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Last Saturday afternoon, an era in Crimson athletics and in women’s sports history came to an end. Carole Kleinfelder, the Harvard women’s lacrosse coach, walked the sidelines for Harvard in her last home game.
Kleinfelder, the winningest coach in women’s lacrosse history with a mark of 252-124-3, announced her retirement to the team before its 12-2 loss to Princeton on March 21. But beyond the numbers of wins, Ivy League titles and even a national championship, Kleinfelder’s coaches, players and comrades will remember her more for the significant impact she made outside the lines.
Blazing a Trail
When Kleinfelder was named the Crimson’s coach in 1979, few knew the extent of the changes she would bring to women’s sports. To be sure, she was renowned, having already served as the coach of the U.S. National team, and she quickly turned a strong Harvard program into a dynasty that many teams would attempt to emulate. She reached the pinnacle on the field in 1990, when the Crimson capped an undefeated 15-0 season with the first women’s NCAA national championship for Harvard.
To those who know her best, that was one of the most improbable moments. Legendary for her lack of organization, more than a few alumni of her national championship team remarked that it is “amazing that she got to a game on time, let alone won a national championship.”
Underneath the jokes is a relationship that has continued over the years and has gone beyond traditional player-coach boundaries.
“That championship team was unique,” Kleinfelder said. “That team had chemistry so important in winning teams, and they truly loved the game.”
And Kleinfelder’s teams loved her. While interviewing graduates who played for her, one is struck by how close many of them remain to her, having her over for Easter or returning to play in last Saturday’s alumni game.
“It was a privilege and an honor to play for Carole for four years,” said Maggie Vaughan ’90, the captain of Harvard’s national championship team. “And it’s continued to be an honor to count her as a mentor and a friend.”
Kleinfelder’s current players also appreciate their relationships with their coach.
“She’s more than just a coach,” said junior goaltender Laura Mancini. “She cares about all her players, their lives outside of lacrosse, and the team recognizes that.”
Numerous alumni remarked that she encouraged her players to have lives beyond lacrosse—advising them to go to formals, hear visiting speakers or participate in community service.
“She was very unique among coaches at Harvard in stressing balance at school,” Drury said.
A Style All Her Own
Kleinfelder’s relationship with her players was not the only part of her character that made her stand out. Her hands-off style of coaching allowed her players freedom during games.
“That has been a hallmark of her coaching style—not so much drilling as teaching the game, letting her players think for themselves,” assistant Coach Sarah [Downing] Nelson ’94 said.
“Teaching players to think for themselves is totally my philosophy,” Kleinfelder agreed. “That’s one of the distressing parts of sports today—the more timeouts you have, the more coaches take control of the game and the less the players play.”
That was not the case for most of her coaching career, and the principle of teaching her team as opposed to micromanaging her players’ every move paid dividends both on Harvard’s immediate success and the individual players’ career trajectories.
“She taught smart players, and she taught them how to be smart players,” said former goaltender Sarah Leary ’92. “She was a believer in teaching the game so players could think on the fly, just one of the reasons why many of her former players ended up as coaches.”
Amidst the number of ex-Harvardians turned coaches is Nelson, Elizabeth [Berkery] Drury ’93—who served as interim head coach while Kleinfelder was on sabbatical in 1998—and Princeton coach Chris Sailer.
“She was my inspiration for getting into coaching,” Sailer said. “Harvard was the program I tried to emulate here at Princeton.”
Sailer has been successful in that goal—her Tigers won the 2002 national championship and took over the mantle that Harvard once wore by dominating the Ancient Eight.
A Changed World
Part of the Crimson’s fall from the pinnacle of the Ivy League in the mid-1990s has to do with the changing world of women’s lacrosse. Kleinfelder helped bring about that change but hasn’t enjoyed the results.
“Coaching has become all-consuming,” said Kleinfelder, noting that when she began, coaching was not a 12-month appointment and allowed her summers off to unwind and see family.
The time commitment is not the only change. As women’s sports have become more popular and more financially viable, they have also become susceptible to the ills that plague men’s college athletics—recruiting violations and promises of admissions.
“I find the recruiting to be very unsavory,” she said. “I don’t like the whole business. You become less of a teacher and more of a salesperson.”
Pioneer in Women’s Sports
There was one time that Kleinfelder willingly assumed the role of salesperson, but it was a decision made to advance the game of women’s lacrosse she said. She was approached by Brine, maker of lacrosse equipment, about designing a women’s plastic stick.
Men’s lacrosse had recently switched from wooden sticks to molded plastic ones, but women’s teams around the country did not yet have a plastic model. That’s where Kleinfelder stepped in, designing the popular Brine Cup stick and helping promote the use of plastic sticks in the women’s game.
“Getting women to put down their wooden stick was a big hurdle,” Kleinfelder said. “The biggest concern was that the plastic stick would hurt people.”
