The coaching road that is once again about to take Kathy Delaney-Smith into the record book began with an unexpected request for help, embarrassment at a lack of basketball knowledge, and a winless season.
Now, more than 40 years and 700 basketball victories later, those early days for the longtime Harvard women’s coach seem like another world. It was swimming, not basketball, that was her passion, and the sport she thought she’d be involved with as a coach.
Who knew she’d become one of the most successful and celebrated basketball coaches this area has ever seen, closing in on 32 seasons with the Crimson in a career filled with conference titles, historic NCAA Tournament upsets, and other memorable moments?
Certainly not Delaney-Smith, who still seems slightly bemused at how her Hall of Fame career has played out.
“I wouldn’t have thought, in 1982, will I still be at Harvard 20 or 30 years from now? I don’t know that I ever had that thought,” Delaney-Smith said in a recent telephone interview, while she was on the road recruiting. “My career path is probably nontraditional and very odd.”
Unconventional, perhaps, but it again has brought her to the brink of history.
After a pair of weekend wins at Columbia and Cornell, Harvard is 19-7 on the season, 9-3 in the Ivy League. The Crimson are a half-game behind Penn and Princeton (both 9-2) for first place.
That puts Delaney-Smith’s overall record at Harvard at 514-347. Already the winningest women’s basketball coach in Ivy League history, she needs one more win to own the all-time league record for most basketball victories, men or women. She is tied with Pete Carril, the legendary Princeton men’s coach, who went 514-261 with the Tigers from 1967-96.
Delaney-Smith’s first opportunity to move past Carril is Friday at 7 p.m., when Yale visits Lavietes Pavilion. Harvard then closes its regular season Saturday, at home against Brown.
Here’s the thing about Delaney-Smith, though, and many others in her profession. Personal achievements, while nice, aren’t the reason she became a basketball coach.
“I love Ivy League titles,” she said. “I love the banners in my gym, and I’m very proud of them. But more important than that for me is my athletes, my alumni, their experience. I’m really in it for my student-athletes, not for my records. I want them to grow, I want them to be rewarded.
“I love when my alumni come back and talk about and share their experiences with each other and with me about how important being part of the Harvard basketball program was to them and their lives.”
That said, she will appreciate the significance of win No. 515.
“I don’t know Pete personally,” said Delaney-Smith. “I do know of Pete. I always admired what he was able to do at Princeton, even on the national level. To have an offense named after him? That’s never going to happen to me.
“I would be very proud of breaking that record, but I really haven’t given it a lot of thought because I’m trying to win a title here, and that’s so much more important to me than that record.”
The sweetest 16
Harvard has won 11 Ivy League titles under Delaney-Smith, most recently in 2008, which closed a 13-year stretch in which the Crimson won the conference eight times. It was during that run when Harvard became the first team seeded 16th in the NCAA Tournament to upset a No. 1 seed. The Crimson, led by Allison Feaster, knocked off top-seeded Stanford in 1998; it remains the only time a No. 16 has ever beaten a No. 1, in either the men’s or women’s tournament.
For Delaney-Smith to even position a college team for that kind of historic upset would have seemed borderline unthinkable 25 years earlier. Her first job was at Westwood High School, which lured her there because of the new pool the school had recently built. A throw-in request by the superintendent to coach women’s basketball was cautiously accepted. Swimming was the main draw.
Coaching basketball? That would prove to be an immediate challenge.
“I was embarrassed that I didn’t have as much knowledge as I should have,” said Delaney-Smith, who played six-on-six basketball in high school, then served as a basketball referee to help pay for college at Bridgewater State. “I read books, and I went to every clinic I could go to. People ask me who my mentor was, but I really didn’t have one.”
Delaney-Smith’s first team at Westwood went 0-11, so the learning curve would take time. But not too long; her Westwood record was 204-31, including a state championship and six undefeated regular seasons. In 1982, it was on to Harvard.
By 1986, the Crimson were Ivy League champions, establishing Delaney-Smith as the perfect person to lead the program. Along with the upset of Stanford, the first conference championship remains one of her fondest accomplishments, because that team, like many over the past 32 years, outworked most opponents.
“There are many characteristics that make Kathy a great leader, but what comes to mind is her ability to marry a competitive drive with a family atmosphere,” said Bob Scalise, who has been Harvard’s athletics director since 2001.
“Her teams reflect her competitive personality, and she will always get the best out of her players. She has enjoyed so much success on the court, but she also wants her program to be a family and for her players to be successful in all facets of life.”
At 64, Delaney-Smith knows she’s closer to the end of her Harvard coaching stint than the beginning. But how close? It’s a question that’s been asked of her for years, mainly by potential recruits and their parents, who have been told by other teams’ coaches that Delaney-Smith won’t be coaching much longer. Negative recruiting tactics have long been a staple of college athletics, even in the Ivy League.
“The older I get and the longer I stay, the more that question gets asked,” Delaney-Smith said. “I have never told anyone I’m going to retire. It’s an incredible profession. I’ve always said if I love it and I’m still good, I won’t think about retiring.”
However, the thought occasionally creeps into her mind. Usually after a loss or, not long ago, when Harvard suffered home losses on consecutive nights.
“Was it me? Was it something I failed to prepare my team for? That’s when you self-reflect and look in the mirror and say, ‘Is it time? Can someone else prepare this team better?’ ” Delaney-Smith said.
“I love it, love what I do. Now, do I promise anybody I’m staying for four years? I don’t think that’s fair to ask of me or for me to promise them, because I don’t know what’s going to happen, next week or next year.”
Until then, she’ll continue to lead, to coach and direct her program, always looking for something someone else is doing that can help her own team win (“I would hope I’m still stealing from everyone I can steal from, just like I did 30 years ago. Any coach that doesn’t admit that is not telling the truth”).
There are items left on Delaney-Smith’s wish list. She’d like to take her team on another offseason training trip to Europe. She’d like to win another Ivy League title.
Then there’s the matter of win No. 515. It’s a summit Delaney-Smith never even bothered to consider climbing. Not because she’s afraid to dream. It’s a challenge, something she has always embraced, ever since the day more than 40 years ago when the young swim coach accepted the offer to also coach girls’ basketball at Westwood High School.
“I’ve never thought 10 years down the road,” she said. “I said, ‘What fun, this is a good challenge, I’m going to give this a try.’
“I stay in today, and I don’t worry about tomorrow. I don’t know if that’s good or bad. A little of both, probably.”