Harvard’s Longest-Tenured Coaches Educate through Athletics

Harvard’s Longest-Tenured Coaches Educate through Athletics

Harry Parker served as head coach of the Harvard men's heavyweight crew team for 51 seasons (Tim Morse).

Harvard is known around the world for the extraordinary educators who make up our community. Some of our most exceptional and longest-tenured coaches are also renowned for their success as teachers and mentors as well as for their tactical skill on the sidelines. John Powers of the Harvard Class of 1970 looks at a special group of instructors who each have shared their wisdom with Harvard student-athletes for over two decades and continue to impart lifelong lessons. 

-- Bob Scalise, The John D. Nichols '53 Family Director of Athletics

By John Powers '70

      Their time at the college has been reckoned not in seasons but in decades. But for Harvard's legendary coaches their achievements are calculated not so much by victories and championships but by their lasting influence on thousands of student-athletes. "They measure their success by how well they've developed people over a long period of time," said Bob Scalise, The John D. Nichols ’53 Family Director of Athletics, a former coach of the Crimson's men's lacrosse and women's soccer teams. Bill McCurdy coached the men's cross country and track & field teams for 31 years, while Cooney Weiland directed men's ice hockey for 21. Carole Kleinfelder coached the women's lacrosse varsity for 25 seasons, and her 1990 varsity was the first Harvard women's team to win an NCAA championship in any sport.

     Nine active Harvard head coaches have had tenures of longer than 20 seasons, and this distinguished group has produced 13 national individual and team champions, 75 Ivy League titles and a quartet of Rhodes Scholars.

     What all of them have in common is that they're considered not only superb coaches but also effective educators and valued mentors. "Our students who are athletes have had the great fortune of having a constant adult in their lives while they are here," said Rakesh Khurana, Dean of Harvard College. "This is an individual who not only helped them on the field but also helped shape who they are and their aspirations for who they want to be."

     Because of their multiple roles, Harvard's coaches often have an impact that endures long after their athletes have graduated. "I envy the coaches," said Harvard Business School professor Jerry Green, the David A. Wells Professor of Political Economy and the John Leverett Professor in the University, who chairs Harvard’s Faculty Standing Committee for Athletics. "When you ask the students, that's who they learn the most from, that's who they remember. And as a faculty member I wish that's what they said about me."

     Many of Harvard's iconic coaches even have inspired their successors. Harry Parker's tenure as men's heavyweight crew coach spanned 51 years. For most of that time counterpart, Charley Butt, The Bolles-Parker Head Coach for Harvard Men’s Heavyweight Crew who directed the lightweights for nearly three decades and won nine national titles, sat elbow-to-elbow with Parker in their upstairs office at Newell Boathouse. "Any time a door swings open and I'm not looking, I expect him to walk in," Butt said after succeeding the late Parker three years ago.

     Jack Barnaby, who coached racquet sports for nearly 40 seasons, was followed as men's tennis coach by Dave Fish, The Scott Mead ’77 Head Coach for Harvard Men’s Tennis, who captained both the Crimson tennis and squash varsities. "The reason that I probably decided to coach was because I had been exposed to Jack, this wonderful mentor who always felt that Harvard was a unique combination of things," said Fish. "They want you to come here and do well academically and learn how to be a contributing member of society. But they also believe in doing things with excellence. I found that just a tremendously appealing combination."

     Fritz Hobbs '69 had the privilege of playing for both Barnaby and Parker. "Between Jack and Harry they were better professors than any I had," said Hobbs, who rowed on the 1968 and 1972 U.S. Olympic crews that were assembled by Parker. "They both were classic Harvard coaches in that they were both smart as hell, they both were incredibly well-read and they both were interested in a lot more than just squash or crew."

     Because of their close and constant contact with their athletes, Harvard's coaches often have more influence upon their lives than do their professors. "I believe that we coaches know these kids better than anybody in the university," observed head women’s basketball coach Kathy Delaney-Smith, who says that 'my proudest moment is when my alumnae come back.' "We're with them longer. We're with them for four years."

     The extraordinary amount of time that Harvard's coaches spend communicating with their athletes often creates unique personal bonds. "We see them every day and so it's inevitable that we are involved in their lives," said Liz O'Leary, the head coach for women’s heavyweight crew whose 2003 boat won the national championship. "We know when they're having a good day, when they're having a bad day, when they have a tough exam coming up and when their grandmother is sick. You understand and you can hopefully support them to the degree that they want."

     One of the most satisfying aspects for coaches is watching their athletes evolve from season to season. "That's why we all do this, to see the players that we coach grow and develop," said head softball coach Jenny Allard. "That's the real joy in it, that you have these players come in as freshmen and you see how they grow over four years." 

     The connections between Harvard's coaches and athletes frequently continue long after Commencement. "I've been to weddings, I've held babies," said Jennifer Weiss, head coach of women's volleyball. "Those wonderful relationships with them, that's one of the most rewarding things as a coach." 

     Daily accessibility creates natural opportunities for coaches to develop trusting relationships with their athletes. "The way that I do it is to be there when they walk in the door and when they leave at night," said Katey Stone, The Landry Family Head Coach for Harvard Women’s Ice Hockey, whose 1999 varsity won the national title and who coached four of her players on the U.S. team that won the silver medal at the 2014 Winter Olympics. "My office is always open."

     Imparting lifelong lessons to their athletes is a natural part of the mentoring role for Crimson coaches. "I think if you were to sit every one of my guys down and say, “What's my mantra?”, they would basically say that Coach Weiss wants me to be a better person," says Jay Weiss, whose wrestlers have won two individual national titles. "If 100 percent of my guys are saying that then I'm doing the right thing."

     While excellence in intercollegiate competition is a primary goal of Harvard's teams, its coaches stress the lasting benefits that come with athletic participation. "What I tell them is, it's not about the championship rings," said Tim Murphy, The Thomas Stephenson Family Head Coach for Harvard Football. "It's not about the Ivy accolades. Those are great, but what it's really all about is the journey, the people you meet and the relationships you make along the way."

Active Harvard Head Coaches with 20+ Seasons
Dave Fish, The Scott Mead ’77 Head Coach for Harvard Men’s Tennis (39 seasons)
Kathy Delaney-Smith, Head Coach Women’s Basketball (34 seasons)
Charley Butt, The Bolles-Parker Head Coach for Harvard Men’s Heavyweight Crew (31 seasons)
Liz O’Leary, Head Coach Women’s Heavyweight Crew (30 seasons)
Jennifer Weiss, Head Coach Women’s Volleyball (23 seasons)
Tim Murphy, The Thomas Stephenson Family Head Coach for Harvard Football (22 seasons)
Jenny Allard, Head Coach Softball (22 seasons)
Jay Weiss, The David G. Bunning ’88 Head Coach for Harvard Wrestling (22 seasons)
Katey Stone, The Landry Family Head Coach for Harvard Women’s Ice Hockey (21 seasons)