On the heels of the Iowa State women’s second consecutive Sweet Sixteen appearance, I thought it would be appropriate to honor the man who has made that program what it is today. Iowa State hired Bill Fennelly in 1995 as the program was coming off of six straight losing seasons. At that point, it was a program that had enjoyed just four winning seasons in its entire history. Iowa State women’s basketball was nothing before Fennelly single-handedly turned the program on its head.
Looking at where the program was and where it currently is, it’s difficult to try to identify many turnaround jobs that are as dramatic both in terms of relative success and staying power. The numbers are staggering. In the nine seasons prior to Fennelly’s arrival, Iowa State had an average attendance of 628 at its women’s basketball games. (No, I didn’t forget a digit.) Today, the average attendance hovers right around 10,000. In his 15 seasons, Iowa State has finished with a losing record just once, and has missed out on the post season only twice. His teams have been ranked in the top 25 more often than not.
Bill Fennelly is clearly the rock of Iowa State’s athletics department. He has seen four different men’s basketball coaches and three different football coaches. He has survived three different athletics directors. You can’t say enough good things about Fennelly’s tenure at Iowa State. So what specifically does it take to become the rock of a university’s athletics department? I think it takes three basic things.
Winning: Obviously a coach has to win. But more specifically, the coach has to win more than has been the norm over much of that program’s history.
Consistency: Winning without consistency is simply the result of random good fortune and opportunism. Every coach’s trend line is going to have some shallow and narrow valleys, but the good ones make sure those valleys don’t become canyons.
Loyalty: You’re not a very good rock if you can’t stay in one place. If you do A and B, chances are you’re not leaving a school unless it’s by your own choosing. In a way, this is also about contentment (and not doing something stupid away from the court/field/mat to screw up a good thing).
There are some other intangibles that many of these rocks often possess. Some are naturally charming ambassadors for their universities, who make you proud to be a fan every time they speak. Some are highly charismatic individuals, who have the ability to unite a fanbase around their personality alone. But none of these intangibles are necessarily must-haves for a coach to become a real rock in an athletics department.
Let’s look at some current resumes.
Bill Fennelly, WBB (15 seasons)
Winning: Check. 332-148 (.692) career record at Iowa State. 11 NCAA Tournament appearances, including three Sweet Sixteens and two Elite Eights. A Big 12 regular season championship and two Big 12 tournament championships.
Consistency: Check. Just one losing season. Ten 20-win seasons. Enough said.
Loyalty: Check. Fennelly has been the head man for 15 seasons and counting. He’s undoubtedly had many opportunities to leave Iowa State for “bigger and better” jobs, but he has stayed in Ames.
Rock Status: Boulder
Christy Johnson-Lynch, Volleyball (5 seasons)
Winning: Check. 105-58 (.644) career record at Iowa State. 4 NCAA tournament appearances, including two Sweet Sixteens and one Elite Eight. A school record 27-win season in 2009. The volleyball turnaround under Coach Johnson-Lynch has been jaw-dropping in its own right.
Consistency: Check. No losing seasons. Four straight NCAA appearances.
Loyalty: TBD. Five years seems like a long time in today’s environment, but I need a few more to check this box and give CJL a higher rock status.
Rock Status: Cobble
Paul Rhoads, Football (1 season)
Winning: Check (but in pencil). 7-6 in his first season at Iowa State with an Insight Bowl victory (just the third bowl victory in program history). It’s not a large sample, but you can’t hold that against him.
Consistency: TBD. The schedule could prove to be an obstacle over the next couple of seasons, but many Cyclone fans feel good about the long-term prospects.
Loyalty: TBD. With his local roots, he may stick around for awhile if given the opportunity.
Rock Status: Pebble
Kevin Jackson, Wrestling (1 season)
Winning: Not yet. You have to be a tough grader when it comes to Iowa State wrestling given the tradition and the qualifications I laid out above. The wrestlers had a good dual season, but ended the season with disappointing performances in the Big 12 and NCAA championships.
Consistency: TBD. The wrestling program is in the unique situation of trying to go from great to elite. Consistency at an elite level will be extremely difficult, yet doable.
Loyalty: TBD. Given his status as a former Cyclone, he too may stick around if given the opportunity.
Rock Status: Granule
Greg McDermott, MBB (4 seasons)
Winning: No. 59-68 (.464) career record at Iowa State. No post season appearances.
Consistency: No, at least not in a good way.
Loyalty: N/A. The measure doesn’t apply to situations where someone’s job status is tenuous due to poor performance.
Rock Status: Silt
Initially, I wanted to use some historical comparisons with my rock status assignments. For example, one could make an argument that Johnny Orr and Dan McCarney were historical “boulders” when their achievements are viewed in the context of program history to that point. But I think one can make a stronger argument that no modern Iowa State coach has accomplished what Bill Fennelly has accomplished. Combine his success, his consistency, and his 15 years of service, and you have an unrivaled rock of a man.
Congratulations to Coach Fennelly on another tremendous season! Here’s to many more. Go give UConn hell.