CHAMPAIGN — A young girl is all to herself shooting a basketball. Soon, her older siblings will join in, playing a pick-up game on a basketball hoop nailed to the barn door at the family’s dairy farm in rural Wisconsin.
It’s the early 1970s, and for Nancy Fahey, similar to many other girls her age, the opportunity to play competitive sports, like basketball, wasn’t available to them.
That all changed in 1972, with the advent of Title IX.
Fahey, who was a freshman at Belleville (Wis.) High School in 1973 shortly after the law took effect, was happy to put her cheerleading days behind her and play competitive basketball for the first time.
“I was a horrible cheerleader,” Fahey said of being on her eighth-grade squad. “Just horrible.”
About 46 years later, Fahey — sitting in a booth at Houlihan’s across the street from State Farm Center in Champaign — is dressed in a blue University of Illinois jacket.
The 60-year-old is about to embark on her third season in charge of the Illinois women’s basketball program, which is struggling to find its footing after posting a combined 19 wins in two seasons under Fahey’s direction.
Fahey’s path to Illinois might have started on a farm in southern Wisconsin and included stops in Madison, Wis., McHenry, St. Louis and now Champaign.
But without Title IX, none of that would have been possible.
The federal law — Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 — states: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”
Fahey said the law’s influence on women, such as herself, is hard to quantify.
“I am always thankful,” Fahey said. “I don’t think people realize the impact Title IX has had. I have a career out of something that wasn’t available to a lot of young women before me. It’s life-changing for not only the people who got professions out of it but just those (girls) who got the opportunity to play sports.”
From that start in basketball, Fahey eventually walked on to the women’s basketball team at Wisconsin, earning a scholarship — and playing time — during her final two seasons in Madison, before graduating with a bachelor’s degree in education in 1981.
Although coaching hadn’t always been in her mind as a possibility, it became clear in college it was a profession she wanted to commit to full time.
But a back-up plan existed.
“I taught first because I always tell people, ‘Just in case.’ My dad said, ‘Just in case you can’t coach, you better make sure you have a job in something else,’” Fahey said.
‘I almost stopped’
The back-up plan was a teaching job in 1982 at Johnsburg High School, about 60 miles north of downtown Chicago, where Fahey also coached the Skyhawk girls’ basketball team in what was her first experience as a head coach.
That first season in charge didn’t go so well, though, with Johnsburg posting a 5-17 record that year.
Fahey remembers being in the weight room shortly after the season ended. She wasn’t sure if she wanted to continue coaching. A conversation with the boys’ basketball coach at Johnsburg, Ben Beck, made her reconsider that stance.
Beck told Fahey to give it one more year. The response from Fahey? ‘OK.’
“It’s pretty eye-opening and shocking at the beginning, to be honest,” Fahey said. “You don’t see that perspective as a player. That was a tough year. I almost stopped. I was saying to myself, ‘Why would I do this?’ That was a big moment in my career.”
Fahey turned success in her remaining time at Johnsburg, including back-to-back 20-win seasons, into a job at Division III Washington University, becoming the St. Louis-based college’s head women’s basketball coach in 1986.
‘We just had fun’
While Fahey’s introduction to high-school coaching was rocky at the start, her time in charge of the Bears featured plenty of winning from the start.
Fahey’s teams won league titles seven times in an eight-season stretch, but the real hardware came after the 1997-98 season when Washington won the first of five Division III national titles under Fahey’s leadership.
In building a winner, Fahey instituted some strict rules — no sitting down at practice and a sock-height rule — that ex-players explained were good examples of Fahey’s mantra: look good, feel good, play good.
Players also got to see the intensity that has continued with Fahey now courtside at State Farm Center. Fahey reacts to plays — good or bad — with what could best be described as body English. Especially down the stretch of a close game, like against Wisconsin this past season when Fahey leaned back in anticipation once what was essentially the win-sealing shot left Brandi Beasley’s fingertips in the final minutes.
“She does put her whole heart and soul into it,” said Jennifer Deschamp, who won two national titles as a player for Fahey in 2000 and 2001 at Washington. “She gets that game face on from the middle of October once practices start up and it never really leaves until the season is over. She demanded 100 percent from us.”
Deschamp was part of the late 1990s and early 2000s teams that won 81 consecutive games, the longest streak in women’s college basketball history at the time. The streak was only outdone when Geno Auriemma’s Connecticut women’s basketball program won 111 straight games before a 66-64 loss to Mississippi State in 2017 at the Final Four in Dallas.
Deschamp has kept a press clipping in a scrapbook at her house from an edition of Sports Illustrated for Women, in which Fahey and her team pose for a photo with the number “68” in the form of basketballs to signify how many games in a row the Bears had won.
Beth Venturella, who was teammates for one season with Deschamp, said she has that very same picture hanging inside her house.
The Bears extended that winning streak to 81 games before a 79-68 loss in 2001 to Fontbonne.
Deschamp said the players weren’t sure what to expect when Fahey walked in the locker room after the game — and winning streak — was over.
