This afternoon, Iowa State head women’s basketball coach Bill Fennelly will host his 20th media day. In 19 seasons of leading the Cyclones, Fennelly has led Iowa State to 15 NCAA Tournaments. In this special in-depth conversation with the head coach, Cyclone Fanatic celebrates Fennelly’s 20 years in Ames.
CF: Before we get to talking about your 20thseason as Iowa State’s women’s basketball coach, we need to start with the most important topic of all. How is life is a grandpa and how spoiled is Billy and Lyndsey’s little boy?
BF: He is pretty spoiled (laughter). To be honest with you, my first reaction when I heard that they were going to have him I was like, ‘Well, I am officially getting old.’ Then when I saw him for the first time I couldn’t stop crying. It’s great. It is exactly what everyone says. Every time I go to Hy-Vee or Wallaby’s people say, ‘I can’t wait to see your grandbaby! It is going to be the greatest thing.’ And it is. It is fun. We are blessed because he is here. So many people say that they only see their grandkids five times a year or whatever. He is around all of the time. He is in the gym. He was at the game the other night. We took him to Italy. It has been all I thought it would be and then 10 times more than that.
CF: That kid has done more in a few months than most do in 10 years.
BF: He went to a St. Louis Cardinal game. He went to Chicago. He’s been to Italy. He goes to Iowa State football. His personality such where he handles it great. It’s good. Billy and Steven, that’s what we did with them. They were in the gym. I joked that Billy learned how to count on a scoreboard. That’s what you do because of the jobs that we had. When you can have them around, you have them around. Some people looked at us kind of funny like, ‘Is that a way to raise your kid.’ Heck, I thought it was the greatest way.
CF: Let’s move on and talk about your 20 years at Iowa State. You have all of the NCAA Tournaments. You have the attendance numbers. What are you most proud of over the last 20 years?
BF: To be honest with you Chris, I am most proud of the fact that we have hopefully built a program that embraces what our state and our university are all about – that people actually think that we have added something small – but we have added something to the university and the state. We built something that has brought a since of price and dignity and attention or notoriety – whatever word you want to use – to the school in our own little way. It has been fun to do it in my home state and my wife’s home state. We’ve seen a lot of things change. I remember when we came I told my wife, ‘If this doesn’t work, I’ll go back to Davenport and tend bar for my brother and if it does work, we couldn’t live in a better place.’ Billy was in fifth grade when we came here. Steven was a first-grader. I don’t know how it happened or how lucky we got but there isn’t a person I know that is luckier than me. To live and work in a place like this and have our family be here and be a part of a group of people – it is neat.
You go to football games and I am driving recruits around. They say, ‘Coach, do you know everybody?’ I’m like, ‘Well I’ve been here a long time.’ (laughter) It isn’t that it is anything big. It’s just neat to feel like you are a part of something and that what you do, in some really small form – nothing like football or men’s basketball – but something that we have done over that time, there is a sense of pride. It is cool that we have a little place in Iowa State Cyclone fans’ hearts that means something. I think that’s something that I don’t know if people thought could have happened in women’s basketball 20 years ago. It’s been fun to see that happen.
CF: I think you are short-changing yourself and the program. I can tell you based off of pageviews on our site and your attendance numbers that you are a larger part of things than you are making it out to be. I read that when you got here, 733 people were coming to games. Now there are over 10,000.
BF: I don’t save many things. I have my Team USA stuff. I have my pics with the boys. I have my first box score where we had 310 people. I keep that close to my desk as a reminder. Like say, I don’t have much memorabilia but that’s it. I also have a letter from Governor Brandsdad when I got the job because he knows my dad. I remember saying to him one time, ‘Governor, do you remember when you sent me that letter?’ He said, ‘Yeah, that was a LONG time ago!’ (Laughter) He has probably been Governor a lot longer than I have been coaching here.
CF: I know that you guys do a lot of cool things that most people don’t know about for your fans, like surprising them at their homes and stuff like that. What has been the key for fans latching onto your program? Stuff like that? The winning? Style of play? The girls? Why do they keep coming?
BF: I honestly think that our fans are emotionally attached to our team and our program. I think they know how much we appreciate them. Every single day at practice, the three things that I talk to our team about are academic responsibilities, over the last five years a social media responsibility, and our obligation to our fans. That means that when they leave here and they see somebody at Hy-Vee or Coldstone or whatever, this state is about hard working, committed, loyal and passionate people about everything Iowa State. I think they see us as being the same way. I do think too that we have never tried to overstep our bounds. We have never tried to say that we are more important or less important. We just want to be a part of it. I think that we have the right kind of kids that have connected to the fan base.
