Fennelly living the dream at Iowa State

Native Iowan returns, finds a home with Cyclones

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August 16, 2014 | 4:17 pm

Editor’s note: Bill Fennelly is about to enter his 20th season as women’s basketball coach at Iowa State. Nicole Greiner of the Iowa State Athletics Communications staff decided to take a look at his impact on the program. Here’s an abbreviated version; her complete account is at www.cyclones.com

By Nicole Greiner, Iowa State

AMES — Janel Grimm really hated the yellow caution tape in Hilton Coliseum.

With an average of 733 fans at Iowa State women’s basketball games, staff taped off sections with yellow caution tape to keep fans centrally located and to assist with a quick and easy cleanup. Concessions were sold at two pushcarts.

Grimm’s parents could pull up to the arena just before tipoff, park front and center and walk inside no questions asked.

Grimm promised that before her time was up at Iowa State, that yellow caution tape would come down.

ENTER FENNELLY

Bill Fennelly picked up a newspaper May 12, 1995, and read that Iowa State women’s basketball coach Theresa Becker had resigned.

Fennelly, then the women’s basketball coach at Toledo, was fresh off his sixth postseason bid and had built the program from the ground up over seven years.

Becker cited personal and professional reasons, plus something that struck a chord with Fennelly.

“I feel that I have taken this program as far as I can,” Becker said. “To get to the next level, this program needs a jolt, something different. What I am doing is in the best interest of the team.”

A jolt. Something different.

A few hours later the phone rang in the Fennelly house. The caller was Gene Smith, then athletics director at Iowa State.

IOWA IS Home

One summer, the Fennelly family was driving through Ames — about halfway between his parents’ house in Davenport and his wife Deb’s parents’ home in Ruthven. “Dad, why can’t you just coach here?” his son Billy asked.

He explained to the 6-year-old that sometimes it’s not that simple, but in the back of his mind he wished it were.

Fennelly’s father ran a gas station in Davenport, where Fennelly learned about hard work and how to treat people.

Fennelly considered himself a “very average” high school basketball player, but his coach often told him he could be a good coach. That comment stuck with him. As a student at William Penn College, women’s basketball coach Bob Spencer asked him if he wanted to help out.

Spencer didn’t have an assistant but soon had one in Fennelly. That volunteer position turned into a full-time gig after graduation, and Fennelly helped lead the Lady Statesman to an AIAW national championship in 1981. Spencer was offered the head coaching job at Fresno State, and Fennelly went with him.

From there he went to Notre Dame and then to Toledo for his first head coaching position.

He and Deb missed Iowa, but he was building something. He knew it might not lead him back home, but that was the dream.

HEADING HOME

A few years after that conversation with Billy, he got the call that changed everything.

Iowa State was again searching for a coach, only this time a different athletics director was on the line with a pitch that seemed to have a different ring to it.

The Fennellys still hesitated. They’d had their hearts set on returning to Iowa a few years earlier, but ISU hired Becker. Toledo was fresh off an NCAA tournament appearance and returning the entire team. And taking the Iowa State job would require a pay cut.

But after interviewing, the call came in July. Smith said the job was his if he wanted it. The Fennellys finally agreed this was the best decision for them. The deal was done within an hour of the offer.

The ISU program had gone through five coaches in 22 years. Still, coaching in Iowa was Fennelly’s dream.

DREAM COME TRUE

Fennelly spoke about what it meant to return to Iowa during his introductory news conference.

“I know it would seem clichéd nowadays to talk about dreams and aspirations,” Fennelly said. “For 20 years I’ve been a women’s basketball coach, and for 20 years I’ve dreamed of coming to this school to coach, to hopefully finish my career and to build something in this state and for this university. It is a dream come true for me and my family.”

Gene Smith had another message: “Bill Fennelly is a winner, beyond a shadow of a doubt.”

It was time for Fennelly to go about the job of proving that.

He hadn’t recruited a player on that 1995-96 team but credited Becker for leaving him a strong cast with a solid work ethic and a will to win. Players like Janel Grimm, Tara Gunderson and Jayme Olson.

Gunderson, a 5-8 junior, surprised him in an initial one-on-one meeting.

“What do you want to see change?” he asked.

“You just tell me what you want me to do, because I just want to win,” she said.

