November 6, 2021
Harvard head coach Kathy Delaney-Smith will retire after the 2021-22 season
Entering her 40th season, Delaney-Smith is the winningest Ivy League coach of all time in any sport
Thirty-nine years ago, Westwood High School girls’ basketball coach Kathy Delaney-Smith accepted an offer to become the head coach at Harvard. Over the next nearly four decades, Delaney-Smith won over 600 games, had more Ivy League championships than losing seasons and orchestrated arguably the most famous NCAA Tournament upset in women’s basketball history. But on Friday, Delaney-Smith announced that she will retire after her 40th season at Harvard in 2021-22.
“I have spent 40 incredible years doing the job that I love. I have always believed that sports is the greatest classroom for life,” Delaney-Smith said in Harvard’s press release. “It has been my great honor to build the basketball program at Harvard and to mentor, coach and work alongside such incredible people. I am so very proud of our players and alumnae. Their impact on me has been immeasurable.”
That impact has clearly been reciprocal: Delaney-Smith has coached over 1,000 games at Harvard and is the second-longest tenured active coach in Division I. Entering Tuesday’s season opener at Boston College, she has an overall record of 617-420 and an Ivy League record of 360-159. Both of those win totals are the most in Ivy League history across all sports and genders, according to Harvard’s release.
Delaney-Smith has also won 11 Ivy League titles, most recently in 2008, and made six NCAA Tournament appearances and nine WNIT appearances. She helped Harvard become the first team in Ivy League history to win three straight outright conference titles (1996-98) and the first to go undefeated in the 14-game conference slate (1997). In 1998, the 16-seed Crimson and star forward Allison Feaster defeated 1-seed Stanford in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, which remains the only 16-over-1 upset in women’s NCAA Tournament history.
Since that game, Delaney-Smith and the Crimson have finished in the top three in the Ivy League 19 times in 22 seasons of play. This season, the Crimson were picked fifth in the preseason poll, but Delaney-Smith said at the Ivy League’s virtual media day that she thinks her team is much better than that. “I would say I have the most talent I’ve ever had at Harvard,” she said.
“The news of Kathy’s retirement comes with a mix of emotions,” Emma Golen, who played for Delaney-Smith from 2009-13 and is now an assistant coach at Yale, told The Next in a text message. “Kathy simply IS Harvard women’s basketball, and over 40 years she has created such a strong culture, tradition and family that will carry on endlessly. Kathy always understood that people come first, and because of that, Harvard, the Ivy League and many HWBB ballers’ lives are forever changed.”
One of the Crimson’s newest players, junior transfer McKenzie Forbes, shared similar sentiments last month at media day:
“When I stepped on campus, when [I] step in the locker room, I can tell just the culture that Kathy’s built here, the standard she holds us to. I can already see myself becoming a better player and person because of it.”
Forbes also mentioned how “cool” it was to have Feaster watch practice or to talk with Delaney-Smith about how she coached against Forbes’ former college coach, Lindsay Gottlieb, when Gottlieb played at Brown from 1995-99. “I think that longevity is definitely what makes Kathy and this program special,” Forbes said.
A key component of the culture Delaney-Smith has built is the phrase “Act as if,” which she learned from her mother. She tells her players to act as if they are confident even when they are nervous, to act as if they aren’t fatigued in the fourth quarter of a game and act like a champion even in a losing season, and she believes that the real confidence or energy or winning will follow. Delaney-Smith has displayed that philosophy by example, too, from figuring out how to be a college coach in real time in 1982 to faking confidence for her first interview on national television after defeating Stanford in 1998.
During Delaney-Smith’s Harvard career, she also coached for USA Basketball in 2003, 2005 and 2007, including as the head coach of the gold medal-winning World University Games team in 2005. Harvard endowed her head coaching position in 2019 and announced on Friday that it will rename it after her when she retires.
“Kathy Delaney-Smith is a true icon for women’s basketball in the Ivy League and nationally,” Erin McDermott, Harvard’s second-year athletics director and a former college basketball player herself, said in Harvard’s press release. “She is a trailblazer who is universally respected, admired, celebrated and beloved. Kathy’s impact at Harvard is immeasurable and to say she will leave an indelible mark on the game and on Harvard just doesn’t capture her full imprint. … She has been a leader among leaders … Kathy will always be part of the Crimson.”
At the high school level, Delaney-Smith was equally successful, posting a 204-31 record in 11 seasons at Westwood High School, located just 20 miles from Harvard. She won one state title and at one point won 96 straight regular-season games. But perhaps her most important wins were off the court, as she filed four lawsuits under Title IX to ensure that her players would be treated the same as the boys’ team and successfully got her team new uniforms, assistant coaches and equal time in the gym.
“When I played in high school, we were wearing field hockey skirts,” sportswriter Jackie MacMullan, who played for Delaney-Smith at Westwood, said in March on ESPN’s “Around the Horn.” “… By my senior year, I’m playing basketball—I kid you not—in tear-off sweats with my name on the back. Why? Because that’s what the boys had. I had an advocate, Kathy Delaney-Smith. [That’s] why she’ll always be one of my favorite people in the world. I wish every young girl had someone in her corner like I did.”
Delaney-Smith continued to fight for equality and progress at the college level. She has said she only took the Harvard job because the administration “tried to make the situation here as good for women as it was for men,” including by providing a full salary and coaching staff. She also argued in favor of an Ivy League Tournament for decades, until it was implemented in 2017, because she thought having one would benefit the conference.
Delaney-Smith’s colleagues have appreciated her longevity and passion on and off the court. Though the Ivy League and its executive director, Robin Harris, declined to comment on Delaney-Smith’s retirement, former Dartmouth star and Princeton head coach Courtney Banghart reacted on Twitter, and Brown head coach Monique LeBlanc told The Next in a text message:
“It’s always tough when one of the greats announces their retirement because it’s difficult to think about basketball without them in it, and that’s how I feel about Kathy. She’s a legend in women’s basketball, one of the all-time greats …
“Her on-court record and career really speaks for itself, so beyond that … I’ve always respected Kathy’s push for women’s equality and how she has inspired women in our profession. She’s a great example of a strong female leader, and she’ll be missed!”
Harvard has yet to announce who will succeed Delaney-Smith as just the fourth head coach in the program’s 48-year history, saying only that the search will occur in spring 2022. But whoever is chosen might do well to borrow Delaney-Smith’s mantra and act as if following the legendary coach will not be a herculean task.
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. (She also writes the "Family Rivalries" series for The Next.) Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats and FanSided.