In a very positive way, how many college football crowds would have been like that in the third quarter on Saturday? Obviously we were disappointed that we were losing and we weren’t’ going to win the game but people respect effort. I’m doing everything that I can for you and I think our fans like that. It helps to win, sure. But I think that we live in Ames and still, people used to joke that my name is in the phone book. Well heck, I live here. Or people would see me in the grocery store and say, ‘You go to the grocery store?’ Well yeah, I am like you. I will have a beer with you. I will go to the grocery store with you. We are all the same. My job is to coach the women’s basketball team and I just think that our fans like that. I think that is kind of the way, in a weird way and I am no way putting myself in their category, but I think Paul being from here and Fred being from, there is a geometric progression as to how people view you. You want to be here. You are home. You are one of use. Born and raised. Not that it makes someone who is not from here any worse or better. Christy is a great coach and she wasn’t born here. But there is that little thing that people like.
We sell it with our recruits. If you are from Iowa, people want to talk about Jadda Buckley a lot. People are like, ‘You are one of us. You stayed here. You are in the trenches with us.’ That’s the thing too about our fans. They don’t beat their own. I grew up in a political family. I see coaching kind of like politics in a weird way. There is a third of people that are going to like me no matter what. There is a third of people that aren’t going to like me no matter what. The third in the middle is what you’ve got to get. You’ve got to win enough to get them on your side so your approval rating is 55 to 45. You have to win enough. You have to be involved in the community enough. You have to whatever enough so that the middle ground, the independent voters, say that you don’t win all of the time but you win enough to keep our interests.
Jamie has done a great job with us. I’ve had great administrators and presidents. I think they see us as – not a necessary evil anymore. Now, I think it is like, ‘Hey, that’s a pretty good thing.’ Another thing, the guys who have been on the other side of the hall from me, the men’s coaches, have been really good to us. That has helped us a lot. Coach Floyd and Coach Eustachy. Wayne never really connected a whole lot because he wasn’t here that long – not that it was bad. But Fred has been incredible. If you get those guys to support you, that’s pretty big. Not that you need validation but it doesn’t hurt when Paul Rhoads is in front of a Cyclone Club outing and says that I am doing a great job or when Fred says something. When those guys say something, that gets the casual fan. We have been really lucky. I know a lot of women’s coaches who don’t speak to the men’s coaches, let along can call them a friend. They support us so it’s been cool.
CF: What you said about the Baylor football crowd in the third quarter is what I try to describe to people who might not be women’s basketball fans. That’s what your core group of supporters is like. It is a crazy atmosphere.
BF: You have your own little niche. The other night, we had all of the recruits and I told the staff to take them around. It was crazy. Everyone was shuttling people around so it was Deb and I kind of left in our seats. There wasn’t anyone near us. This guy came up with like four minutes to go and asked if we were leaving. I said, ‘Nope. I’m not leaving.’ I was there until the last play was over. I was starting to get pissed because I thought they were going to try to score on us again. I yelled, ‘Take a knee!’ But our fans are like that too. The first time I kind of sensed it was when we were doing the senior speech thing and it can get a little long. A lot of people stay and I think that is a reflection of being there with their group of people.
Obviously our price point is better than men’s basketball or football so we get a different crowd. But our crossover crowd is much better than anyone else in our league. Every time that I go to the conference meeting they talk about the conference tournament. I always joke that the vote will be nine to one. Let’s put it down and let’s move on. Everyone says that nobody goes to both but we do. To this day, some of the best times that I have ever had in my life was when we were winning and the guys were winning. All of those people – I will remember that until the day I die when we won and Larry’s team won. I do think that there are crossovers but the diehard women’s fans don’t get it and I don’t know if they will ever get it and it is very humbling.
It has taken a lot of people. The most important person in all of this is Deb. She is the one that got this thing going and worked the crowd and worked the schools. She kind of got the ball moving and the rest of us kind of followed up but we needed someone to do it when games were going on.
CF: So she was the one yelling at the beginning?
BF: She just tried to get people interested. She worked the room hard and that kind of got it going. We got to the point where we had a little success and it worked out.
