted to be a swim coach, believe or not. I did not play in college, which is unusual for someone [who coaches basketball]. It’s a very unusual career path. I [grew to love] coaching basketball, so I retired from swimming. Then the rest is history, and here I am.”
Delaney-Smith went on to accumulate a 204-31 record at Westwood High School, a feat that opened up several coaching opportunities and eventually led to her position at Lavietes Pavilion.
But despite an impressive career at the high school level, Delaney-Smith always felt like there was something left to learn.
“I did not have a lot of knowledge, so I had a lot of people that were questioning why I had success, and maybe I really wasn’t that good of a coach,” Delaney-Smith recalls. “I would read book after book after book, and I would go to every conference I could go to to learn the game.
“Honestly, I had no right being a Division I head coach because I didn’t play in college, and I didn’t ever coach at the college level. Jack Reardon was the athletic director [at the time], and he took a chance on me, I guess.”
That chance paid off. After three seasons, the Crimson women were lifting the first Ancient Eight trophy in the program’s history. Two seasons later, they would win it again.
Delaney-Smith had begun to establish a tradition of excellence that only grew in the coming decades.