“Finally we came up with a design, and it was great,” she added. “People still use that stick today.”
Designing the first women’s molded lacrosse stick is a minor accomplishment, however, in comparison to her saving opposing teams whose programs had been cut and, most importantly, her crusading for equal funding of women’s sports at Harvard.
“Carole was one of the real pioneers in getting women’s sports to where they are today,” said Harvard men’s lacrosse coach Scott Anderson.
“Carole is concerned with the sport of lacrosse beyond her team,” Nelson agreed. “And not just lacrosse but women’s sports in general.”
That leadership manifested itself most clearly at the beginning of the 1990s, when women’s sports were losing ground that they had gained years earlier from Title IX.
“There was some pulling back from Title IX in 1990,” Kleinfelder said. “Schools started to drop women’s programs. It was appalling. Thankfully that’s all changed. There’s been a major shift.”
That shift back in favor of women’s sports, both at Harvard and nationally, can be partially traced back to Kleinfelder. In 1990, three universities—Rutgers, UMass and Northeastern—announced they were cutting women’s lacrosse teams, programs that had begun under Title IX just years earlier.
“‘We ought to do something, women’s lacrosse just lost three teams,’” Kleinfelder recalled telling her players. “‘We have a vehicle—we’re in the national championship and will have publicity.’”
At that national championship—an 8-7 Crimson victory over Maryland—and throughout the playoffs, the Crimson donned ribbons. When the press noticed and asked why the team had worn ribbons, the story of the programs being cut received a great deal of media attention.
“It had a great effect, something as simple as ribbons,” Kleinfelder said.
Three days after the story of Harvard’s solidarity with the doomed lacrosse programs ran, a member of the Board of Trustees at Rutgers called Kleinfelder to discuss the article. Rutgers reversed its decisions and reinstated its program that year. UMass followed suit a year later.
The 1990 national championship game is well remembered for the ribbons Harvard donned, but it may be better remembered for how it forever changed the game of women’s lacrosse.
Down by four goals, Kleinfelder made a switch in her defensive scheme, double teaming the other team’s attacker. Having an extra player in the defensive end gave the advantage to Harvard—the Crimson clogged its end, limiting shots and cutting back goals, as well as forcing more turnovers.
“Carole was the first person to pull this coaching move and she effectively used it to win the national championship,” Leary said. “This strategy turned the tide and helped lead us to victory in 1990.”
The impact of the shift was not lost on opposing coaches, and soon more teams began to imitate Kleinfelder’s tactics. But after almost a decade, a rule change was implemented which removed the defensive advantage of her strategy. The rule, called the restraining line, limits the number of players in the defensive zone and effectively promotes a more open, attacking style of play. Still a part of women’s lacrosse rules today, the restraining line was a response to an ingenious strategy of an inventive coach, and it may remain the most widely known (on a national scale) of Kleinfelder’s contributions to the sport of lacrosse.
Fighting for Women’s Opportunities at Home
Three years after the ribbon solidarity in the NCAA playoffs, Kleinfelder found herself mired in another controversy surrounding women’s sports, this time of her own making and in her own backyard.
Examining the Harvard Athletic Department’s budget in 1993, Kleinfelder found a difference in the funding between men’s and women’s sports to the tune of one million dollars. Upset at the injustice of the situation (which would be a violation of Title IX provisions), Kleinfelder spoke out.
“She was a firm believer that you had to make sacrifices to support women’s sports,” Drury said.
Her speech was a sacrifice in and of itself, and it wasn’t well received in the Cambridge community.
Her tires were slashed. Her team’s Earth Day tree was cut down.
Despite recalling those incidents as scary and “totally threatening,” Kleinfelder did not hold her tongue. Again in 1994, she was the lone voice to speak up against Harvard’s Title IX violation.
She eventually found support in University Hall, and a radical policy change was not far behind. After her initiative, men’s and women’s sports at Harvard now receive equal funding, and the women’s sports programs have continued to prosper.
“Carole has always been a very strong advocate of women’s rights and pointing out injustices,” Sailer said. “She never settled for the status quo. It’s made a real difference for women’s sports in general, and Harvard in particular.”
Her decision to leave has been brewing for some time now. Kleinfelder recalls a conversation with Athletic Director Bob Scalise in October when she mentioned her intention to retire at season’s end. But after hearing her complaints about the hectic 12-month schedules and the troubles of recruiting, one would wonder if the decision had been on her mind longer.
Other things have been on her mind as well—seeing family, maybe writing a book and designing and building her own house in Maine. But her commitment to women’s sports is not something that is going to go away, even as she settles into her life after lacrosse.
“I want to continue to support women in sports in anyway I can,” she said.
Such is not a sentiment that surprises those who know her best.
“Carole is a leader in the women’s lacrosse field,” Leary said. “She set a high bar and she’s continually pushing forward for women’s sports.”
—Staff writer Timothy M. McDonald can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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