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Curing the Basketball Blues

Basketball's Kathy Delaney Smith

By Michael Stankiewicz

The 1984-85 Harvard women's basketball team finished with an 8-18 record--the team's sixth consecutive losing season. Over the course of those six years, the Crimson won only 27 percent of its games.

But the Crimson cagers have revived from the dead, and the doctor who performed the CPR is Coach Kathy Delaney Smith. In the last three years, her team has won 54 of its 78 games and its premiere Ivy League titles in 1986 and 1988.

"She's a great motivating coach," says senior Nancy Cibotti, who also played under Delaney Smith on the New England Junior Olympic team in high school.

Harvard's sixth year coach has a career lifetime record of 72-81. She has now won more games than any other Harvard women's basketball coach, passing her predecessor, Carole Kleinfelder, with Saturday night's win over Brown. Thirty six of her wins have come in the Ivy League--29 over the last three years.

However, Delaney Smith's main gift as a coach, at least according to her players, is her friendship.

"She worries about you as a person first," senior Mary Baldauf says.

"Kathy takes time out to get to know you outside of basketball," Cibotti adds. "She talks to us and she has a tremendous amount of respect for us."

Delaney Smith's basketball roots are odder than one would expect of such a successful coach at a Division I college. In high school, she played six-player, no-dribble basketball, which she termed, "very, very different from the game of basketball." She swam at Bridgewater (Mass.) State College, which did not have a basketball team.

As the head coach of Westwood (Mass.) High School, Delaney Smith's squads accumulated an incredible 204-31 record, and she was named National High School Coach of the Year in 1981. Her teams played six undefeated seasons, including a five-year span when Westwood won 96 consecutive games.

"My team got a phenomenal amount of press coverage," Delaney Smith says. "I guess a couple of people on Harvard's search committee lived nearby and had heard about me."

In 1982, that committee selected Westwood's Delaney Smith, who became Harvard's third women's basketball coach. Nobody on that committee can regret the decision.

"She's very open-minded," Tri-Captain Barb Keffer says. "She listens to her assistants' suggestions and the players' suggestions. She's quite different from many coaches, who tend to be authoritarian."

Delaney Smith has changed her strategy almost as much as she has changed her hairdo. An avid believer in pressure defense, she abandoned it in her first few years because of Harvard's lack of quickness.

"I got away from up-tempo basketball and that was a mistake," the Arlington, Mass. native says. "We've gotten back to it because it allows the players to play up to their fastest potential. Now we just chuckle whenever anyone mentions that they have to stop our quickness. We know better, because we're not athletically a quick team."

Delaney Smith also gives her players a lot of free rein on how they should play on the court.

"Kathy's been lenient on us and the fewer restrictions really helps," Tri-Captain Beth Chandler says. "It's a lot more fun. We can play without worrying about too many things."

When looking for players for her team, the Crimson's coach doesn't look for basketball talent first. Foremost, she tries to find people with the personality to fit her team philosophy, passing up great basketball talents who didn't fit the Harvard women's basketball mold.

"I also look for a natural athlete at the expense of basketball skills," Delaney Smith says. "All my players have the motivation to grow once they get here."

Double Trouble

Harvard's coach stresses the importance of off-season training for her players, including weight training and a lot of pickup games. Delaney Smith is extremely active in the summer herself, working at the Women's Five Star Camp as well as directing the Wayne Embry Basketball Camp since 1976.

"Because of my weak basketball background, I have a lot to learn about the sport, and I do that during the summer," Delaney Smith notes.

But any discussion of Harvard's coach must begin and end with her effervescent personality. Always actively promoting women's basketball, Delaney Smith enthusiastically talks to parents, fans, friends and journalists after every game--making everyone feel right at home at Briggs Cage. Her exuberant attitude was illustrated in a quick, little jig she performed after the Crimson's 76-49 pasting of Princeton earlier this season.

"She gets along with everyone, and it's easy to joke around with her," Keffer says. "She's also been a different coach since Jared was born. He was the one thing I felt was missing in her life."

Jared was born to Delaney Smith and her husband, Francis Smith, just prior to last year's season. But for the Crimson's coach, having a child was nothing compared to resuscitating the Harvard women's basketball program.

This year, Delaney Smith's patient checked out of the hospital and a victory over Dartmouth in tonight's checkup will give the Crimson a clean bill-of-health.

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