Sunday, March 9, 2014

All Hail Coach Kathy

The Harvard basketball news has been dominated by the men's team winning the Ivy League outright by beating Yale Friday night, in New Haven. The Ivy season is a double round robin tournament, with every team playing every other, once at home and once away. All the games are on Fridays and Saturday, no mid-week travel during term time. There is no postseason tournament to get into the NCAA March Madness, and that is why Harvard was the first team into the brackets.

Harvard's team is pretty unusual by national standards. I was swapping sports talk with a friend at a big state university and mentioned that one of my CS students, Laurent Rivard, was on the starting five -- and another, Steve Mondou-Missi, is an Applied Math major. He thought I was making it up.

Harvard's success under the estimable Coach Amaker has gotten a lot of attention, but I am glad that our women's coach, Kathy Delaney-Smith, has gotten due recognition. The Globe had a lovely tribute last week in anticipation of her 515th win, which would make her the winningest coach in Ivy League history. That victory came Friday night, as the women's team was beating Yale at Harvard at the same time as the men's team was clinching the Ivy championship in New Haven.

Coach Delaney-Smith is a complete anomaly in today's collegiate sports world. She has coached at Harvard for 32 seasons, and never coached at any other college. Harvard hired her from a local high school, where she had picked up basketball coaching as an add-on to what started out as a job coaching the swim team. She hadn't even played the five-on-five game herself. When she came to Harvard she stepped into the shoes of no giant, inherited no grand recruiting tradition. She achieved her successes by hard work, study, and personal magnetism.

Coach Delaney-Smith must have had a million opportunities to jump to other schools. Her teams have won 11 Ivy championships. One of the most exciting moments of my years as dean came in 1998, when she took one of those championship teams to the NCAA tournament and, seeded 16 in their bracket, knocked off #1 Stanford. Only time it's ever happened in either the men's or women's game.

What makes the Globe profile so good is that it emphasizes Delaney-Smith's relation to her players, and how those relations persist. I've heard it from her alums, and she describes it exactly the same way they do.
“I love Ivy League titles,” she said. “I love the banners in my gym, and I’m very proud of them. But more important than that for me is my athletes, my alumni, their experience. I’m really in it for my student-athletes, not for my records. I want them to grow, I want them to be rewarded. 
“I love when my alumni come back and talk about and share their experiences with each other and with me about how important being part of the Harvard basketball program was to them and their lives.”
Yup. That is the person I know. I wish we saw that spirit in the faculty more often than I do. I've always found it telling that the advertisements for coaches' jobs at Harvard talks about those values, of the importance of mentoring and developing the character of students during their formative years. I've been on search committees for coaches, and there is as much talk about character as there is about Xs and Os.

No ad I've seen for a faculty position mentions the developmental role of the professor. No faculty hiring committee would discuss such things, at least not for long. Nor does the incentive and reward system for faculty take much account of whether a professor has such relationships with students. The students who have anyone like Delaney-Smith in their Harvard lives are very, very fortunate.

Congratulations, Coach. Way to go. You are the best.

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