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More Than a Coach

Women's basketball coach Kathy Delaney-Smith has conquered barriers from Title IX to Ivy League titles to breast cancer. And she's not done yet.

Kathy Delaney-Smith rose from the high school ranks to enjoy immense success at the collegiate level, but perhaps a more lasting aspect of her legacy is her ability to form meaningful relationships with her players, even beyond their careers at Harvard. From her time at Westwood High School, Delaney-Smith has had a knack for building programs and connecting with a community on a level deeper than basketball.
Kathy Delaney-Smith rose from the high school ranks to enjoy immense success at the collegiate level, but perhaps a more lasting aspect of her legacy is her ability to form meaningful relationships with her players, even beyond their careers at Harvard. From her time at Westwood High School, Delaney-Smith has had a knack for building programs and connecting with a community on a level deeper than basketball.
By Samantha Lin and Juliet Spies-Gans, Crimson Staff Writers

Kathy Delaney, coach of the Westwood High School girls’ varsity basketball team, wasn’t happy.

Her team was trying to get into its locker room, which had been taken over by a visiting boys’ squad.

“Alright, girls,” Delaney said. “Get your stuff. We’re going in.”

With Delaney leading the pack, the girls walked in.

“We were like ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe it! They’re going to be showering!’” Erin DiVincenzo ’87 said. “We marched into the locker room, and there were boys diving, getting out of the way. She was making a point that this is our space, and it’s ridiculous that we had to take a back seat just because of the boys.”

Three decades later, Delaney-Smith, now head coach of the Harvard women’s basketball squad, issued the same command.

Another school’s men’s team was occupying the court during her players’ practice time. Delaney-Smith wasn’t pleased. She proceeded to kick them off the court and out of the gym.

“All of us were like, ‘Oh my God!’” Elle Hagedorn ’13 said. “Kathy was as riled up after that as I’d seen her in my four years…. Even during the game she was still pissed off at being treated like that. That goes to show that that’s her personality.”

Thirty-four years after leaving the high school world, Delaney-Smith can now call herself the winningest coach in Ivy League women’s basketball history. In that span of time, her journey as both player and coach has mapped remarkably well onto that of Title IX.

When Delaney-Smith played for her high school team, women’s basketball wasn’t the game that we know today—six players took the court for each squad in a half-court contest.

In 1971, just four years after Delaney-Smith hung up her jersey, all this changed. Women’s basketball spanned a full court instead of just a half court, and the game became five-on-five, the way it remains to this day.

While the rules of the game may have changed in the intervening years, one thing has not. Delaney-Smith still has the same fire that drove her to coach six consecutive undefeated seasons at Westwood High.

‘I KNEW ABSOLUTELY NOTHING ABOUT IT’

Delaney-Smith had never intended to coach on the hardwood. After graduating from Bridgewater State in 1971, Delaney-Smith sought out a job coaching swimming.

However, Westwood High was looking for a jack-of-all-trades—when she came to the athletic directors looking for a swimming job, they agreed but had an additional request: that she would coach the basketball team, as well.

The game had just undergone its change to five-player, a style that Delaney-Smith was wholly unfamiliar with.

“I knew absolutely nothing about it—nothing, nada, zero,” Delaney-Smith said. “[The directors] hired me because I told [them] I could win.”

And win she could. In her seven years as head swimming coach, Delaney-Smith never lost a meet. But basketball was a different story. Her first team went 0-11, a record that sparked her competitive spirit.

“I read every book and went to every clinic,” Delaney-Smith remembered. “I just fell in love with the sport of basketball, and [now] here I am.”

Her next decade in high school athletics saw her rack up 204 wins, a state championship, and numerous individual awards.

“She was a legend,” DiVincenzo said. “All the kids coming up the pipe, we couldn’t wait to play for her because she was just bigger than life. The talk of the town was to be on the girl’s basketball team.”

Huge crowds came to every game, something largely unheard of for a high school female athletics team. But her influence didn’t end in the in the win-loss column. She was ever a proponent for equal treatment between her team and that of the boys.