And win they did. The Cyclones began the season 12-0 and recorded the school’s first undefeated non-conference record.

BUILD IT, THEY’LL COME

A framed box score has a place in Fennelly’s office. It’s from an 82-55 ISU victory over Idaho State watched by a few hundred fans. It’s a reminder of where his program started — in a quiet Hilton Coliseum where few saw his first victory as the Iowa State head coach.

He didn’t forget the silence. But it helped him forge a plan.

Deb and Bill got in touch with the Ames community. They smiled, shook hands and invited everyone who would listen to watch the team in action.

“It was like a really poorly orchestrated political campaign is what I tell people,” Fennelly said. “We were gripping and grinning and talking and meeting as many people as we could see and going to as many things as we could go to.”

While Bill was off recruiting and coaching, Deb took on the task of getting fans to games. She was the marketing director before they even had one, Bill jokes. Slowly but surely, it began to work.

The players got involved, making numerous stops at charitable events. Nobody went home until the Sharpies were dry and everyone got their autograph.

As Deb, Bill and the Cyclones immersed themselves in the community, that aforementioned caution tape was shuffled around to add seating room, a few more pushcart concession stands were added and before long even the concourse concession stands opened.

Turning it Around

“Why isn’t Iowa on the schedule?” Fennelly asked when he saw the 1995-96 schedule.

He was told something like this: we aren’t good enough, so they don’t schedule us. He set out to change that.

Grimm recalls clearly hearing that Iowa was on the 1996-97 schedule. Eight of 14 ISU players were Iowans, and Grimm — who grew up a Hawkeye fan — had waited for this moment.

“I walked out of Hilton practically skipping back to my dorm, so excited because we were going to play Iowa,” Grimm said.

The Cyclones lost that first game to Iowa, 64-53, but knew Iowa would be heading to Hilton the next season — Iowa’s first trip there in six seasons.

When the Hawkeyes arrived Dec. 13, 1997, they were greeted by something new in the arena for women’s basketball — a school-record 5,844 fans. For the first time, the balcony was open and the infamous caution tape had been removed.

Iowa State rewarded the fans with a 74-57 victory (the first over Iowa since 1982) behind a 22-point performance from Cedar Rapids Washington graduate Stacy Frese — a transfer from Iowa.

That marked a turning point for Fennelly. Iowa State was relevant again.

MORE GREAT MOMENTS

More special moments were just around the corner.

More than 3,000 fans watched the Cyclones defeat Texas Tech to move into the AP Top 25 for the first time.

Iowa State hosted the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament the next season, defeating Kent and losing an emotional game to Rutgers, 62-61, in front of 9,705 fans.

Days later, Frese came across a newspaper picture of her crying at the postgame news conference. She put it in her locker. “Rutgers” was taped to her mirror and in her car. Given another opportunity, she promised, there would be a different ending.

SWEET 16

The next season Iowa State advanced to the Sweet 16 by beating Santa Clara and Oregon on its home court. After the Oregon game, Frese went to her locker and tore up the picture.

Top-seeded Connecticut awaited in Cincinnati.

“We were happy to be there, but we weren’t done,” Frese said.

The game was neck-and-neck most of the way. Connecticut was the national leader in field-goal percentage, but Iowa State held the Huskies to a season-low 29.9 percent.

ISU trailed 50-43 with 5:26 left but got a big boost from a 3-pointer by Monica Huelman, a 6-2 junior from Vinton who was the first recruit Fennelly signed at ISU. A barrage of 3-pointers from Tracy Gahan, Frese, Megan Taylor and Frese again Forced a UConn timeout. The Cyclones won, 64-58, and a team that was 8-19 four season earlier was in the Elite Eight.

Iowa State’s magical run ended with a loss to Georgia, but it had left its mark on women’s college basketball.

NO MORE YELLOW TAPE

The Cyclones had arrived, locally and nationally, showing that remarkable things can happen with the right leader.

Under Fennelly’s direction, Iowa State has made 15 NCAA tournament appearances, five Sweet 16s and two Elite Eights. The Cyclones are among the nation’s leaders in attendance. Eight Cyclones have combined to earn 13 All-America nods, and the program has maintained a 100 percent graduation rate during his tenure.

And that yellow caution tape? It hasn’t been seen in Hilton Coliseum for a women’s basketball game since 1997.

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