Stories of learning, teaching, and turning points, in the Experience series.
Kathy Delaney-Smith never planned to be head coach of Harvard women’s basketball. In 1982, she was perfectly content at the helm of the girls’ basketball team at Westwood High School, where she’d excelled over 11 years: a 204-31 record, six undefeated seasons, and a state championship.
“I just loved teaching and wasn’t climbing any ladder. I just needed to be better at what I was doing, not better in the eyes of the world.”
But after a friend persuaded her to interview for the Crimson job, her plans changed.
Thirty-four years later, Delaney-Smith has posted more wins than any coach in Ivy League history (322 in the Ivy, 546 career). Her teams have captured 11 league titles, and finished in the top three in the standings 14 straight years.
The coach doesn’t back down from a fight on or off the court. At Westwood she filed four lawsuits seeking equal treatment for her female players. In 1999, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. The support of her team and an irrepressible sense of humor helped to carry her through treatment.
Delaney-Smith, 66, is quick to note her job is above all about education. “I have always viewed coaching as teaching. I believe it can be a very important part of your education — like a nontraditional classroom. If you educate the whole person, then that enhances performance.”
Q: Where did you grow up?
A: I grew up in Newton, the fifth of six children with incredible parents. They took the approach that boys and girls can do anything that they want. My mother was a woman ahead of her time. My dad was a law school professor at Boston College. He was brilliant, but not a big fan of stereotypical roles. We all had our choices growing up, but the girls did the dishes and the boys took out the trash. No choices there.
Q: Were you athletic right from the start?
A: We were very sports-oriented. We lived near Crystal Lake in Newton, so we were all good swimmers. We spent our summers teaching swimming and being lifeguards. I went to a Catholic school from Grade 1 through 12 and there were no gym classes. We did have basketball courts across the street, so I would spend hours shooting and became a pretty good shooter.
Q: When you were young you played basketball for your mother at Sacred Heart High School. Did she inspire you?
A: Not consciously, but looking in the rearview mirror, yes, she had a huge impact on me. She was really good for her time and, yes, she was harder on me than probably the other players. I was the first girl in Massachusetts basketball to score 1,000 points, but the joke was, “Your mother was the coach — she made everybody pass you the ball.” I think I was a good athlete for back then, but there was not a lot of support for girls. There were no camps, no youth teams, etc. In fact, there were not a lot of good coaches, probably because it was a very different game than men’s basketball. We had six players — three on each side of half court — and we were not allowed to dribble more than once.
When I graduated from high school — I can’t figure out why — I wanted to be a physical education major. My school had no gym classes, I was just a good swimmer and a good shooter, so my transition to college was a tough one. I truly was out of my element because I had never played any of the sports I was now being graded on. I remember being on the phone with my mom and telling her I wanted to come home. She said to me, “Kathy, time to grow up!,” and then she hung up the phone.
‘Work ethic, toughness, discipline, drive, resiliency, leadership — I could go on forever — these strengths have to be who you are all the time. You usually cannot turn them on and off when you want them.’
Q: Did you plan to play sports in college?
A: I was intending to play basketball in college [Bridgewater State], but there was no team for women in 1964, just a club. Everyone got to play an even amount of time and who won didn’t seem important. I didn’t join because I was looking for something more competitive, or so I thought. I researched joining the swim team, but there was no competitive team for women at that time. The big program was synchronized swimming, so I joined and swam for four years. I ended up loving it in spite of the fact that it was not competitive.
Q: How did you get into coaching?
A: I wanted to be a swim coach. I didn’t play basketball in college. I ended up coaching and reffing basketball to make money to pay for college. I got my certification as a basketball official and, in fact, refereed games with my mother. In 1971, when I was interviewing for my first jobs, I had chosen high schools that had swimming pools. Westwood had just built a swimming pool and I wanted to be a swim coach and wanted a teaching job. The superintendent said, “Our girls’ basketball team is terrible.” His daughter played, and he asked, “Can you coach them and can you win?” I said, “Yes, of course I can.”
I am famous for this mantra “Act as if,” and as I look back on my life, it’s my mother who taught me that, when she told me to grow up and hung up on me. She made me act as if, which is how I was raised as well. If you are sick, act as if you’re not. I had no awareness that that’s how she was raising me, but looking back, that was how we lived in my family. I wanted that job and I knew if I didn’t know how to coach them, I would learn how to coach them. I would figure it out. I got the job and became the head swimming coach (where I had to start the program) and the head basketball coach (where I had to coach all three teams — freshman, JV, and varsity), as well as teach. I learned very quickly that things were not the same for girls and boys at that level.
Q: You filed a number of lawsuits seeking equal treatment for your girls’ teams while you were at Westwood. What was it like to have to fight right from the start for equality?
