Harvard coach Kathy Delaney-Smith to retire after 40 years

Ivy League Women's Basketball Tournament - Semifinals
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BOSTON – Sure, there are the Ivy League-record 630 victories and the 11 conference championships and the six trips to the NCAAs – including the one that produced the biggest upset in the tournament’s history.

That’s not what Kathy Delaney-Smith’s players will remember from her 40 years as Harvard’s women’s basketball coach.

“Kathy’s had a long history of fighting for equity in sports, and fighting for opportunities for girls and women,” said Maura Healey, who played for Delaney-Smith and is now the Massachusetts Attorney General.

“That started back when she was a high school coach and it continued through her career at Harvard,” Healey said. “For those of us who played for her, we really appreciated and saw first-hand her commitment to equality.”

The winningest basketball coach in Ivy League history – men or women – Delaney-Smith will retire at the end of this season. That could come as soon as this Friday, when the fourth-seeded Crimson meet No. 1 Princeton in the conference tournament semifinals.

She will leave behind not just an unmatched resume but also a legacy of fighting for gender equity that began when Title IX was in its early stages and women’s teams had to fight for practice time, locker room access and jerseys with their names on them – just like the men had.

“If nothing else, I’ve brought awareness, and most importantly I’ve empowered women,” Delaney-Smith said this week. “On the court, it was a classroom. If you learn how to be disciplined, how to be selfless, and how to be tough, that helps you win basketball games, but it also helps you in life.”

The first girl in Massachusetts high school history to score more than 1,000 points, Delaney-Smith’s first coaching job was at Westwood High School, where she went 0-11 in her first season. A couple of years later, the team began a 100-game winning streak, and her players were calling her the “Wizard of Westwood,” a title borrowed from UCLA coach John Wooden (whose longest winning streak was a mere 88 games).

Along with the winning came a campaign for parity with the men’s team, using Title IX to argue for equal access to the locker rooms and practice time, and games at night, when parents and recruiters could watch.

Harvard noticed both the winning and the fight for gender equity, hiring Delaney-Smith in 1982. Since then, she has compiled a 630-433 (367-166 Ivy League); both win totals are the most in conference history.

The Crimson have also hung 11 Ivy League championship banners in a gym that had been barren. They have posted 12 20-win seasons and finished above .500 in 31 of the last 32 years.

“I’m honored I had an opportunity to watch it,” said Harvard men’s coach Tommy Amaker, who arrived on campus in 2007.

“We had no banners, and they had a zillion. We were very hopeful we would live up to the standard the women’s basketball program has set,” he said. “I was proud to learn from her and be a colleague.”

Under Delaney-Smith, the Crimson women also went to the NCAA tournament six times.

But one trip stands out.

In 1998, Harvard beat top-seeded Stanford in the opening round – at the time, the only No. 16 seed to beat a No. 1 seed in the history of the men’s or women’s tournament. (Maryland-Baltimore County beat Virginia in the men’s tournament in 2018.)

“Yes, I am about wins. Yes, I am about every Ivy League title. I am about my Stanford game,” Delaney-Smith said. “If we’re an underdog and we upset someone, that’s a big win for me.”

But the true value of the victory was what it taught her players.

“Anything can happen,” said the 66-year-old coach, who added there was only one game in her career she felt they couldn’t win: against North Carolina and future Olympic track star Marion Jones in the first round of the 1997 NCAA tournament.

“I mostly believe there is a way. I think I’m able to convey that belief to the athletes I coach — most of the time, not always,” she said. “It happened at Stanford, and I believe that stuck with them throughout their lives.”

Allison Feaster, a three-time Ivy League player of the year, said she arrived at Harvard largely unaware of Title IX. The 1972 federal civil rights law that banned gender discrimination in education has led to the proliferation of women’s sports opportunities, thanks to Delaney-Smith and others pressing the cause.

“We’re benefiting from the pioneers that came before us,” said Feaster, who is now the director of player development for the Boston Celtics. “It’s been super-impactful, her fight, so we could have opportunities like the one I have now.”

And the work continues.

Healey is running for governor. Feaster, who is leading the Celtics’ sports justice initiative, noted current struggles for gender equity in the NCAA, WNBA, and U.S. women’s national soccer team.

“They’re fighting for rights and just to be recognized as heroes, as leaders, as worthy sports figures,” Feaster said.

“People like Kathy – women like Kathy – not only did she and others light the flame, she will leave a lot of us empowered and emboldened to continue,” she said. “She definitely left the sports world and the game in a better place, but also empowered a generation of women to continue the fight.”