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Wednesday, February 29, 2012
Fennellys make Cyclones go

By Pat Borzi

This season, espnW will take a journey across America, bringing you an in-depth look at 16 women's college basketball programs -- our Sweet 16. We'll begin the first week of the season and conclude just before the conference tournaments. We'll visit powerhouse schools and those off the beaten path, programs that are emerging and those that were there from the beginning. At the end of these 16 weeks, we hope you'll have a true flavor of Hoops Across America.

AMES, Iowa -- The younger Fennelly son, graduate assistant Steven, sits at the end of the Iowa State bench nearest the scorer's table. The older, Billy, the director of player development, takes the next folding chair. Their father, Iowa State women's basketball coach Bill Fennelly, claims the middle of the bench when he isn't wandering the sideline giving instructions or lobbying the officials.

That's right: one team, three Fennellys. And up among the enthusiastic cardinal-and-gold-clad fans at Hilton Coliseum, the fourth Fennelly -- Deb, Bill's wife and mother of their two boys -- looks on, smiling. What could be better than this?

"It is the best. It really is," she said. "When I go to the games and see all of them sitting there together, it warms my heart. They're my guys."

It took Deb about a minute to say that. It was late February, a drizzly and cold afternoon, as she sat in her husband's office at the Sukup Basketball Complex about 3 miles west of campus. Bill already had headed downstairs to run practice, so he never saw his wife tear up at an innocuous question about what it's like to see all those Fennellys coaching together.

"I'm not usually a mess," she said. "Usually I'm a tough shell. I don't know whether it's the emotion of what we've been through this year or what."

This past fall, Bill Fennelly underwent five weeks of radiation treatments for a cancerous lesion on his vocal cords, his second bout with throat-related cancer in six years. The treatments didn't stop Fennelly from watching his beloved St. Louis Cardinals win a remarkable Game 6 of the World Series or from coaching his Cyclones for the 17th season.

Now cancer-free, Fennelly has gained strength in his ravaged voice during the past month, an encouraging sign for a renowned talker. And he returned to his postgame radio show last month, to the relief of a devoted Cyclones fan base that hurries from Hilton to hear him on the drive home.

"I have the best job in the world," Fennelly said. "And I have the best job in the world times 10 or whatever, because my family is with me every step of the way."

At home in Iowa

For more than a decade, Cyclones fans have been drawn to Fennelly and his personable players in big numbers. They relate to Fennelly because he's one of them.

Raised in Davenport, Iowa, on the Mississippi River, the 54-year-old Fennelly has a genuineness that appeals to central Iowans, who can sniff out phonies a mile away. Deb is an Iowan, too, raised on a farm near Ruthven, a community of about 700 in the northwest part of the state.

"You are a product of your environment," Bill Fennelly said. "I was raised in eastern Iowa. My father ran a gas station. I got a great sense early in life from my parents about hard work and being accountable and treating people the right way."

Fennelly is big on notes. Send him a letter or an email, and you'll receive a personalized response or a phone call in return. Back in the day, he often enlisted Deb and the boys to stuff envelopes with replies.

He makes a point of shaking hands with spectators sitting along the baseline at halftime, and on his postgame radio show, he never fails to thank fans for coming.

On Feb. 21, when the Cyclones rallied to beat Missouri 66-59 in overtime after trailing most of the night, Fennelly credited the crowd of 10,539 and a few timely baskets for his resurging team's sixth victory in seven games during the month. "Thank you" might be his most used phrase.

His players -- some of whom grew up in Iowa themselves -- volunteer in the community, sign autographs and never big-time anyone.

"The way I look at it, it's always right to do the right thing," Fennelly said. "Sometimes it's hard to do it. But I've tried to instill in our players, like, every time we get off the bus, you say thank you. Every time the flight attendant on a charter flight gives her instructions, you're quiet. There's so many little things. Sometimes the players look at you, like, why. But there's a bigger picture here when you live in the Midwest."

That all resonates here.

For the past 12 years, Iowa State has ranked among the top 10 Division I programs in attendance. This season, even after a school-worst 0-5 start in Big 12 play, Iowa State is averaging 10,034 a game, recently passing Louisville for second in NCAA Division I, behind only Tennessee. The crowd's energy makes Hilton notoriously difficult for visiting teams, as Iowa State's 229-37 home record under Fennelly reflects.

"It wasn't always that way," said Ron Despotovich, an insurance agent from Ankeny, Iowa, and a season-ticket holder for almost 20 years. "When we first started coming, you could walk in three minutes before the game and sit anywhere you wanted.''

Despotovich, his wife, Linda, and sons Christian and Justin -- all Iowa State graduates -- sit three rows from the court across from the visitors bench, near the pep band, which another son plays in. They met Fennelly several years ago at the Big 12 tournament in Kansas City in the lobby of the team hotel. Fennelly posed with them for a photo. Deb Fennelly took it.

"It's like one big, happy family," Despotovich said. "The girls are always friendly. We don't always win, but his teams play hard, and that's always fun. And on the ride going home, we listen to the radio, and he always thanks the fans. That's refreshing that he does that."