CF: Will we be having this conversation in 10 years to celebrate your 30thseason?
CF: Not enough gas in the tank?
BF: I have enough gas but I don’t think they will want me here that long. I am 57. I tell everyone that it will be their decision when I leave, not mine. I could stay forever. I love this place. I love coming to work every day. I love going to games. I love being a part of something and a school and athletic department that I think does it right. There are certain things that we are not. Jamie jokes about it and I joke about it with Dr. Leath. I have always been someone who says that we will embrace and be proud of who we are and not apologize for what we are not. I don’t think that is a bad thing. I have a lot of energy but no, I don’t think 10 years is going to happen for a lot of reasons but I don’t think they are going to want me here that long.
CF: I went through all of your box scores from Italy and the freshmen led you guys in a lot of ways. Women’s basketball recruiting doesn’t get much coverage but it seems like you guys are really on a roll there. Is this the best your program has ever recruited?
BF: I honestly do believe that. It’s not to disparage or say anything negative about anybody else but I do think that realistically that Jadda and Seanna with the current freshmen and the kids that will come in, is the best that we have recruited as a whole and stuck our nose in there and got kids that maybe we wouldn’t have in the past. Whoever rates them rates them but as far as top 100 kids go, we are getting more of them. Those kids are going to play. I don’t know if there is anything significant to why it has happened or how it has happened but my staff has worked really hard at it. Billy has done a great job of kind of moving us into the new wave of recruiting with social media and he talks a lot with the football guys. They have been great with him. He gets a lot of ideas from them. I think that balance and Jody is relentless. We have enough people who are doing it the right way. The school sells itself. I don’t think there is any question that the depth of each class has been better.
You won’t get that every year here and that’s the one thing that I keep telling my staff is that this is not a program where people come to wait their turn. They want to come and play. We have had some opportunities over the last couple of years where somebody sees that they can come in and play a lot of minutes as a freshman.
I remember Coach Floyd telling me one time that two things have to happen here. Transfers are always going to be important to Iowa State, which I think he is correct and Fred would attest to that. We have never had a ton of those but we did get Katie Robinette who impacted our team. He said you are going to have to get kids who you can really coach up and they will get better. I think we have had that. Every once I a while you are going to get some kids – like we got Jadda and Seanna. The 15 class is really good.
I think the stability of the Big 12 helped. We were caught in the whole, ‘They are going to be in the Mountain West or they aren’t going to be D-1 anymore.’ Recruiting is such a volatile thing. It is like the weather in the Midwest. Sometimes it is beautiful and sunny and then it is a freaking snowstorm. When that happened, we were struggling. It was a fight. Just to convince ourselves that we were fine and our kids that we were fine was hard. To tell a kid whose parents are hearing that nobody wanted us…
CF: They were probably reading OrangeBloods.
BF: Exactly! That is exactly what it was. That might have been the one entity that if I heart that once, I heard it a million times. Just about how this guys knows for a fact that Texas was meeting right now at LAX! All you can say is, ‘I’ll tell you what I know when I know it.’ I remember sitting on Jamie Pollard’s porch with Greg McDermott wondering what we were going to do and how we would manage the Mountain West. That was not a trumped up thing. There was fear across the board as to what was going to happen. I think that hit us harder than I thought and the other thing that hit us hard and was completely my fault was that I invested way too much time in a couple specific kids like Taylor Greenfield who went to Stanford. I felt like we had to go get them and we didn’t get them. The reason we didn’t get them was me but by investing all of that time and then you throw in the Big 12 thing, there was a time lapse of us missing something. When we missed it, it was hard to catch up. We have caught up and are in much better shape now.
CF: Hilton Madness is coming up. I have a prediction: Kidd Blaskowsky beats any of the men that they throw her way in a 3-point competition. Or, any of your other girls. Your thoughts?
BF: To be honest with you, I would say of any of our kids, Brynn could win it. When she gets it going she is really good. Kidd could win. If you asked me to handicap our team, if I went to Vegas and you were to give me odds, I would go in the order of Brynne, Jadda, Bell and Kidd, in that order.
CF: So I was way off?
BF: No. It’s really close. The thing with Kidd that scares you is that she could rattle off 10 in a row and then miss 10 in a row. She is swinging at a 3-0 fastball and she could pop it up or it could still be going. It is all or nothing.
Check out CycloneFanatic.com later today for complete coverage of Iowa State women’s basketball media day.