March 12, 2024 

After 22 years, Dayna Smith is out as Cornell’s head coach

The Big Red have struggled since winning their lone Ivy League title in 2008

On Saturday, Cornell and head coach Dayna Smith saw Columbia celebrate a regular-season Ivy League championship on their court. The Lions blew out the Big Red 82-46, moving Columbia into a first-place tie with Princeton — and dropping Cornell into a last-place tie with Dartmouth.

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Two days later, Cornell director of athletics and physical education Nicki Moore announced that Smith had coached her last game for the Big Red. Smith arrived in Ithaca in 2002 and amassed a 224–345 record, including 100–193 in the Ivy League. She departs as the fourth-longest-tenured head coach in Ivy League history and with the sixth-most wins.

“I’m very grateful for the opportunity to have served as head basketball coach at Cornell,” Smith said in the announcement. “I have a lifetime of memories created and friendships built. I’m especially proud of all that my student-athletes have accomplished at Cornell and all that they’ll continue to do in the future.

“I want to thank [former athletics director] Andy Noel for giving me the opportunity to become a head coach, the Cornell administration for supporting me over the years, and my assistant coaches and support staff who dedicated themselves to this program and will forever be part of my family.”

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Smith came to Cornell after six seasons as an assistant coach at Rhode Island and Penn. Cornell was her first, and to date only, head coaching job.

When Smith took the job, Harvard and Dartmouth were perennially atop the conference. She won one Ivy League title in 21 seasons of competition, sharing the crown with those two teams in 2008. With no Ivy League Tournament at the time, she and the Big Red then survived a three-team playoff to earn the conference’s automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament.

“It was Harvard [and] Dartmouth year after year,” Smith told The Next in 2021. “You look up on the banners; you go to their gyms every year as an opponent. [It] made you sick, you were so angry. You see how they just dominated.

“So I just remember, as a young coach and as somebody that took over a program five years in, I was super excited [to win in 2008]. … Then we dropped off and we’ve never actually been able to get back to winning that.”

Since that championship, Princeton, Penn and Columbia have all had periods of dominance. Cornell, meanwhile, has had just two winning seasons, in 2014–15 and 2016–17, and hasn’t won more than four conference games since 2018–19. In the team’s announcement, Moore mentioned the growth of the league, while adding, “Coach Smith will always be an important part of this program’s history.”

This season, Cornell finished 7–19 overall and 1–13 in conference play, despite having some promising young talent on the roster. Smith said at the preseason media day that her team still needed to figure out who would lead on both ends of the court and what its identity would be. She hoped to have those answers by the time conference play started, but her team struggled to gain momentum all season.

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The high-water mark was arguably a three-game winning streak in November and December, followed by a near-upset of Syracuse — which finished tied for second in the ACC — on Dec. 18. But in Ivy League play, the Big Red lost by 20 or more points five times, including by 41 to Princeton on Jan. 6. They also lost by four at Dartmouth, which has only one win against any Ivy League team other than Cornell in the past three seasons.

As a result, Cornell’s NET ranking through Sunday was No. 267 out of 361 Division I teams, marking the third time in the past three seasons it’s finished below 250th.

Smith’s departure continues a trend over the past few seasons of increased turnover in the Ivy League. The new dean of Ancient Eight head coaches is Penn’s Mike McLaughlin, who is in his 15th season. But entering next season, the median tenure of the eight Ivy head coaches will be just three years, and all but two coaches will have spent five or fewer years in their current roles.

While Cornell looks for Smith’s successor, associate head coach Val Klopfer will serve as interim head coach. Klopfer had been on Smith’s staff since 2003–04, spending all but one season of her coaching career in Ithaca.

Written by Jenn Hatfield

Jenn Hatfield has been a contributor to The Next since December 2018 and is currently the site's managing editor, Washington Mystics beat reporter and Ivy League beat reporter. Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats, FanSided, Power Plays and Princeton Alumni Weekly.

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