Connecting with the community

Iowa State athletic director Jamie Pollard likes to say Ames is a company town, and Iowa State is the company. The campus, just west of downtown and Interstate 35, contributes about 29,000 students to Ames' population of 58,965. Ames carries a small-town vibe right down to its thriving Main Street, where cars park diagonally to the curb.

Residents support high school sports as enthusiastically as they do the Cyclones. In the 1993 mayoral election, Cyclones swingman Fred Hoiberg, who had led Ames High to a state title two years before, received write-in votes. Now "The Mayor" coaches the men's team after a 10-year playing career in the NBA.

When Fennelly left Toledo, his first head-coaching job, to come to Iowa State in 1995, he returned to a state that embraces women's basketball. Iowa held its first girls' state high school tournament in 1920, the year the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote. At tournament time, fans from small towns packed the old Veterans Memorial Auditorium in Des Moines to watch a six-on-six game each year until it was phased out in 1993.

"It was like, last one out of town shut the lights off, because everybody went down to it," said Deb Fennelly, who played in high school in Ruthven. "It was the best thing ever. I really don't know why it was such a big thing, but it was the greatest thing since sliced bread in Iowa. We loved it."

Still, Bill Fennelly had a project ahead of him. The program was a mess. The Cyclones had been 18-63 the previous three seasons and managed two winning records in 18 years. Fennelly's home debut against Idaho State on Nov. 24, 1995, drew 310.

"When we moved here, Steven was in first grade and Billy was in fifth grade," Deb said. "The first game, Steven said, 'Dad, we should have stayed in Toledo. There's nobody that comes here. We're so bad.'"

So the Fennellys branched out and talked up the program. They organized outings from their kids' elementary school and Green Hills, a nearby retirement community. Green Hills still sends a 50-person bus to every home game, and they're talking about an overnight trip next season.

"My wife worked the crowd like a great politician,'' Fennelly said. "That's how it started.

"In women's basketball, the schools that have grown in a fan base, I think there's an emotional attachment to the coach and the players. People want to be attached to something. And they want to be attached to something that represents who they are."

On the court, Fennelly turned the program around with 3-point shooting and relentless defense. ISU owns the NCAA record with 543 consecutive games with a 3-pointer, beginning the season before Fennelly arrived. The team started winning, and the city noticed.

The Cyclones qualified for the NCAA tournament in Fennelly's second season, 1996-97. Two years later they made the Elite Eight, upsetting Connecticut to get there. Average attendance jumped from 733 to 1,706 in Fennelly's first season, and by 2000-01 had risen to a school-record 11,370. Fennelly has taken the Cyclones to 12 NCAA tournaments, five Sweet 16s and two Elite Eights, winning 20 games 11 times with just one losing season.

The crowd at Hilton, which can wear out an opponent, is a big part of that. Against Missouri, ISU students raised an annoying hum whenever the Tigers had the ball. The crowd remained patient while the Cyclones missed free throws and jumpers, then roared to life as Iowa native Chelsea Poppens (25 points, 16 rebounds) led a late second-half comeback.

"There's something about Hilton Magic that makes it a very tough place to play," said Missouri coach Robin Pingeton, a former ISU assistant. "It's a great crowd."

Fans are all a-Twitter

In 2007, Iowa State rewarded Fennelly with a 12-year, $10.6 million extension through 2019, when he will be 62. "I hope Bill coaches way beyond the age of 62 at Iowa State," Pollard said. "But it was a good way to send a message: 'We want you here for the long term.'"

Pollard also showed support by letting Fennelly surround himself with family. Billy, 26, a former ISU team manager, spent one year on staff at Maryland and two at Northwestern before returning to Iowa State. Steven, 23, had been an ISU manager, too, before moving up. And Billy's wife, Lyndsey Medders, a former ISU point guard who holds the school record for assists, works as an analyst on Cyclones cable television broadcasts.

"My boys grew up with it. They understand it," Fennelly said. "I want people around me who love the university, are committed to the players, have a sense of loyalty, understand what this is about. Who better than your family? But you have to be qualified."

Billy, who aspires to be a head coach, urged his dad to open a Twitter account to draw in Cyclones fans savvy in social media. The account, on topics from ISU sports to the St. Louis Cardinals to last year's Big 12 conference upheaval, has more than 5,000 followers. "My wife thinks it's crazy," Fennelly said. "But she thinks a lot of things I do are crazy."

Said Billy: "Probably more than anything, fans come up to me and say, 'I love reading your dad's Twitter.' There'll be a 50-year-old woman who says, 'I don't have Twitter, but I bookmarked him.' It connects with the fans. It's genuine. It's real. It's him."

So is this: Two weeks ago, driving from the practice facility to campus, Fennelly spotted a student on crutches and offered him a ride. Fennelly apparently picked up one of the few kids on campus who had no clue who he was. But he did know The Mayor.

"He said, 'Where do you work?' " Fennelly said. "I was wearing Iowa State coaching gear, and I said, 'The athletic department.' He looked at me and said, 'Do you know Coach Hoiberg?' I said, 'Yeah, he's a really nice guy.' He said, 'Oh my God.' I was waiting for him to say can I get his autograph or whatever.

"I called my wife and said, everybody needs to be humbled once in a while."

Even a native son.