A: They never went to court. At the time, they were described to me as level one, level two, level three, and level four. Level four is basically mediation. And at level four, I got everything that I wanted. We got new uniforms, equal gym time, I got some assistant coaches. Title IX allowed for all of that to happen in Westwood and that’s why Westwood became the premier girls’ program in the area and got a lot of media coverage. We would have up to 1,500 fans at our games. It was a really big program for girls because of Title IX. I was very happy being a teacher and a high school coach. I kept thinking there was still more to do because at the time we didn’t even have night games, we still had afternoon games. I had kids being recruited for college and often parents and college coaches couldn’t get to afternoon games. We needed night games, like the boys had.
Q: How did you get the Harvard job?
A: Before I took the job, people kept saying: You’ve been at the high school level now for 11 years. You’ve been very successful. You’ve now got to be a college coach. Everybody thinks it’s the next step. I never thought it was. I just loved teaching and wasn’t climbing any ladder. I just needed to be better at what I was doing, not better in the eyes of the world. A friend of mine had gotten the Brown job, loved it, and convinced me to take the interview. I was quite relaxed about it because I didn’t know much about Harvard and had never played college basketball. And I fell in love with this place that day.
Q: What happened?
A: Harvard was everything I didn’t think it was. It was one of those daylong processes. Marlyn McGrath Lewis was on the committee, Floyd Wilson, Jack Reardon, a lot of really wonderful academic people, and then the two captains. I met the team and fell in love with the energy here. I found myself wishing I had done a better job preparing for the interview.
Q: Was it also appealing to you that Harvard was really embracing Title IX?
A: That was huge. When local college basketball positions opened, I would always get a phone call and I would say, “What’s your men’s salary and what’s your women’s salary?” And then I would say, “No thank you.” The inequity was astronomical, and that just didn’t interest me. The salary here was a full salary with a staff. And I could tell in conversations with [Director of Athletics] Jack Reardon that Title IX was something that Harvard was going to pay attention to. In my early years here, that was true. No place is perfect, but they were far better than any college maybe in the country and definitely in the Northeast. I thought Harvard was very conscientious and tried to make the situation here as good for women as it was for men.
Q: How did you balance having a family with a career?
A: I only have one child, so that’s easier. My husband and I sat down and I told him I loved my job. He didn’t love his job, so he quit his job and stayed home with our son, Jared. Jared could come here and I could still be a good coach and have him play in the gym or have him in the office. Traveling was really hard, but that’s where my husband filled in. I think there are lots of creative ways if you really want to work at it. In the ’80s, Harvard Business School had a panel discussion that explored the four different choices women had. They were: Don’t get married; get married and keep your job; have children and make it all work; don’t have children. I kept my job, got married, and had a child. But I was struck by the conversations that I heard with the women from HBS and from medical schools, who said they were competing with men who had found a partner willing to care for all their needs —take care of the car, take care of the laundry, take care of the home, take care of the baby. Women are just starting to speak up, share responsibilities, and have choices.
Q: Can you describe your coaching philosophy? What does it mean to you to be a coach; what’s your role?
A: I have always viewed coaching as teaching. I believe it can be a very important part of your education — like a nontraditional classroom. If you educate the whole person, then that enhances performance. You cannot be part time in any of the qualities that it takes to win.… Work ethic, toughness, discipline, drive, resiliency, leadership — I could go on forever — these strengths have to be who you are all the time. You usually cannot turn them on and off when you want them. This is what we strive for.
Q: Do you have a weakness in your coaching?
A: I am too nice. I don’t know if my players would say that [laughs]. I know that I can be a little tougher. I would love to develop toughness, especially in this crazy, un-tough world — the helicopter parenting and everyone gets a trophy. I think we are missing the boat a little bit. We talk about facing adversity and handling conflict a lot. This doesn’t seem to be happening much anymore because parents are doing it for them. I feel many come without the skill set to handle disappointment and the drive and resiliency to move forward. Body language, facial expressions, and a positive attitude are very important components to being on a team.
I think coaching is one of the most powerful but difficult professions. When I talk to people about going into coaching, I tell them: Be prepared. Most coaches are high energy and happy. But it’s brutally hard; it’s very complicated. I was not prepared to be in these young people’s lives at Westwood and here at Harvard. I just thought I was going to coach a little basketball. But I ended up being their counselor, their mom, and, oh by the way, their coach. So I had to educate myself and I became aware of who I am in their lives. I’ve always had very young coaches. When I mentor my staff, I tell them: “You are going to have an incredible impact on these lives. You have to pay attention to make sure that you connect with every single player.” I don’t want my starters to be more important than my last player on the bench.
Q: What’s your greatest piece of advice?
A: “Act as if.” When I got the Harvard job I thought, “OK, I am not going to have the best basketball players, but they are going to be really, really bright.” I am a big believer in sports psychology. I feel performance is 80 percent mental, and if that’s true, I realized early on that I better learn how to develop the Harvard players mentally, their confidence, their visualization skills, their concentration, etc. I decided to read about it and took transcendental meditation courses with Jon Kabat-Zinn [of the University of Massachusetts Medical School]. I had this awareness that that’s what I was going to do when I came here. Some of my early Harvard players would make fun of me because we would do relaxation drills and visualizations. I’m sure I wasn’t very good at it. But I was reading the book or I had taken the course. It evolved into “Act as if.” Act as if you love this practice, act as if you’re not hurt. You just fell down, I know that hurt, but don’t show it. To this day, I get calls from my former players, women who are doctors or lawyers who tell me, “Kathy, I acted as if.” It’s funny that that piece of information has been a lifelong mantra for so many people.
