As Iowa State women’s basketball coach Bill Fennelly enters his 20th season at Iowa State, we decided to take a look back at the last 19 seasons and how it all started.
Janel Grimm really hated the yellow caution tape in Hilton Coliseum. It bothered her from day one.
With an average of 733 fans in attendance at Iowa State women’s basketball games, the Hilton Coliseum crew would tape off sections with yellow caution tape to keep fans centrally located and to assist with a quick and easy cleanup.
The yellow caution tape wasn’t the only problem.
With no lines to get in, Grimm’s parents would pull up to the arena just before tip, park front and center, and walk inside Hilton Coliseum with no questions asked.
The atmosphere during games in Hilton Coliseum was also weak. If you wanted to sit in the upper deck there was no chance of that happening with the stairs blocked off. Concessions were at a minimum. For women’s games, workers would drag out two pushcarts to serve the few fans in attendance. The regular concession stands weren’t open.
One day Grimm made herself a promise that before her time was up at Iowa State the yellow caution tape would come down.
As Bill Fennelly picked up the morning newspaper on May 12, 1995, he flipped to the sports page and his eye caught an article on the resignation of Iowa State women’s basketball coach Theresa Becker.
Fennelly, who was currently the women’s basketball coach at Toledo, was fresh off his sixth postseason bid. He had built Toledo from the ground up over the last seven years.
Fennelly read on as Becker cited personal and professional reasons for her resignation and offered an introspective quote.
“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, the then athletic director at Iowa State.
Home is Where the Heart is
One summer on a visit home from his job with the Toledo Rockets, the Fennelly family was driving through Ames, which is located halfway between his parents’ house in Davenport and his wife Deb’s parents’ home in Ruthven. His eldest son Billy looked up and simply said, “Dad, why can’t you just coach here?”
He looked over at the then-six-year-old boy and explained that sometimes it’s not that simple, but in the back of his mind he wished it was.
Fennelly was born and raised in Davenport, Iowa. Davenport is located along the Mississippi River, and is part of the Quad Cities, which boasts a population of over 380,000 today. His father ran a gas station in Davenport and that’s where Fennelly learned about hard work and how to treat people.
He was raised a fan of all things Iowa. He never picked an allegiance between Iowa and Iowa State and would often go to sporting events for both teams.
Fennelly played high school basketball in Davenport when he was first introduced to the coaching world. He considered himself a “very average” player, but his high school coach would often tell him he would be a good coach someday. That comment stuck with him throughout high school and into college at William Penn. While on campus, he was asked by the head women’s basketball coach, Bob Spencer, if he wanted to help out.
Spencer didn’t have an assistant on his staff, but Fennelly was a sponge and tried to learn as much as he could. The assistant position turned into a full-time gig after graduation, and Fennelly helped lead the Lady Statesman to an AIAW National Championship in 1981.
It was then that Spencer was offered the head coaching job at Fresno State, and took Fennelly along with him.
From there he went to Notre Dame and then off to Toledo for his first head coaching position. Sure he and Deb missed Iowa, but he had a career now and he was building something. He knew this career may never lead him back home, but it was his dream nonetheless.
“Professional Suicide” or a Dream Come True
A few years after that conversation with Billy, he got the call that would change everything.
When he answered the phone it was all too familiar to the one he received three years earlier when Iowa State was searching for a new coach, only this time it was a different athletic director on the line and the pitch seemed to have a different ring to it.
There was still some hesitation for the Fennellys for a few reasons. First, they had their heart set on returning to Iowa a few years prior and the administration hired Becker for the position. Second, he had a solid team at Toledo and they were fresh off an NCAA tournament and were returning the entire team. He had high hopes for the 1995-96 Rockets. Lastly, becoming the head coach at Iowa State would require him to take a pay cut, and that was not the norm in college coaching or anywhere for that matter.
After interviewing with top officials at Iowa State, the call from Smith came in July. The position was his if he wanted it. He said first he needed to talk to the boss before making a decision, and by boss he meant his wife, Deb. They both agreed this was what was best for them at the time and he feverishly tried to get Smith back on the line to accept the position. The deal was done within an hour of the offer.
