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Epitome of Resilience

Documenting Kathy Delaney-Smith’s 30 record-breaking years at the helm of Harvard women’s basketball

Harvard coach Kathy Delaney-Smith enters her 30th year at the program looking for her 12th Ivy League title.
Harvard coach Kathy Delaney-Smith enters her 30th year at the program looking for her 12th Ivy League title.
By Brian A. Campos, Crimson Staff Writer

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.

UNFAMILIAR TERRITORY

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.

CARDINAL RULE: BELIEF

The 90’s were a period of big gains for the continually evolving coach. The 1994-1995 season saw the emergence of freshman Allison Feaster ’98, who forever impacted the Harvard program. Feaster averaged 17 points per game in her first year and helped her team finish in second place in the Ivy League. Unsurprisingly, she captured the league’s Rookie of the Year honor in the process. In the next three seasons, Feaster helped the Crimson win the Ivy League title each year and won the league’s highest individual honor every time.

She is the first Ivy League player ever—man or woman—to win Rookie of the Year and, subsequently, three Player of the Year awards.

Feaster finished her Crimson career averaging a double-double (21 points, 10 rebounds) and was drafted fifth overall by the Los Angeles Sparks in 1998. The forward played 10 years in the WNBA before moving to Europe.

“Allison Feaster was one of the once-in-a-lifetime kind of players that makes coaches better,” Delaney-Smith says. “I always joke that I taught her everything she knows, but we all know that’s not true.”

There’s at least one person that disagrees with that statement.

“After my mother, [Delaney-Smith] is the woman that has had the most influence on my adult life,” says Feaster, who is currently playing in Spain. “I would have to give ‘KDS’ much of the credit for ‘raising me’ after my arrival at Harvard. I hold ‘KDS’ in the highest regard as a coach and as a person. She taught me important life tools both on and off the court. The woman, the player, and the leader that I am today, I owe much of that to ‘KDS.’”

Perhaps the greatest moment in Delaney-Smith’s coaching career came in the final year of the Feaster era. In the 1997-1998 campaign, Harvard won the Ivy League title for the third straight time and was a No. 16 seed in the NCAA Tournament. This seeding pitted the Crimson against mighty No. 1 Stanford, who was and still is coached by Hall of Famer Tara VanDerveer. Unsurprisingly, the media and fans began writing off Harvard because of the stigmas that come with playing in the Ivy League.

“We weren’t getting the national respect we deserved,” Delaney-Smith remembers. “When we were getting ready for the tournament, there were all kinds of jokes. Did you unpack your bags? Where are your books? We knew we had a chance to beat Stanford, but we were the only 15 people that thought we could because no one else did. We really thought we could beat them.”

The Cardinal hosted the first-round matchup at the characteristically rowdy Maples Pavilion, where, at that point, Stanford had not lost in 59 games. Two stars—Vanessa Nygaard and Kristin Folkl—were missing from the Cardinal lineup due to ACL tears, while the Crimson boasted the nation’s leading scorer and an All-American in co-captain Feaster. But Stanford was still the heavy favorite, with All-American Olympia Scott and a great supporting cast leading the way in front of a boisterous crowd cheering on the title favorites.

“Stanford was one of the best home crowds for women in the country,” Delaney-Smith recalls. “They always sold out, [and] they had very, very crazy, wild [and] loud fans, so the place was packed. We were up at halftime, and we knew it was going to be that loud, so I had signs for some of my calls [in the second period]. Everyone made fun of me because I didn’t use signs ever, [but] I had to use them for that game because we didn’t use hand signals. That was the only way I could do it.”

Delaney-Smith’s now infamous flashcards and Feaster’s phenomenal performance were the two things that characterized the historic 71-67 win over Stanford. Feaster stole the spotlight on the national stage, outplaying her Cardinal counterpart Scott by recording 35 points and 13 rebounds. The game’s biggest defensive play came at the expense of Scott, when Feaster caught up to the Cardinal scorer on a breakaway and jumped high enough to prevent her layup from going in. The play sparked a 9-2 run that sealed the upset.

“The Harvard-Stanford game was obviously a defining moment in the history of Harvard basketball, but I don’t recall specific details about the game,” Feaster admits. “A monumental win such as that one does not occur in one moment. Our win was a testament to our team’s unity, our belief in the system, and our belief in our coach.”

It marked the first and only time a No. 16 seed has triumphed in either the men’s or the women’s tournaments.

Delaney-Smith fondly remembers the craziness of it all.

