NCAA women’s basketball crowned a new champion over the weekend when South Carolina defeated Mississippi State to claim its first national championship. Both combatants’ fan bases were in full force in Dallas to support two teams whose coaches took their programs from the ground floor to the pinnacle of the game.
Getting to that point was not an overnight process. They had to build every aspect of the program. Ask Dawn Staley, Vic Schafer, or for that matter 11-time national champion Geno Auriemma from UConn, and they’ll tell you just how empty their arenas were at the beginning of their tenures. But they had a vision and a formula for how to build it.
Josh Whitman has hired a coach with the same potential to bring an Illinois women’s basketball program void of an NCAA appearance for 14 years to national prominence.
For starters, Nancy Fahey is a Hall of Famer, inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 2012. In 31 seasons at Washington University in St. Louis, the Bears won 23 conference titles and advanced to 29 NCAA Tournaments, including 10 Final Fours. Her teams won 737 games and five national championships. Fahey has proven success over three decades.
For those not familiar with Washington University, I refer to them as the Stanford of Division III. They have a national academic reputation with its own hospital, but also the resources and the commitment to be excellent in athletics. Fahey’s teams were at the heart of that success.
Washington competes in the University Athletic Association, which functions similarly to a Division I conference with high-level academic and athletic institutions across the eastern half of the United States — Brandeis (Boston), Carnegie Mellon (Pittsburgh), Case Western Reserve (Cleveland), Emory (Atlanta), New York University, the University of Chicago, and the University Rochester make up the league.
Can success at Division III transfer to success in a Power 5 league? There are plenty of examples of those who have proven that answer positively. I’ll give you two. Aaron Roussell is the head coach at Bucknell who competed against Fahey’s teams for eight seasons while coaching at the University of Chicago. Roussell was named Patriot League Coach of the Year in his rookie season of 2012-13 and in four seasons turned the Bison from a 5-win team to a 25-win team. This year’s team reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history.
On a bigger stage, Oregon State hired Scott Rueck who spent 14 years at Division III George Fox, reaching the NCAA Tournament five of his last six seasons and seven times overall, including bring home the 2009 NCAA Division III title. Oregon State reached the NCAA Tournament in Rueck’s fourth season and in year six (2015-16) they upset Baylor to make it to the Final Four.
In the days after taking the Illinois job, Fahey reached out to both to get some insight on the process of leveraging a successful Division III career to take a Divions I program from the bottom to the top. If Rueck and Roussell can be successful, Fahey, the most successful coach in Division III history, can have similar results at Illinois.
What can Illini fans expect in Fahey?
“She is the most prepared coach I’ve ever competed against and her teams are always the most well prepared you will ever see,” Roussell said of Fahey. “We used to joke that her teams knew our offense better than our kids did (usually that was not a joke). Her teams are also very disciplined. They run their offense and all of its tweaks very well, with very few turnovers.”
“She is one of the greatest X and O coaches around,” added Carol Simon, head coach of Brandeis. “She truly cares about her players and wants to see them grow as players and people.”
Fahey plays to the strengths of her team and is not afraid to ask questions. “I’m trainable,” she said.
For instance, one of her recent teams was small and quick so she decided to extend the court and put in a run and jump press, something her teams were not particularly known for, and it worked.
Fahey knows about hard work. She grew up on a farm in Wisconsin with two older brothers and one older sister. Her 93-year old father still works on the farm. She says her foundation in coaching can be traced back to her parents.
“Coaching, teaching and raising families are a lot alike,” Fahey said. “They taught me a lot about discipline and love and how to treat people.”
Title IX passed during Fahey’s freshman year of high school, so she turned in her cheerleading uniform for a basketball one. She walked on at the University of Wisconsin, eventually earning a scholarship. She reluctantly entered the coaching profession, but grew a passion for it while working camps at Wisconsin.
