The Fire and Focus of the Ivy League
By KEVIN ARMSTRONG
Published: January 15, 2010
York Times Article
HANOVER, N.H. — Kathy Delaney-Smith, the coach of the Harvard women’s basketball team, learned that she had breast cancer in December 1999, but she did not go public with the news until a month later. After a victory over Dartmouth, she let the news slip in a postgame interview.
“I thought I was going to be so strong and do it on my own,” Delaney-Smith said, “but questions kept coming up about why I shook hands with my left.”
Support poured in from other coaches. One card, in particular, stood out. It came from Chris Wielgus, Delaney-Smith’s archrival at Dartmouth. Delaney-Smith had been a synchronized swimmer in college. To blend her past and present in a get-well message, Wielgus, a former basketball player, dressed up in a shark hat, bathing suit and garland scarf and attempted ballet poses in the pool for a photo.
“I just told her I wish I had the same start as she had,” Wielgus said, sitting in her office one day last week. “And I prayed I wouldn’t drown lifting my leg.”
Delaney-Smith responded: “Get a life, Chris. Horrible form.”
Delaney-Smith and Wielgus have battled for more than two decades. Heading into Saturday’s Ivy opener here, their personal rivalry stands even at 20 victories apiece. Wielgus won her first Ivy title in 1979-80 during the first of two head coaching stints at Dartmouth, while Delaney-Smith won her first in 1985-86, her fourth season at Harvard. Since then, the Big Green (4-9) and the Crimson (9-4) have won all but four league crowns and are expected to contend for this year’s championship.
“They are the grandparents of the Ivies,” said Princeton Coach Courtney Banghart, who played for Wielgus and coached under her for four years. “But they’re also two fiery 50-somethings running around.”
A witty New Yorker who wears dollar-store eyeglasses and shuttles back and forth to Alumni Gymnasium in a Honda scooter that one of her players first spotted for sale on fraternity row, Wielgus was initially unimpressed with the Ivy League. She was hired in 1976 as a part-time coach and allotted practice time at 8 p.m., after the men’s varsity, junior varsity and freshman teams were finished. She had no office, relegated to using the trainer’s bottom drawer to store paperwork.
“I got to learn in obscurity,” Wielgus said.
A Massachusetts native who rides a bicycle, plays tennis and sees the world through $500 lenses, Delaney-Smith had no interest in Harvard at first. As the daughter of a Boston College law professor, she was loyal to the maroon and gold. She had won immediately as coach at Westwood (Mass.) High, never dropping a Tri-Valley League game in nine seasons. At the high school level, she filed four grievances regarding equity standards that grew into lawsuits, and was the only prep coach — then 32 years old — to interview for the Crimson job. Once she took the position, though, she was in awe.
“I had a hard time finding a mentor,” Delaney-Smith said. “Maybe it’s because I wanted to hide my mistakes.”
Four years ago, Banghart, working on a Dartmouth honors thesis about the oral history of coaching, sat with Delaney-Smith for an hour and a half, just as she did with Connecticut’s Geno Auriemma, North Carolina State’s Kay Yow and others.
“I walked away knowing she was a pioneer, but still had this freshness of focusing on tomorrow’s game,” Banghart said.
Delaney-Smith’s voice has always been audible. Her players measure her rising vocals by the “Kathy Crescendo,” ranging from a pallid calm to red-faced rage.
“Once it’s past red, we’re about done,” said Emma Markley, a junior forward.
The echoes are heard in Dartmouth, too. When asked if the team had any traditions for Harvard week, Wielgus said, “Traditionally, I yell a lot more.”
Banghart added: “I would have traded offices with anyone in athletics during Harvard weeks. There’s a heightened sense toward them.”
As the fates would have it, Harvard and Dartmouth are the alpha and the omega, the opener and the finale, for each other. Travel partners each weekend, they visit the same two destinations for Friday-Saturday matchups, wearing down each other’s next opponent.
“It’s a tough one-two punch to counter,” said Rutgers-Newark Coach Kevin Morris, who has worked as an assistant under both coaches. “I can talk with both of them, but I don’t give either one any secrets on what defense is coming out.”
Harvard never loses track of time regarding the Big Green. Inside its locker room is a black digital clock, ticking down to the first Ivy game. It reads: “Beat Dartmouth.”
On Jan. 7, Dartmouth forward Cassie Cooper knew the moment was nearing. As she looked into the stands during Dartmouth’s loss at Boston College, she saw familiar faces of B.C. parents and then saw a group of girls spread across three rows opposite the Big Green bench. It was the Harvard players, who had already beaten the Eagles, getting an early live scout.
No greetings or well wishes were exchanged between the teams.
“We got the message,” Cooper said. “Beat Crimson.”