“We stormed the court. … I was babbling. It was very surreal. ... Anne Meyers was the person doing the interview on TV, and I know Anne, so I had said while everything was shut off, ‘Anne, do not let me make a fool out of myself, please.’ And then with cameras rolling, I said something like, ‘It was better than my wedding night’ or something—it was really awful.”

SUSTAINING EXCELLENCE

It didn’t take long for Delaney-Smith to recover from Feaster’s graduation. In 2000, Hana Peljto arrived in Cambridge, and she enjoyed similar success to Feaster. Peljto was a dominant scorer, winning two Ivy League Player of the Year awards and averaging 23.7 points and 9.7 rebounds per game in her senior year. With Peljto in the program, Delaney-Smith won two more Ivy titles.

“I will always remember the day I first met Kathy as a high school senior,” Peljto says. “She impressed me with her genuine [character]. She told me right away that I would have to work hard to earn my spot on the team if I was to go to Harvard, which was in stark contrast to what the other coaches were promising me. She set the expectations for me then that would lead to my hard work and strong development as a player over the next four years.”

It was also around the start of the Peljto era that Delaney-Smith was diagnosed with breast cancer, a condition that came as a shock to the usually healthy and animated coach. But Delaney-Smith did not hide her illness. She let her players know about it from the start, and she managed her therapy and doctor visits around the 1999-2000 season. It took almost a year for her to combat the proliferative disease, but in the end, Delaney-Smith won her battle with cancer.

“I don’t think the team noticed a big difference in me,” Delaney-Smith says. “There’s a couple of comical moments when there is memory loss or I did funny things with my wig and being bald. I think there were more funny than bad memories.”

After Peljto’s departure in 2004, center Reka Czerny ’05 won her coach another title in her senior year, garnering the conference’s Player of the Year accolade in the process.

Delaney-Smith’s excellence in coaching transferred over to the international stage that same year, when she was appointed head coach of the USA Basketball team that competed at the World University games. She and her team won gold that year, and two years later, she helped capture the same medal at the Pan American games in Rio de Janeiro.

Delaney-Smith’s last two Ivy titles in 2007 and 2008 came with Emily Tay ’09, Katie Rollins ’09, and Lindsay Hallion ’08—currently a Harvard assistant coach—leading the way. Each member of the trio averaged double figures in scoring in both of the winning campaigns, a feat that reflected the balance of Delaney-Smith’s offensive system.

“She has this unbelievable eye for talent,” Rollins comments. “She’s so motivational and inspirational. She has this unique ability of taking all these individual all-stars and creating a unified team, bringing this team together and getting them to work together, and work on the same page because, ultimately, what it takes [to win] is teamwork.”

BEYOND THE COURT

Apart from the coaching acumen she developed over many years at the helm of the program, Delaney-Smith prides herself above all in trying to mold the perfect student-athlete. Although she enters each season with her eye on the league trophy, Delaney-Smith does not name the Ivy title as her most important objective.

“I have stayed 30 years because I love the student-athletes that I coach—that is at the top of the list,” the coach acknowledges. “I love watching them come in here and grow not only as player[s] but also as people. I think that’s probably the most satisfying thing.”

To develop her athletes’ games and help them mature in and out of the classroom, Delaney-Smith takes the time to talk to her players, giving them advice and serving as a mother figure in these players’ lives.

“When I can’t reach a player, when there wasn’t enough growth in that person—that’s my biggest failure,” Delaney-Smith says. “That when they left, they just didn’t seem to get it. When I say get it, I don’t just mean basketball—I mean the larger picture.”

“My favorite moments were holiday dinners at Kathy’s house,” Tay remembers. “By welcoming us, she showed us she was more than just a coach.”

Delaney-Smith worries about not only her players but also the women’s basketball scene. She understands that the women’s game has come a long way, but there is still room for improvement. In past years, Delaney-Smith has filed lawsuits to ensure that her teams are guaranteed equality in all aspects.

“I do believe that over my 41 years of being in athletics, women have had to hold their own regarding equality—financial, marketing, uniforms, practice time, coaching staffs, public interest, attendance at games—it’s an ongoing thing because of the world we live in. That’s probably one of my all-time passions,” Delaney-Smith states.

It’s hard to imagine Delaney-Smith not eventually getting her way. Whether it’s on the court, in chemotherapy, or in the courtroom, Delaney-Smith has always found a way to come out on top.

“When I think of Kathy, I think of resilience,” Peljto said. “She has dealt with adversity throughout her life, but through it all, she has stayed positive and looking forward. She truly is someone that I have looked up to, both as a player and today when my playing days are over.”

—Staff writer Brian A. Campos can be reached at bcampos@fas.harvard.edu.

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