“All (Fahey) said (in the locker room) was, ‘It’s OK. It’s over. That’s off our back,’” Deschamp said. “I don’t remember much from that night. But when does (a winning streak) start getting crazy? When we won 50 in a row? 60 in a row? We had this big target on her backs. I guess the SI jinx finally caught up to us.
“I know one thing: I don’t think her teams lost to Fontbonne ever again.”
Even with a highly-demanding coach, Deschamp and Venturella said the Bears found a few times to lighten the mood, especially around Fahey’s birthday in November.
Deschamp wouldn’t mention the specific birthday and what year it was — although it was “one of the big ones” — when the team decorated her office with as many balloons as they could find.
“We got her pretty good,” Deschamp admitted with a laugh.
“I think mostly we just had fun,” Venturella said. “Yes, we put the long hours in. We pushed each other and we achieved great success. Practices and games, it was intense. But we found a way to make it enjoyable.”
‘A lifelong dream’
Deschamp admits it was somewhat of a bittersweet moment when she got the news in March 2017 that Fahey would be taking the job at Illinois. The 2003 Washington graduate was stopping by Fahey’s office for a normal visit when Fahey delivered the news that she would be leaving the Division III school after 31 seasons.
“It was an end of a really great thing, a really great era,” Deschamp said. “I know she had a lot of great opportunities that she turned down to coach elsewhere. I had so much joy in my heart for her. This was a lifelong dream. It was really thrilling for her to reach a lifetime goal.”
The jump from Division III to Division I hasn’t been a smooth one for Fahey and company, however.
The Illini are mired in a long NCAA tournament drought, having not reached the Big Dance since 2003. And after a 2015 lawsuit filed by players regarding ex-coach Matt Bollant’s and ex-assistant coach Mike Divilbiss’ conduct toward them — combined with the fact the Illini have not posted a winning season since 2012-13 — Fahey has been tasked with rebuilding the Illinois women’s basketball program into a winner.
LaKale Malone, a holdover from Bollant’s staff, now entering her eighth season as an Illini assistant coach, said Fahey’s “open-arms” approach to not just herself and Tianna Kirkland, another ex-Bollant assistant, but the players recruited by the previous staff helped ease what could have been a difficult transition.
“She’s said it numerous times: ‘You are the Illini.’ She’s going to coach them just as if she had recruited them,” Malone said. “That was the biggest piece because the relationship with the head coach is most important. I credit Coach Fahey tremendously for the commitment she made and the investment and time she made to make sure our players felt comfortable with her. That was really important.”
Malone has also seen how comfortable Fahey’s current players have become in talking to the third-year Illini leader about what’s going in their lives away from basketball.
“I’ve watched her build these relationships and it’s not done in a day,” Malone said. “It’s not done overnight and she’s totally invested in committing to the time it takes to build relationships with each player on our team. She spends a lot of time doing that with one-on-one (talks). And it’s not just basketball talk. It’s the other parts of their lives, as well.”
‘My full support’
Josh Whitman knew firsthand about Fahey before he became the Illinois athletic director in February 2016. She was on the hiring committee at Washington when Whitman interviewed to become the Bears’ athletic director in 2014.
Despite the Illini struggling on the court during Fahey’s first two seasons, Whitman said he’s happy with the progress made under Fahey.
“I’ve been incredibly impressed and encouraged by what women’s basketball has been able to do these past two years. There were three programs that we hired in a row in short succession — football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball — and I think that of the three, women’s basketball had the furthest ground to cover,” Whitman said. “We really haven’t had great tradition in women’s basketball. I really applaud (Fahey) for coming in and assessing the situation, surrounding herself with people who have provided tremendous leadership and support in all of the different positions that go into building a program and just working her tail off to try and build this program. I think that she’s done a great job of selling the vision, selling the passion.”
The early returns in the win-loss column have yet to show the fruits of Fahey’s work.
Illinois has only two Big Ten wins under Fahey’s direction, the worst two-year mark in program history. Both league victories happened last season.
The 19 wins the Illini have recorded is the second-worst mark for Illinois women’s basketball coaches in the first two seasons of their tenure. Kathy Lindsey began her Illini tenure (1990-92) with only 18 wins.
“The results-oriented part of it is generally driven by the person in my position,” Whitman said. “Nancy and I have had many conversations. I understand the situation that she stepped into. I understand the work that’s required to build the program to the place we want it to be. There comes a time when the results start to matter more, but right now, we’re very much in a rebuilding phase. She knows that. She’s got my full support and my full patience.”
Whitman said he didn’t have any “concerns” back in 2017 about hiring a coach who had no Division I coaching experience.
Still, Fahey has admitted there has been a “learning curve,” especially when it comes to recruiting at the Division I level as she tries to sell her vision for the program.
Now, with Fahey’s third Illini team in the fold — Illinois added three freshmen as part of the 2019 class in Kennedi Myles, Jada Peebles and Jeanae Terry — the staff has refined its sales pitch: Be a part of this program’s rebirth.
