First NCAA Tournament Propels WBB Turnaround
Passion. Drive. Determination.
These are the words used to describe the catalyst in the U-turn of the Iowa State women’s basketball program 14 seasons ago when Bill Fennelly arrived on campus with a massive mission ahead of him. The student-athletes who played for him use those words to depict Fennelly, and he in turn uses them to portray those first teams which got the program rolling in the right direction.
The turnaround was nothing short of miraculous. Fennelly took a program that had won 237 games in the first 20 years of its existence and has won 295 contests in his 14 seasons at the helm. He took a team which had never been to an NCAA Tournament and has led it to nine in his first 13 seasons at the Iowa State helm.
In the season before his arrival, Iowa State won eight games and boasted just one Big Eight Conference victory. In Fennelly’s first season (1995-96) the Cyclones doubled their overall win total, finishing with 17, and multiplied their conference wins by five. By year two (1996-97), Iowa State was on its way to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history. In year three (1997-98), the Cyclones won 25 games, finished second in the Big 12 standings and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. By year four (1998-99), all expectations were blown out of the water as Iowa State defeated top-seeded Connecticut to advance to the first Elite Eight in school history.
“I think the first thing is that it was something no one even thought about,” Fennelly said. “I don’t think it ever crept into anyone’s mind that it was even possible. It was such a struggle for so long to be respectable. To be respectable is one thing, and to play in the NCAA Tournament is a whole other thing.”
That first trip to the Big Dance was no accident. It didn’t happen by mistake. Fennelly came in with a purpose and a plan, and that plan was not for five years down the road. He fully intended to take Iowa State some place it had never been starting with the players he inherited.
“When he came in to talk to us before or after the press conference, you could tell he was driven,” Janel Grimm (now Burgess) said. “The thing I will always remember was that he said ‘I am here to win, and I am here to win now. I don’t want to wait until you guys are gone. I want to win with you guys and take you to the NCAA Tournament.’ I think as a player, that was something we were all hungry for. And to hear that from your new head coach was very exciting.”
Fennelly called in each player on his roster and asked them if they honestly believed they could win and if they were willing to do what it would take to make that happen. Each one had the same answer. Each one was willing to do whatever he asked, even if it meant completely changing the way they were accustomed to playing.
“He basically built this system,” Monica Huelman, Fennelly’s first ISU recruit, said. “He had so much belief and passion in it. Think about it, all four years I played, we played a zone defense. And we went to the Elite Eight on a junk zone. What kind of system can you build and have that many people believe it will work?”
“The first thing we changed is the way we played,” Fennelly said. “We had to change our style. We shot the three a lot more. We played more zone defense, so structurally we played the game different. And then we just held them to a very high standard and told them they were going to be accountable. I just challenged them that if they were going to accept getting pounded on like we did the couple of years before that they needed to play somewhere else. We appealed to their pride a little bit. We were left with some good kids, good people, who were good enough players and committed enough to do it. And they really did it from day one.”
Fennelly had taken Toledo to the NCAA Tournament three times as its head coach. The goal of making it back there each and every season resonates through him. It isn’t just a hope or a wish, it is a driving passion. From the very beginning Fennelly has not been bashful about stating his goal. On the bottom of each practice card, which dictates the progression of drills on a given day, the date of the NCAA Selection Show is prominently written. It’s been there since the first practice of Fennelly’s career at ISU. It remains there today.
“I remember that we were excited to see our names pop up on the selection show,” Grimm said of her first NCAA experience. “That was the number one thing he always preached. First, you wanted to see your name roll across the bottom of the TV screen that you had upset a top 25 team. And then at the end of the season you wanted to be able to sit in the conference room at Iowa State and watch your name pop on the screen saying that you are going to the Big Dance. I can remember sitting in that room with all of us, thinking we actually got to do it. I don’t think we understood the magnitude of it at that point in time, but we were pretty excited about it.”
That kind of turnaround was hard to grasp in the middle of the process. While the players and staff have now come to grips with what they accomplished in that first trip to the NCAA Tournament, it was well beyond their understanding at that point in time.
“I was a naïve freshman,” Huelman said. “I didn’t fully understand it. But to see the girls who were seniors experience it was great. They had been through the lowest of lows. They had been in a really tough program, and coach Fennelly came in and they started winning and then they made it to the NCAA Tournament. That really capped off their careers, and it’s good that they got to experience that. For me, that’s not as far as we could go. That was just a taste of it.”
When Selection Monday rolls around each year, Fennelly has a small smile on his face for each team he sees enjoying that experience for the first time.
“The first time you do anything in life is so special, and there were so many people that had a part in it,” Fennelly said. “I love to see those teams on Selection Monday that are so excited to get in for the first time and the genuine enthusiasm they have, compared to the teams that are more worried about where they are seeded and where they are going. It was a very unique experience and one that was very cool.”
Fennelly will get to relive some of those memories this weekend when the Iowa State athletics department holds a women’s basketball letterwinners reunion. All former letterwinners have been invited back for a reception on Friday night and will be recognized at halftime of the women’s game vs. Kansas State Saturday evening.
“It’s going to be a lot of fun, and it’s going to be emotional in a lot of ways,” Fennelly said. “Those young people changed my life forever. I have a job and I’m in a position now where I’m able to take care of my family. None of that would have happened without those people. It’s a personal thing because of what they did for me. What they did for me is a million times greater than anything I did for them.”