“She did everything,” DiVincenzo added. “She was in there fighting with the athletic director, fighting for us at every turn…. We did stuff that no one did. She really put herself on the line, and I know she got herself in hot water a lot. Her job was in jeopardy when she did this kind of stuff.”

Delaney-Smith fought for better practice hours, jerseys, and sneakers for her team. She encouraged her players to go to summer weight-lifting programs where the only other attendees were football players.

“Nothing was equal for women [at this time],” Delaney-Smith said. “So I filed four lawsuits at the high school level. They made us wear woolen field hockey skirts for the basketball team in 1973, and I was like, ‘No, thank you.’ I asked properly, but I got told no, so I filed lawsuits.”

Title IX gave Delaney-Smith the ammunition she needed to press for the equality she sought.

“I just thought, ‘Stop treating the girls like second-class citizens,’” Delaney-Smith remembered. “I think if Title IX weren’t there, I [might not] have won the fights. I think it was very exciting and felt great that the Westwood High School girls’ program was where it was when I left because it was my hard work, [and] it was a whole lot of people’s hard work as well.”

That mentality remained as she crossed the Charles River, joining Harvard as the women’s basketball head coach in 1982.

‘ACT AS IF’

With her successful track record at Westwood High, the calls began coming in for Delaney-Smith. Boston College, Boston University, and Providence all pursued Delaney-Smith, but she refused to take their calls.

Delaney-Smith chose to only interview at those places that took Title IX—which had just reached its ten-year anniversary—as seriously as she did.

“[When schools] would ask me if I was interested in coaching their team, I would ask them, ‘What is your men’s salary, and what’s your women’s salary, and what’s the equality like?’’” Delaney-Smith explained. “[Other schools] didn’t care as much, I didn’t think, [as] Harvard did. So in 1982, when Harvard asked me to apply for the job, that mattered to me.”

But when Delaney-Smith got the call to interview at Harvard, nagging stereotypes made her decision anything but clear.

“I would say that I grew up in a family that had a misperception of Harvard,” Delaney-Smith said. “I thought it was rich, preppy, entitled, [and] geeky.”

Despite her hesitations, Delaney-Smith came to Cambridge for an interview—a visit that changed her entire mindset. After meeting with the two captains, Pat Horne and Kate Martin, along with the rest of the team, Delaney-Smith was sold.

“Everybody I met was the opposite of the perception I had,” Delaney-Smith said. “I just did [the interview] because people told me professionally I should, and so I was surprised that I fell in love with it that day. Then I wanted the job, and Harvard takes its time choosing who it wants, so they tortured me a little, I think.”

Delaney-Smith ended up getting the job, and, from that point on, she never looked back.

The now-collegiate coach picked up right where she left off, paving the path for women’s athletics.

DiVincenzo, who followed her from Westwood High to Harvard, spoke to the continuity in Delaney-Smith’s actions between the two schools.

“In college, she was always doing the same thing [as in high school], challenging [even when] she was up against larger and older friend groups,” DiVincenzo said. “The guys had a longer history and a deeper bench to call from, but she was always trying to get the women on parity with the men. She would never accept anything less.”

She backed up her pleas for equality with success on the court.

In the 1981-1982 season, the year prior to her arrival, the Harvard women’s basketball team amassed a 4-21 record, going 1-5 in the Ancient Eight.

By 1986, the team won the Ivy League title—the first in program history.

One decade later, Harvard earned its first bid to the NCAA Tournament—a feat topped two years later, when Delaney-Smith’s squad took down No. 1 seed Stanford in the first round of March Madness. The 71-67 victory was the first time in tournament history that a top-seeded team had fallen in the first round—an event that Delaney-Smith called a “phenomenal experience.”

Delaney-Smith transformed a program that had once been consistently below .500 into one in which winning was considered the norm. Since that inaugural title just five years into her tenure, Delaney-Smith has added 10 more banners, six NCAA Tournaments, and four WNIT appearances.