“She’s telling recruits: Come join us now and people are going to remember you as being part of the group that turned this program around. You are going to be part of the resurgence of Illinois women’s basketball,’” said Steve Cochran, who worked on Fahey’s staff three different times at Washington and made the jump with her to UI in 2017, currently serving as the Illini’s director of player personnel. “If you were in the gym last year, you’d see we brought in good players. This year, we continued to upgrade our talent and upgrade our depth. That’s the way we’re going to turn this thing around.”
‘I’m used to winning’
For Fahey to steer Illinois in a positive direction from a wins-loss perspective this season, it will take adjusting to the loss of the Illini’s best player for the past two seasons.
Alex Wittinger — the program’s all-time blocks leader — isn’t walking through that door after back-to-back campaigns leading the Illini in points and rebounds. Last season, the All-Big Ten second-team selection averaged 14.7 points and 8.0 rebounds.
With Wittinger gone, the Illini don’t have a go-to post presence.
Ali Andrews — the team’s top returning forward — continued to show her strength as a shooter last season, with the 6-foot-2 Lake of the Hills native knocking down 38 three-pointers at a 42.7 percent clip, the best mark in program history. Now a senior, Andrews may be asked to play with her back to the basket more alongside Mackenzie Blazek, who played in 30 games last season as a true freshman.
Blazek is among a sophomore group — Arieal Scott and J-Naya Ephraim are the others — that will have to take on larger roles alongside what figures to be a backcourt relying on senior playmakers in Beasley and Cierra Rice.
Even with optimism for the roster she has coming back, Fahey admits her time in Champaign has been a test in patience, especially after compiling a 737-133 record at Washington.
“It’s hard. I’m used to winning more ball games,” Fahey said. “Who wouldn’t want more immediate success? Everybody wants more immediate success. You want to snap your fingers and have it done. ... I know there is a difference. I know there is because I was in here Day 1 and I know where we are right now compared to back then. Has it translated into as many wins as I would have wanted? Of course not. But I also believe 100 percent in what we’re doing here.”
Through it all, Fahey has learned to find time to unwind.
In the offseason, when recruiting demands aren’t there — like most Division I coaches, Fahey and staff had an evaluation period last week before the start of a quiet period, which spans from last Friday though much of August and the first eight days in September — Fahey will often make time to camp out on a beach and read a book. Gulf Shores, Ala., is among her favorite beach spots.
“It’s nice and quiet,” Fahey said of the tourist destination.
Those relaxing moments are just one way in which Fahey creates some separation between everyday life and her job.
“Your job is what you do,” Fahey said. “It’s not who you are. ... What I mean by that is if your record isn’t what everybody expects it to be, then it becomes easy for people to say you’re not a good person or not a good coach. If you start blending those two together, then you’ll beat yourself up. Every coach has a challenge with that, to keep those two separate. I am a basketball coach and I am doing everything 100 percent what I can do to turn this thing around. I can guarantee the work ethnic is there. I can’t let (winning) define me totally.”
The next episode
Illinois women’s basketball beat writer JOE VOZZELLI JR. offers his insight on Nancy Fahey’s third team:
What will be the starting five next season?
The top four is pretty clear with the way the roster stands at the moment (Brandi Beasley, Cierra Rice, Arieal Scott and Ali Andrews), but, unlike last season when Fahey used three guards and two forwards, the Illini may turn to a four-guard lineup this time around. J-Naya Ephraim’s skills on the defensive end set her apart, but the sophomore must improve her shooting (35.4 percent) to be a lineup regular. Early on, look for Fahey to turn to a veteran guard in Courtney Joens, who started 23 games last season as a junior.
What would improvement look like?
The Illini’s ceiling last season may have been close to 13 wins but their inability to finish led to a 10-20 campaign. The loss of do-everything post player Alex Wittinger to graduation hurts. A lot. Can Illinois surpass last season’s win total? Perhaps. But this is a program in a full-on rebuild and a true sign of improvement would be seeing sophomores, like Ephraim and Mackenzie Blazek, take steps forward and a freshman class flash its potential.
What do we know about the schedule?
The Illini will play against North Carolina on Dec. 5 in Chapel Hill, N.C., as part of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. As of last year, plans were in place to have Illinois travel to Columbia, Mo., to continue a series with border rival Missouri in 2019. Switching to the Big Ten, Illinois will play both home and away against Ohio State, Purdue, Northwestern, Indiana and Rutgers. The Illini will also host Michigan State, Minnesota, Maryland and Wisconsin while traveling to Iowa, Penn State, Michigan and Nebraska.
What can we expect from the freshmen?
In a recent conversation, Illinois associate coach LaKale Malone spoke repeatedly about what she sees as the versatility of this year’s freshmen (guards Jeanae Terry and Jada Peebles and forward Kennedi Myles). They see Terry, a Detroit native, as someone who can play at both guard spots and Peebles, a Raleigh, N.C., native, as a wing player. Myles, from Cincinnati, is primarily a post player who can venture out and shoot threes.