After accepting the position, Fennelly received mixed reviews from people. His family was thrilled they were returning to Iowa, but many others didn’t see it as a great decision to leave a booming Toledo program for a program that had just five winning seasons in 22 years.
A coaching friend even went as far as to say he was committing “professional suicide” by going to Iowa State.
Those were harsh words. It’s true that Iowa State’s women’s basketball program appeared lifeless from the outside. The program had zero postseason trips, and had also gone through five coaches in its 22 year history, but coaching in Iowa was his dream.
Please Welcome John Smith
As Fennelly arrived in Ames just prior to the introductory press conference, he checked into his hotel under the name “John Smith.” The athletic department made it a priority to keep the new hire a secret until the official announcement.
The press conference room was filled with friends, family and reporters while the women’s basketball team stood in the back of the room. Mixed feelings surrounded the group, some were upset about losing the only coach they knew, some were excited for what change could bring and some were a little of both.
A beaming Smith took the podium and sold Fennelly to the crowd.
“It was a fortunate search because we found a great leader,” Smith said. “One that is a good coach, a good teacher, a good recruiter, a motivator of young people.”
Fennelly excitedly took the podium, offering a passionate statement on what it means to return to the state of Iowa for him and his family.
“I know it would seem cliché 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.”
In his mind, he hoped Cyclone Nation and the Iowa community would embrace the Fennellys as they were just like them – Iowans.
At the end of the press conference Smith offered one last message to Cyclone Nation.
“I want to share one last thing … he’s a winner. Bill Fennelly is a winner, beyond a shadow of a doubt.”
In his first days on the job at Iowa State he knew he had an uphill battle. He had to coach a team of players he inherited. Not a single player in the 1995-96 season was one of his recruits. He had to make the best of it.
He credits Becker for leaving him a strong cast of players. Good kids with solid work ethic and a will to win. Players like Janel Grimm, Tara Gunderson and Jayme Olson, who was a 2014 inductee to the ISU Athletics Hall of Fame.
It was Gunderson, a 5-8 junior, who surprised him the most as she sat down for her one-on-one meeting.
“What do you want to see change?” he asked the Lake Park, Iowa native.
“You just tell me what you want me to do because I just want to win.”
And win they did.
The 1995-96 Cyclones began the season with a 12-0 record and an undefeated nonconference record, the first in Iowa State history. However, Fennelly would be the first to tell you winning isn’t the only part of building a program, though it does help.
If You Build It – They Will Come
In Fennelly’s office, propped up on a side table sits a single framed box score, an 82-55 win over Idaho State in the Cyclone Classic played in front of a few hundred fans. He keeps it for a few reasons, for one it is a reminder of where they started. He recalls playing in a quiet Hilton Coliseum where his first win as head coach of the Cyclones was witnessed by just a few fans.
He doesn’t forget the silence. It’s where they started, and he knew then it wouldn’t be where they finished.
So he put together a plan.
They started with Fellows Elementary School and Green Hills retirement home. In true Iowa fashion, Deb and Bill got in touch with the local Ames community; they smiled, shook hands and invited everyone who would listen to come to watch the Cardinal and Gold 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.”
It was a true grass roots campaign.
While Bill was off recruiting and coaching, it was Deb who took on the reins of getting fans to come to games. She was the marketing director before they ever had one, Bill jokes. Slowly but surely, it began to work.
Soon enough, the women’s basketball team got support from Dan McCarney, the then-football coach, and Tim Floyd, the then-men’s basketball coach. The university president Martin Jischke and Smith also helped pump up the team.
The players got involved too. They made 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, the caution tape was shuffled around to add more room, a few more pushcart concession stands were added, and before long the concourse concession stands opened.
Turning it Around
When Fennelly took a look at the 1995-96 schedule that was set up by his predecessor and her staff he immediately had a question.
“Why isn’t Iowa on the schedule?”
The response he got went something to the effect of, “Well coach, we aren’t good enough to play them so they don’t schedule us and we don’t schedule them.”
He didn’t like the response very much and he planned to change that.
And change it did.
