This story was first published on Dec. 4, 2014 in the Iowa State Daily Hoops Magazine. It can be found online at www.isdhoops.com
Ames, Iowa – It was one of the worst days of his life.
Ten-year-old Billy Fennelly had just learned that his dad had accepted a job as head coach of the women’s basketball team at Iowa State.
“When I first heard that he got the job, I cried probably for the first five or six nights,” Billy said. “I had to leave all of my friends. I was going into fifth grade, and I just felt like the world was coming to an end.”
His dad, Bill Fennelly, had been building a dynasty of sorts at the University of Toledo, where he went 166-53 in his seven years as head coach of the Rockets. To this day he is still one of the Mid-American Conference’s winningest coaches.
That was in 1995.
Now, 20 seasons later, Fennelly has turned the once struggling ISU women’s program into a consistent contender not only in the Big 12 conference, but also in the NCAA as well.
And he doesn’t want to go anywhere anytime soon.
“This is home for him, he loves this place,” assistant coach Latoja Schaben said. “He’s all about Iowa State, and the thing is, he still has the drive and the motivation to be here.
“That’s what’s important,” she said. “He has a passion that is beyond unbelievable.”
Fennelly had stepped into a program fresh off an eight-win season. The Cyclones won only one game in conference play that year, finishing in last place. In fact, the Cyclones had only 18 wins combined in the three seasons before Fennelly arrived.
“It was a program that was in a place that needed a lot of work, both on and off the court,” Fennelly said. “We knew that coming in. It was just a matter of what we needed to do to make it better. There was good and bad with it, just like there always is. But I think the perception from outside the program was not very good.”
The Cyclones, who were still playing in the Big Eight conference, were averaging just more than 700 fans per home game, but at times it was a lot worse.
In fact, for Fennelly’s first game at Iowa State, barely 300 people filled the stands.
“I saved the box score from the first game, I think we had 310 people,” Fennelly said. “We had a women’s team, and people knew we weren’t very good. We didn’t even play Iowa. I knew that was a sign we needed to improve; they wouldn’t even put us on the schedule.”
Fennelly knew he needed to change the direction of the program and quickly. He wanted to see an impact right away, and he had to get his team behind him.
“We kind of set the tone with everyone that you were in this or you were out,” Fennelly said. “There was no five-year plan. We wanted to be better today, and that’s what I told them.”
Fennelly’s new system had an immediate impact. The Cyclones finished that season with a 17-10 overall record, earning more wins than the previous two seasons combined. The team still finished sixth in the conference that year, however, and failed to make a postseason tournament.
Even though that team didn’t make it into the postseason, the coaches didn’t see it as a failed season. Former assistant coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson, who is now the head women’s coach at Albany University, saw what Fennelly was doing from the start and really got behind it.
“It was a good program then, but it wasn’t nationally ranked like he has it now,” Abrahamson-Henderson said. “I think his vision for the program when he went in there was set from the start. We just had to build it step by step, minute by minute. How he did it was pretty special.”
The 1998-1999 season was arguably the first time Fennelly was able to put Iowa State women’s basketball on the map. Fennelly’s squad finished second in the conference that year and was able to breeze through the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament, giving Iowa State its first Sweet Sixteen appearance.
There was just one problem; they were scheduled to play top seeded UConn.
With the odds stacked against them, Fennelly and his coaching staff knew they had to come up with something different if they wanted to beat the Huskies.
“What we did, we slowed them down,” Abrahamson-Henderson said. “We literally walked the ball up the floor, went into the four corners, and we did not shoot the ball until 10 seconds on the shot clock. We wouldn’t even try to go rebound, because we didn’t want them to fast break.”
The two teams were neck and neck at half. Even though Fennelly’s strategy was working, he knew it was time to change it up.
“In the second half, they went in to try to see how they could speed us up and change what they were doing against us,” Abrahamson-Henderson said. “But then we started running. We started playing and doing what we normally did. Then everyone was confused on the opposite side.”
In the end, the Cyclones pulled it off. They beat top seeded UConn 64-58 and made their mark in the college basketball world.
“We beat a great team, a team that is synonymous with success in women’s basketball,” Fennelly said. “It gave us our first maybe bump of national attention. You beat a great team, that’s one thing. But the way you did it and who you did it with was even more significant to the people on the inside.”
Fennelly has coached in several games similar to that Sweet Sixteen game since then, and has come up with similar strategies. His ability to come up with a plan that works and stick to it, Abrahamson-Henderson said, is part of what makes him one of the best basketball minds in the country.
“He’s a master at chess matching the games in terms of what we did and the game plan we had,” Abrahamson-Henderson said. “He stays true to who he is and what he is, and that’s why he wins. He’s not trying to be anyone else.”
Since the 1999 Elite Eight team, Fennelly and company have made the NCAA tournament 11 more times. Three times they have made it to the Sweet Sixteen, and have made the Elite Eight one other time. In fact, there are just three seasons in Fennelly’s tenure at Iowa State where he failed to make a postseason tournament at all. Fennelly’s consistent success, in part, is due to his recruiting players that fit his system.