Q: You are known for having a wicked sense of humor. Where did that come from? And how has it been important in your life and your work as a coach?
A: No one believes that as a child I was extremely shy and lacked confidence. There are photographs of me where you can tell by my posture I am trying to hide from the camera. At some point, I realized it was exhausting to be so shy and so insecure. I just decided to relax and accept myself as is. In order to do that, I tried to interject humor wherever I could. Coaching is a very intense environment, a perfect place to laugh. It helps to handle the highs and lows.
Then I got breast cancer. I had never even known anyone with cancer except my dad, who died suddenly of lung cancer. So, cancer was this scary thing. The thought of going bald and telling people I had cancer was scary to me, because I knew nothing about it. I had a wonderful support system, including my staff and players, and it just seemed easier to use a little humor.
Q: Did you tell the team right away?
A: That was the hardest thing. Oh my God. Telling my son and the team was really, really hard. I had to make jokes. I had long hair at the time, so I let the team cut my hair. It was all humor. Poor kids. If I was 18, I wouldn’t have been able to handle it myself. I told them and I tried to say it was OK. Then the next day, when I came down for practice, no one would come near me. They were scared to death of me because they didn’t know what to say, they didn’t know what to do, they didn’t know how to treat me. I told them it was not contagious, and I made them do a group hug.
Q: Why did you decide to go so public with your diagnosis?
A: I had made the decision not to and then I just blurted it out, which is probably just like my personality. There was no forethought to it. It was right in the middle of my season and I had a biopsy and then I had surgery. My whole right side was very sore and I had to shake hands with my left hand and I was tired of explaining why. I just blurted it out to a media person.
Then, when it was public, I realized I could help others suffering from cancer. There was a woman I sat with when I was getting infusions in the hospital and she was a teacher and she continued to teach part time. She helped me believe I could still coach. And I thought: She helped me. I can help people. In the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association, I was able to talk to people suffering with cancer about the choices they had. People think they have to stop working. I often think, if you love your job, stopping work is scary, because then you sit around and think about it. It’s very tolerable if you can be distracted, but if you are not working or not doing something, then it gets harder.
Q: What is your favorite thing about being a coach?
A: I love watching young women grow over their four years, both as athletes and adults. Our alumni events are so fun … everyone comes back, older ones bring their children, and it is amazing to see the lifelong memories and relationships they have with each other. Most of them stay in touch and always share something they learned and how they are using it in their lives. I am very proud.
Q: What have you gotten better at in your coaching career?
A: I am better at putting losing in perspective and using it as a learning experience. I am better at helping to develop leadership and different styles of leadership. I am more aware of the power of being on a team in college … how important it can be in total development.
Q: You have had such a successful career. Can you talk to me a little bit more about what it’s like to lose?
A: No one likes to lose. I am pretty disappointed that it has been several years since the last title. Even though there have been other levels of success, I won’t be satisfied until we get back to the top.
Q: Your greatest win?
A: There really isn’t one. People will want me to say Stanford . I would say the first Ivy League title because it was in my third year and [Harvard president] Derek Bok came to the game. All of them are huge. It’s funny; I live more in the moment rather than what happened last year or what’s going to happen in the future. I think that was something my mother taught me. And that is part of sports psychology. If you can stay present, that’s a better place to be.
Q: You have such an incredible win-loss record. Do you have a set system for such success, or is it something that changes year to year based on the new crop of players?
A: I am evolving with who is on my team. Last year, we had injuries to guards and we weren’t deep in the guard spot. We had an incredible frontcourt but you can’t play without guards. So we weren’t able to get to the top because you need guards. Now, I have a huge amount of guards and I don’t have a lot of forwards. So I have to adjust and tweak my system. I moved two guards to a small forward spot and they very unselfishly are learning new skills for the team. It’s hard for them, but I am so proud of both of them. I have to tweak it to my personnel.
Q: Do you think about retiring?
A: Not as often as I should. I do get asked that question all the time. My answer is that I will stop when I don’t love it or if I feel I am not doing a good job. I have come close and done a lot of reflection, but I always come back to: “I love it.” I don’t have the right temperament to retire just yet.
Q: Do you have a post-coaching plan in mind?
A: I have this dream that when I retire, I am going to go to rural South Africa and help girls who don’t have the same thing we have in this country. I want to go help people, but girls in particular. The Harvard Center for African Studies has a South Africa Fellowship Program. I’ve had several basketball players go. There’s so much work to be done. I hope I can do that. It couldn’t be full time but three weeks here, a month there. I keep thinking about it.
Interview was edited for clarity and length.