She learned perseverance in her first head coaching job at Johnsburg High School in Northern Illinois. She won five games her first season, but increased the total to 13 in year two and then posted back-to-back 20-win seasons in 1985 and 1986 guiding the Skyhawks Class AA Regional titles both years.
At many Division III schools in the mid 1980s, including Washington University, individuals coached multiple sports, but Fahey was hired as the first at the school to just focus on basketball.
“I was there at the right time,” Fahey said. “I felt really good about the balance and I was at a place that supported Division III athletics very well.”
Fahey built a powerhouse at Washington.
“She gave instant credibility to our conference (UAA) and made us all better as coaches,” said Rochester head coach Jim Scheible. “She was the gold standard as far as DIII women’s basketball coaches and everyone in the conference felt they had to play their absolute best game just to have a shot at beating one of her teams.“
“In order to compete at a high level and stay at that level, you have to surround yourself with very good recruiters, and good people and create a culture that the best the recruiters are not your coaches, but the players walking campus,” Fahey said.
That’s why before setting out on the recruiting trail, Fahey made a point to get to know the current Illinois team personally, setting up 90-minute individual meetings during her first week before putting the team through workouts during the spring.
“I know she has had countless opportunities to make the jump before, but always preferred staying at Wash U.,” Roussell said. “She loved it there, was loyal, and always felt there was more to accomplish. I can only imagine how hard it was to pull the trigger, but I think the trust and comfort with (Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman) had to play a big factor.”
Tongue in check, Whitman called convincing Fahey to leave Washington after 31 years his biggest recruiting job. Even before Whitman was AD at Washington, Fahey got glowing reviews about him from her brother, who lives in the same town where Whitman took his first AD job at DIII UW-La Crosse.
“When I got to meet him, I had the same excitement my brother had,” Fahey said of Whitman. “He is someone who is committed (I know how committed he is to Illinois). He has a vision and it’s easy to be a part of that vision.”
After Washington was eliminated in the Elite Round of the Division III Tournament during the first week of March, Whitman and Fahey began talks.
“Josh knew me well enough to understand I am all in wherever I am,” Fahey said. “That’s the kind of coach that you should want. It was hard to leave a place I had been 31 years, but at the same time I’m excited. Ultimately the chance to coach in the Big Ten and at Illinois where the excitement is growing was a really great opportunity. I know this community will support women’s basketball. I know how good high school basketball is in this state.”
Fahey truly believes the foundation for success begins with the current players and in the incoming recruiting class. To demonstrate her confidence in the direction of recruiting, Fahey retained assistant coaches LaKale Malone and Tiana Kirkland, the duo responsible for carrying out the recruiting efforts.
Beyond her success, Fahey has already left an indelible mark on the game, something those around the profession believe will continue at Illinois.
“I didn’t have the luxury of having much time as an assistant to learn from my head coaches so when people ask me who my mentors are I always answer with Nancy Fahey,” Roussell said. “We were rivals and had some great battles, but I learned so many things about basketball and how to run a program from her. I was at Chicago for eight years and at the D1 level now for five, but there is no doubt that Nancy Fahey is still easily in the top handful of coaches I have ever competed against.”
“She is a true professional, a role model for players and coaches,” Simon said. “She is never complacent of what she knows, and always wants to do whatever she needs to do to be a better coach.”
“As far as whether or not she is ready to lead a major DI program – only time will tell,” Scheible added. “However, I would be shocked if she didn’t figure out the recruiting piece very quickly and create an actionable plan for success in her first year. We all have friends who are successful DI head coaches and I would put Nancy on par or better than any of them.”
“The Big Ten is an incredible conference,” Fahey said. “I’m fully aware of the Marylands and the Ohio States and all the other great coaches in this league. It is what it is, but I’m ready to compete and bring Illinois to the top of that league. All I can do is be is myself, trust the people around me, and let the wins happen.“
With a reputation of getting the most out of her players, that could come sooner rather than later.