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Kathy Delaney-Smith’s Final Act

2.25.22

Kathy Delaney-Smith

Kathy Delaney-Smith

Photograph courtesy of Harvard Athletic Communications


Kathy Delaney-Smith

Photograph courtesy of Harvard Athletic Communications

In November, after her team thrashed Northern Illinois 70-53 in its home opener, Friends coach Kathy Delaney-Smith was asked about her recently announced plans to retire after the season, her fortieth at Harvard. “I’m not thinking about that,” the coach responded. “I kind of forget it’s my last year.” Though seemingly a deflection, Delaney-Smith was being sincere. After coming to Harvard in 1982, she embraced mindfulness techniques from Jon Kabat-Zinn, and the approach shaped her mindset. Adjusting to a unique roster and a global pandemic, she’s done her best to “stay in the moment.”

That presence has proven instrumental this season as she leads a team that is exceptionally talented but young and inexperienced and contending with extraordinary challenges on and off the court. This has led to a seesaw campaign, but if the Crimson (12-12 overall, 6-6 Ivy) win their final two games (at home against Princeton on Saturday and at Dartmouth the following weekend), Harvard will clinch a spot in the conference tournament at Lavietes Pavilion in mid-March. With two wins there, the team would qualify for the NCAAs for the first time since 2007.

Will Delaney-Smith go out on a winning note, and how does she measure success?

 

In the pre-season, Delaney-Smith said that she had the “most talent [she’s] ever had at Harvard.” The problem? Because of the pandemic, many of the players had never met, let alone played together. It was up to the coach to synchronize the individual talent. Delaney-Smith has traditionally asked captains to organize activities, like retreats, to build trust, but that was impossible because of pandemic restrictions. She instead created a phone tree (a rotating schedule where players took turns calling designated teammates) to ensure every player spoke with one another over the summer.

Establishing chemistry was imperative because Delaney-Smith was implementing a “five-out” offense that positions each player on the perimeter at the start of a play and depends on players making intuitive, timely decisions on where to move and when. The coach ideally would have begun introducing the scheme in spring workouts, but the pandemic compressed the schedule. Complicating matters, Rachel Levy ’22, a talented forward, chose to forgo her senior year, leaving Delaney-Smith without a key player. The team would have to gel on the court in non-conference play, creating the risk that early setbacks against experienced teams would dampen Harvard’s enthusiasm.

Delaney-Smith sensed this happening in late November against Boston University, so at halftime, with her team trailing 40-31, she told her squad not to come out in the second half if they intended to play with the same lack of urgency. This seemed to backfire when the Terriers began the third quarter on a 10-0 run. Then, the offense started clicking, and the Crimson mounted a furious comeback, capped by a game-winning three from McKenzie Forbes ’23 with five seconds remaining. The reenergized Crimson won four of the next six games to finish non-conference play 6-6.

But more obstacles would appear. In January, just as the team was discovering its rhythm, the Omicron variant began infecting two or three players each week, creating uncertainty about who would be available and intensifying team members’ anxiety. This contributed to an uneven 2-3 start to Ivy play, setting up a pivotal late January contest with Cornell. In her pre-game speech, Delaney-Smith told her players to “forget about yesterday” and not to “worry about tomorrow” but instead focus on today. In other words, stay present. The Crimson thumped Cornell by 42 points.

One week later, with Harvard trailing Penn by 13 late in the third quarter, the coach needed to remind herself to stay in the moment. On offense, players were not making decisive cuts to get open, and Delaney-Smith feared the team might start playing more tepidly if it sensed her concern about the direction of the game. As the coach settled herself down, her athletes re-focused. On the court, the players repeatedly told one another they were going to win, pulling for their coach in her final year. As guard Maggie McCarthy ’23 explained later, the players embraced a “refuse to lose mentality” earlier this season, in the resilient spirit of Delaney-Smith’s “Act as If” philosophy. That mindset, along with a “run and gun” attack that wore the Quakers down, fueled a 70-63 comeback win.

Anticipating more taut contests, the coach drilled the team on a novel style of defense in which the Crimson compensated for the lack of a strong interior presence with savvy perimeter play. A case in point came in the waning seconds of an early February contest against Brown. With the Crimson ahead by two, co-captain Annie Stritzel ’23 stood near the paint as Brown set up a pick and roll. Keeping her head on a swivel, Stritzel edged toward the perimeter and switched onto the Bears’ guard. The coaches had emphasized that the player preferred to go left, so Stritzel shaded her to the right and stole the ball to seal the win. After defeating Yale the next night, the Crimson were 6-3 in Ivy play, well positioned to qualify for the league tournament.

This set up a critical home rematch against Penn on “KDS Day,” February 12. The University planned to honor Delaney-Smith through video tributes from celebrities like Billie Jean King, and more than 70 basketball alumnae would be on hand to fete their coach. Hoping to ease the pressure, Delaney-Smith canceled practice that Tuesday and organized an “Olympics Day,” where players competed in games like corn hole as Olympics-themed music blasted through the gym. Unfortunately, the Quakers raced out to a 17-point lead, and despite another valiant comeback, the Crimson lost in overtime 87-78. Harvard then dropped games at Columbia and Cornell by a combined seven points, causing the season to come down to the final two games.

 

Whatever happens in this final stretch, Delaney-Smith’s accomplishments are extraordinary. She boasts the most wins of any coach (male or female) in any sport in Ivy League history (her Harvard career record is 629-432), has 11 conference championships, and led the first 16-seed over one-seed upset in NCAA history (when the Crimson shocked Stanford in 1998). She has created a vibrant, accomplished alumnae community, spoken out on gender issues (particularly equity), and taught her players to follow suit. Nevertheless, Delaney-Smith emphasizes her “huge disappointment” that she hasn’t won an Ivy title since 2008: “I take that to heart.”

Then again, she realizes that years when the team struggled have brought out her best coaching. Delaney-Smith points to the 2006-2007 season—when the team started 1-10 before an upset of Boston College propelled the Crimson to a 13-1 conference record and NCAA tournament berth. And even in years like this one when the team has excellent chemistry but a weaker record, the coach has come to see the relationships she and her players build with one another as an end in and of itself. “I have so many wonderful alumnae come back and talk to me about their four years,” Delaney-Smith says. “I have learned and am a believer that success is really much larger and much more important than an Ivy League title.”

But for now, Delaney-Smith is just staying in the moment, which means preparing for Saturday’s game and trying to qualify for the Ivy League tournament. This could set the stage for an extraordinary final act.

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