“He didn’t come in trying to change everybody around,” Abrahamson-Henderson said. “He tried to get a system that went to everybody’s strengths, and it actually fit most of the players there. We then went to recruit players that really fit his system.”
And when Fennelly recruits his players, he looks for one main component. His players needed to want to be there.
“Every day, we talked about embracing the process,” Fennelly said. “If you wanted to embrace the process, then we want you a part of this. We didn’t know where it was going to go, but we wanted people who wanted to be involved. Luckily there was enough of them.”
Over the years, Fennelly has been able to consistently recruit players that fit his system. In fact, several of his former players continued to play basketball professionally and even have gone on to coaching.
What makes players want to play for him isn’t the fact that he has built a nationally recognized program. Sophomore guard Jadda Buckley said it’s much more than that.
“He was very honest with me, and that’s one of the reasons I came here,” Buckley said. “He just had a genuine kindness about him. A lot of other coaches would sugarcoat things, but I wanted to go somewhere where it’s going to be honest, where he’s going to be up front with me and make me better, and I knew that he would from the beginning.”
The honesty and passion Buckley found in Fennelly when he first started recruiting hasn’t died down either. In fact, she says it’s only gotten better.
“Oh nothing’s changed,” Buckley said. “He’s still challenging me every day in practice and in every game. His door is always open. If you need anything, he’s always there, and that’s nice to know.”
Before the team’s recent success, recruiting options were limited for Fennelly. He says, however, that he still got players that fit his program and truly wanted to get better.
And he says that makes all the difference.
“We haven’t been able to recruit kids until recently that were very highly rated,” Fennelly said. “But we got kids that wanted to get better, accepted coaching, wanted coaching, and over time, one thing kind of led to another.”
Fennelly has been at Iowa State long enough to have seen five different men’s basketball coaches, three different football coaches and even three different presidents. His 20-year tenure is the longest of any other women’s coach at Iowa State. But if you had asked the Iowa native if he would have stayed at Iowa State, he would have to say no.
“Back then I was only 37, and you’re sitting there thinking about if this doesn’t work out. I mean you have to think about those things,” Fennelly said. “But if I said there was never a doubt in my mind I would be lying to you. It’s worked out, but I don’t know if anyone thought I would be coaching players that weren’t alive when I got the job.”
For the once 10-year-old Billy, he really started to appreciate Ames, too. He started making friends and fitting in, and all the terrors of moving soon disappeared. It wasn’t long until Fennelly found himself going to Iowa State and working on his father’s staff. Billy served as a team manager for three years while at Iowa State, as well as working for both Maryland for one year and Northwestern for two years after his graduation. Billy was then able to join his father’s staff as an assistant, somewhere he always wanted to work.
“You already have that built-in trust level,” Billy said. “There are things that I can say to him that most people can’t, and vice versa. I think we have that level of understanding that were both in it for a common goal, and we understand each other real well, sometimes too well.”
While his father was one of the main reasons he wanted to get into coaching, Billy still brings a different style to the court. In fact, it’s something that Buckley really appreciates.
“They have a great relationship,” Buckley said. “You can tell on the court he’s teaching so much to Billy. Billy brings a different aspect too. Billy’s more calm, and it’s a good offset between them both.”
And for Billy, he doesn’t want to be anywhere else.
“Now it’s all I really know,” Billy said. “I went to school here. I had the chance to get out for a few years, see some different stuff, and that was great. But I really like it. My wife and I live here, and now with a little one, I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else.”
But it’s not just Billy that makes the team a family atmosphere. Fennelly’s nephew, Trevor Fennelly, is currently a graduate assistant with the Cyclones. Assistant coach Latoja Schaben, who has coached with Fennelly for 18 years, is considered by the Fennellys as family, too. Schaben, who played for Fennelly at Toledo, joined Fennelly at Iowa State shortly after her professional career in Europe. Her longevity with Fennelly is something that she says is invaluable.
“It’s been great, I’ve learned a lot,” Schaben said. “It’s been great to see all of these players develop through the years. It’s been a blessing to be around and to pick his brain and learn something every year.”
Along with Schaben, associate head coach Jodi Steyer has been working with Fennelly for most of her career, too. Steyer is starting her 13th year with Iowa State this winter, and has a big part in the team’s success.
“Nothing against coach Fennelly or anything, but coach [Steyer] is my favorite,” senior guard Brynn Williamson said. “She knows so much about the game, and she is so helpful when it comes to basketball and wanting to do the extra stuff. She’s very committed to the program.”
With such long-lasting relationships on Fennelly’s staff, many consider the whole staff like one, big family.
“It’s crazy to think about; literally they’re family,” Williamson said. “They’ve been together for so long. It’s just crazy to see the type of environment that they’ve built, and it’s something that everyone, I think when they enter the workplace, aspire to be a part of.”
And for Fennelly, as he looks back on the program he turned around two decades ago, he’s just happy to have been so lucky.
“I love coming to work every day. Hopefully they’ll want to keep us around a little longer,” Fennelly said. “We were very lucky. There are not many coaches who can say that they’ve been at one place for an extended amount of time, for any reason. You don’t see that very often anymore."