Grimm remembers the moment clearly when Fennelly announced to the team the Hawkeyes were now on the 1996-97 schedule. Eight of the 14 members of the 1996-97 team were Iowans, and Grimm had grown up a fan of the Hawkeyes. She had hoped this moment would come, a chance to play the intrastate rival, who was long considered the “big dog” in the state.
“I walked out of Hilton practically skipping back to my dorm so excited because we were going to play Iowa,” Grimm said.
The Cyclones would fall 64-53 at Iowa when the series was renewed. The loss didn’t bother the Cyclones, they just wanted the chance to compete against the Hawkeyes, but they knew when Iowa came to Hilton Coliseum the next year they were going to get them.
It was Iowa’s first trip to Hilton Coliseum in six seasons.
As the Hawkeyes arrived on Dec. 13, 1997 they were greeted by something they or even the Cyclones had never seen before in Hilton Coliseum, a school record 5,844 fans were decked out in Cardinal & Gold. And for the first time in history, the balcony was opened for fans to sit and the infamous caution tape was removed.
Iowa State rewarded the record crowd when it went on to defeat Iowa, 74-57, for the first time since 1982 behind a 22-point performance from Iowa transfer Stacy Frese.
For Fennelly, that game marked a real turning point in Cyclone basketball. Iowa State was relevant to the Iowa community again, but they weren’t done shaking things up yet.
Just over a month after the win against Iowa, the Cyclones won at Colorado, 76-67, for the first time since 1987. Fennelly looked over at senior Janel Grimm and noticed a tear in her eye.
He asked her if everything was alright and she said her freshman year they had lost by 45 points to Colorado and then lost by 35 points a week later in the conference tournament. It was a special moment for the senior to have gotten that particular win.
As the season went on it wouldn’t be the only special moment. There were two more games that will hold a special place in program history in the 1997-98 season.
Just a week after the win at Colorado, a blizzard was bearing down on Ames. With the snow falling in buckets, the Cyclone faithful braved the blizzard, showing up in droves to cheer on the home team as fifth-ranked Texas Tech came to town. A total of 3,188 fans piled into a warm Hilton Coliseum and witnessed Iowa State topple the Lady Raiders, 82-73. The win would move the Cyclones into the Associated Press Poll for the first time in school history.
Iowa State would host the 1998 NCAA tournament first and second rounds, winning its first tournament game against Kent and earning a date with Rutgers in the second round. In one of the most emotional games in ISU history, the Cyclones fell 62-61 on their home court.
However, the record crowd of 9,705 fans felt nothing but pride for the home team. The fans cared not just about winning, but about the girls who wore the jerseys. They were invested in the team and knew they had battled not just for 40 minutes against Rutgers, but for every minute of the season. For that, the crowd honored them with a standing ovation.
“They played hard,” Fennelly reflected. “Yeah, they didn’t win and we all wanted them to win, but they appreciated the effort and getting to that point, which no one thought that they could get to.”
The Rutgers loss was tough for Stacy Frese to swallow. They were so close. They played hard. It just wasn’t enough to lift the Cyclones to their first Sweet 16 berth.
She entered the press conference teary eyed. She answered question-after-question under the bright lights of cameras flashing all the while thinking about what they could have done differently.
Days later she came across a picture of herself crying at the postgame press conference. She clipped it from the newspaper along with the score of the game and put it in her locker. She also taped a single word “Rutgers” on her mirror and in her car. It was a constant reminder.
Every single day Frese stared at that same picture and that same score. It never changed, but she still looked at it. She promised herself if she was given another opportunity there would be a different ending.
The next season Iowa State advanced to the Sweet 16 for the first time after beating Santa Clara and Oregon on its home court. The wins earned them a trip to Cincinnati, Ohio to face top-seeded Connecticut.
After the win against Oregon, Frese walked back to her locker and tore up the picture.
Iowa State was the instant underdog, and it’s safe to say nobody gave the Cyclones the time of day. Press questions centered around “You must just be happy to be here, right?”
In a way they were just happy to be there, making it to a Sweet 16 was something Fennelly always wanted to achieve in his career. He hadn’t done it at Toledo and hoped that one day he would take the Cyclones and make history together.