Throughout these victories and championships, Delaney-Smith preached one steady mantra: Act As If.

“[Act As If] meant that if you had a bad test, a fight with your roommate, or weren’t feeling 100 percent, well, act as if you do feel 100 percent,” DiVincenzo explained. “You show up, put your game face on, and act as if everything is okay. Don’t ignore your problems, but when you’re here, be 100 percent here. She did this every single day.”

Delaney-Smith most embodied her own motto when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1999. According to DiVincenzo, even through chemotherapy and radiation, Delaney-Smith never missed a day of practice.

“Kathy always showed up, no matter what was going on in her life, and most of us were too selfish or naïve to understand that she had a life outside the court,” DiVincenzo said. “She’d show up, and it was as if there was nothing more important in her life than that basketball practice or game.”

But the cancer affected Delaney-Smith’s life more than she let it show. Within a few months of her diagnosis, she went public about the disease, seeking to inform others about its implications. She reached out to other women suffering from cancer, hoping to assuage some of the anxiety.

“No one really told me what it was going to be like going bald,” Delaney-Smith said. “I had enormous fear over the chemotherapy because I didn’t know anything about it, and after having gone through it, you don’t have to have that fear.”

Delaney-Smith also preached the concept of staying busy throughout cancer’s trials.

“I would talk to a lot of people about working,” she added. “ I always think that’s a good thing, to be distracted from the thought of cancer. I think most of the people that took time off wished that they didn’t because it’s just lousy to sit around thinking about it.”

‘LET’S CREATE A LITTLE MORE HISTORY’

Over her 31 years at Harvard, Delaney-Smith has recruited, coached, and graduated over 100 women. The result of that, according to Trisha Brown ’87, is an incredible alumni system.

“It’s pretty unique in this day and age and in this profession for someone to be in one place and be so successful in one place for thirty years,” Brown said. “She isn’t just a basketball coach, and it isn’t just about that experience. It’s really about her genuine care for you as a person, and I think as an undergrad, once you get to see alumni weekend and experience it, you know it’s something very special.”

Delaney-Smith’s longevity has created a community and culture of family around Harvard women’s basketball, according to Jess Gelman ’97, who was a part of the team that went to Harvard's first NCAA Tournament.

“[To have such a large portion] of your alumni base come back is incredible,” Gellman said. “It’s just an indication of how much of an impact Kathy has had on all of our lives…. She doesn’t really ever stop coaching. She may notice something that you’re doing in your life, and she isn’t afraid to offer her opinion, and you really respect her…. She says, ‘Here’s where you need to improve,’ and it’s sometimes a difficult conversation, which is why she’s so successful.”

Her annual alumni weekends bring to Cambridge those that she coached both at Westwood and Harvard. The collective alumni take part in friendly competitions, contests that Gellman jokingly described as “poorly played.”

It’s been 42 years since Delaney-Smith first picked up a coaching book on women’s basketball, and in that span of time, she has witnessed numerous changes in the sport. Thirty-one seasons, 495 wins, and 11 Ivy League titles after Delaney-Smith’s arrival in Cambridge, the decorated coach isn’t done yet.

“Everyone asks me when I’m going to retire, and I have my company line,” Delaney-Smith said. “It’s ‘when I’m not good, or when I don’t love it.’ And, right now, I’m okay—I have a lot of titles, so I can still say I’m okay, and I still love it.”

Looking forward, Delaney-Smith has one goal in mind.

“Let’s create a little more history somehow,” Delaney-Smith said. “That’s my plan.”

—Staff writer Samantha Lin can be reached at samantha.lin@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @Linsamnity.

—Staff writer Juliet Spies-Gans can be reached at juliet.spies-gans@thecrimson.com.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

CORRECTION: December 19, 2013

An earlier version of this article misspelled the last name of Jess Gelman ’97 and incorrectly stated which Harvard women's basketball team she belonged to. In fact, she played for the team that went to Harvard’s first NCAA tournament, not the team that defeated Stanford.

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