“Acting as if” led a college synchronized swimmer to a legendary basketball coaching career. “Acting as if” generated equal resources for the girls’ basketball program at Westwood High. “Acting as if” produced the Ivy League’s winningest coaching career in any sport, men’s or women’s.
“To act as if” is Kathy Delaney-Smith’s mantra, the guiding principle for the last four decades of Harvard women’s basketball. Revered by her players and a champion for women’s rights, Delaney-Smith, 72, is retiring at the end of this season, her 40th.
“To act as if is getting my athletes to not worry about the paper they had to write or the homework they had to go back to their room and do, rather getting them to stay present,” Delaney-Smith said. “Make sure you control what you can control because that’s really all you can control, the present.”
Under Delaney-Smith, Harvard has made 15 postseason appearances, including six berths in the NCAA Tournament, captured 11 Ivy League titles, compiled 20-win seasons 12 times, and finished with a record of .500 or better in 31 of the last 32 seasons. Her career win totals — 629 overall, 366 Ivy League — rank first in conference history.
“When you think of Ivy League women’s basketball, the first person you think of is Kathy Delaney-Smith,” said Barbara Stevens, a 2020 Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee who coached Bentley University women’s basketball from 1986 to 2020. “She’s a legend.”
A Newton native and graduate of the former Sacred Heart High School, Delaney-Smith was the first female in Massachusetts high school hoops history to reach the 1,000 career-point mark. She studied physical education at Bridgewater State University, but without an intercollegiate women’s basketball program at the time, Delaney-Smith competed in synchronized swimming. She initially took a teaching and swimming coach position at Westwood High School after graduating, but the district superintendent at the time soon asked her to take over the struggling girls’ basketball program, too.
After an 0-11 debut, Delaney-Smith guided Westwood to a 204-20 mark over the next decade. She instituted the high-octane offense and a diverse defensive strategy — a mix of zone and player-to-player — that she’d later become known for. But it’s the relationships and program culture, Delaney-Smith said, that propelled success. Year-round one-on-one player meetings and summer camps at Westwood — which continued at Harvard — were foundational elements of not just building a program, but also a community.
“It’s always been about the person first, not the player,” said Stonehill coach Trisha Brown, a 1987 Harvard graduate who played basketball and softball and later served as an assistant on Delaney-Smith’s staff from 1991-2000. “A lot of people can talk about that, but she walks it.”
While building a power at Westwood, Delaney-Smith filed four lawsuits under Title IX to ensure equal resources for her team, resulting in new uniforms, assistant coaches, and equal access and time in the gym. She continued advocating at Harvard, unafraid to call a spade a spade.
“I found that trying to be honest and genuine to the best of my ability was my best road,” Delaney-Smith said, “and that’s how I’ve coached.”
That Delaney-Smith ended up at Harvard is the result of the school’s dedication to gender equity. The post she assumed in 1982 was a full-time role with assistant coaches, much improved from the part-time positions local Division 1 schools had previously pitched. The other schools’ men’s head coaches were full-time.
“I was very, very zoned into Title IX and equity,” Delaney-Smith said. “Even though the world still had a lot of catching up to do, I wasn’t going to be in an environment where they weren’t looking to work on Title IX.”
The decision to go from her tenured health and physical education teaching and coaching role at Westwood to Harvard initially raised some eyebrows. In fact, Delaney-Smith received criticism for making the jump to what outsiders viewed as a less secure job at a virtually unknown program.
“I wanted to love my job today and tomorrow, and I don’t worry about a year from now,” Delaney-Smith said. “I guess I thought I could do anything if I worked hard enough at it.”
Her Harvard tenure started out rough, winning just 10 games in her first two seasons. But a breakthrough came in year four, a 20-win season and a conference title when her first recruiting class — eight players — blossomed as seniors. Harvard remained competitive over the next decade, with another league title and four second place finishes, before making three straight NCAA Tournaments from 1995-1998.
Harvard caught national attention during the 1998 NCAA Tournament when the 16th-seeded Crimson, led by Allison Feaster (35 points, 13 rebounds), pulled off a monumental 71-67 upset of top overall seed Stanford in the first round, the first No. 16 seed —men’s or women’s — in the history of the NCAA Tournament ever to do so.
Given her success, Delaney-Smith received a handful of offers to leave Harvard over the years, but she didn’t because Harvard was the “perfect match” — philosophically aligned to her desire for a true balance between academics and athletics for student-athletes.
All the on-court accomplishments go back to the bonds formed between Delaney-Smith and her players. Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, a 1992 graduate and former team captain appreciates what Delaney-Smith did to provide a quality college experience for her athletes.
“She has this fierceness about what’s right, and that’s left her unafraid to call out the powers that be when it comes to gender equity,” Healey said. “She had to fight every step of the way. She’s been such a champion for gender equity, and I really, really appreciate that.”
Feaster, a 1998 Harvard graduate and three-time Ivy League Player of the Year, called Delaney-Smith her “second mother.”
“It was her sense of humor, energy, presence, and loving perspective,” said Feaster, now the Boston Celtics’ vice president of player development and organizational leadership.
In the back half of her career, Delaney-Smith has guided Harvard to three more NCAA Tournament berths and nine WNIT appearances, with only one sub-.500 conference record.
Since announcing her retirement, Delaney-Smith’s often fielded the question, “What’s next?”
“I’ve thought about it a little bit, but not a lot,” she said.
It’s likely that is because, as she’s done and preached for decades, Delaney-Smith remains present. This year’s team is one of her favorites, a resilient group that navigates the challenges of the pandemic with class, something the coach “respects and admires.”
There’s work left to do. Harvard is hosting Ivy Madness, the conference’s postseason tournament, at Lavietes Pavilion March 11-12. If the Crimson can hold onto a top-4 spot (they’re fourth now at 6-6), they’ll have a chance to clinch an NCAA Tournament bid, the program’s first since 2007.
“Truth be told, I want to win it,” Delaney-Smith said.
“I think it’s made her work even harder to end this year on a good note,” Harvard junior guard Annie Stritzel said. “Her level of intensity has not dropped whatsoever.”
Delaney-Smith announced her retirement early to give the program time to conduct a thorough search for her replacement. Her successor will be known as The Kathy Delaney-Smith Head Coach for Harvard Women’s Basketball. She plans on attending games in retirement, sitting about 10 rows up from the bench, and baking the team brownies.
“I’m not going to go away unless the new coach sends me out and bans me,” Delaney-Smith said with a smile.