However, they’d be lying if they said it wasn’t offensive. They answered the questions honestly and politely, but maybe gritted their teeth a little more than a typical pregame press conference.
“We were happy to be there, but we weren’t done,” Frese said.
If one thing was certain there wasn’t a person in the Iowa State locker room who didn’t think they could beat Connecticut.
Scores of Iowa State fans came down for the game. With Fennelly only a few years removed from being the head coach at Toledo, the Cyclones had quite a cheering section, former players, fans and friends of the Fennelly’s showed up to cheer on the Cyclones. Even the Hilton Coliseum tech crew loaded up in a van to drive down for the game. They all wanted to see what this Iowa State team was really capable of.
The game was neck-and-neck most of the way through. Connecticut, who was the national leader in field-goal percentage, was hounded by the Cyclones’ defensive game plan. Iowa State held them to a season-low 29.9 percent.
With 5:26 left on the clock, ISU was trailing 50-43. They needed something, anything. That something came in the unlikeliest of ways – a 3-pointer from Monica Huelman. Before that shot, Huelman had hit just 14 3-pointers that season. Huelman’s basket opened the floodgates for ISU. One after the other. Tracy Gahan. Frese. Megan Taylor. Frese. The barrage of 3-pointers forced a Connecticut timeout. The crowd knew a Cyclone victory was within reach when the score stood at 59-55 with just over two minutes remaining.
Huelman, the 6-2 junior from Vinton, Iowa, who hit the biggest shot in Iowa State history is not only known for THE shot, but that she was Fennelly’s first recruit to sign with the Cyclones.
When it was all said and done the final stat line read Iowa State 64, Connecticut 58. The Cyclones would advance to their first Elite 8 berth, becoming just the third team at that time to make an Elite 8 after posting a record of 8-19 or worse four seasons prior.
The throngs of Iowa State fans who made the game could hardly contain their excitement. They had traveled near and far to see the Cyclones compete in the Shoemaker Center.
Take Iowa State student Luke DeKoster for example. DeKoster told the Ames Tribune he left a spring break mission trip in Denver, Colo. when he heard ISU advanced to the Sweet 16. He drove 711 miles back to Ames to pack his bag and pick up two friends and make the 10-hour drive to Cincinnati. They drove through the night and arrived just 10-minutes before tip-off.
“All my life, as a Cyclone fan, you can’t beat this,” he told the Ames Tribune of the win over Connecticut. “This is like Lafester Rhodes scoring 54; this is like beating Iowa in football, except better.”
Iowa State’s magical run would end in the Elite 8 with a loss to Georgia, but it had left its mark on the women’s college basketball world anyway.
Never Say Never
If you asked Fennelly in 1995 if Iowa State would ever see over 10,000 fans for a women’s basketball game he would have answered simply, “Never.”
After the 1998-99 season, Iowa State women’s basketball would never be looked at in the same light again. They had arrived, not just in the Iowa community, but on the national scene as well. They were relevant to women’s college basketball and stood as a shining example that anything is possible with the right leader.
Under the direction of Fennelly, Iowa State has made 15 NCAA Championship appearances, five Sweet 16 berths and two Elite 8 appearances. The Cyclones have climbed the attendance ranks, sitting at second nationally behind only Tennessee. Eight Cyclones have combined to earn 13 All-America nods. Iowa State has also maintained a 100 percent graduation rate during his tenure.
If you recall the coaching friend that said Fennelly was committing “professional suicide,” well he called back at the end of the 1999 season asking if Fennelly had seen The Women’s Basketball Journal because it had Iowa State ranked fifth, Tennessee sixth and Louisiana Tech seventh.
And what about that dreadful yellow caution tape? Well, it hasn’t seen a game inside Hilton Coliseum since 1997.
A special thanks to Tom Kroeschell and Erin Rosacker for their historical contributions to this piece.
This article was made possible by interviews with Bill Fennelly, former SID Erin Rosacker, former beat writer Susan Harman and former players Tara Gunderson, Janel Grimm and Stacy Frese.