Before every game, Nancy Fahey’s basketball team receives a detailed scouting report on that game’s opponent.
Nothing unusual about that. Every team scouts their opponent.
But Fahey’s players also get a scouting report on the game officials. Detailed. Precise. She’ll tell them which referee is prone to call hand checks and which one will blow the whistle on physical contact in the post.
It’s that kind of meticulous groundwork that has helped set her apart among her coaching peers. Call her the “Geno Auriemma of Division III” and she’ll blush. But it’s true.
She may not have won the 11 national titles that the UConn coach has won, but the 10 Final Four appearances and five national championships she accumulated at Washington University in St. Louis are unprecedented at an NCAA level that doesn’t allow athletic-based scholarships.
But now the game is changing. Now she’s taking a leap she has been asked to consider many times in the past. She’s finally jumping into the deep end of the pool, to Division I, to the head coaching role at the University of Illinois.
Lori Kerans, head women’s coach at Millikin University and a winner of a Division III national title in 2005, has known Fahey (pronounced FAY) for 31 years. They’ve played many times, shifting games from Fahey’s campus in St. Louis to Griswold Center in Decatur.
Normally, the leap from Division III to Division I would sound alarms. The difference in recruiting, scheduling, managing a larger staff and maybe even style of play seems enormous. But Kerans said Fahey is uniquely qualified to win this challenge.
“In the Division III community, none of us are surprised,” Kerans said. “She’s a legend. We all think she’s going to do exceptionally well.”
For too long, Illinois women’s basketball has generated very little to get excited about. Not since coach Theresa Grentz created a buzz in the late 1990s has there been much reason to even think about giving Illini women’s hoops a look.
But there’s a feeling that with Fahey, who was the fastest coach in NCAA women’s basketball history to reach 600 wins (she did it in 706 games), Illinois has a chance to become relevant again.
She’ll never be the brash marketing whiz that Grentz was and the university now has a staff of people who can worry about that. But she knows exactly what will set these changes in motion.
“The success has to come first,” she correctly said.
Get Illini women’s basketball winning again and the community will come out. Instead of a couple hundred fans at the vast State Farm Center, they’ll draw a couple thousand.
If Fahey can turn the Illini into a Big Ten contender, the crowds will grow larger. Get them into the NCAA Tournament, something that hasn’t happened since 2000, and people will gladly drive over from Decatur to see what the excitement is about.
Millikin is facing the same challenge, an acknowledgment made this week with the introduction of Mark Scherer as the new men’s basketball coach.
If he can ignite excitement by fielding a competitive team and winning games, the community will return to Griswold Center. Win big and the crowds will grow there, too.
Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman, who got to know Fahey during his two years in the same role at Washington University, is convinced this hire is a slam dunk.
“When I got hired there, people said, ‘Just wait until you see Nancy Fahey coach.’ And when I saw her it surpassed every expectation I had," Whitman said..
“Just the way she works the sideline, the way she interacts with the players, the control she has over the game. And getting to spend time with her in the practice gym and watch how all of that happens was compelling to me.”
No wonder Whitman put her at the top of his list and will pay her $3.3 million over the next six years.
“I’ve been an AD for seven years and to me this is the least risky hire I’ve made,” Whitman said.
Fahey was frustrated that she won’t be able to meet her Illini team until Monday. Friday began the last weekend of spring break.
That’s when her process begins. Then we’ll start finding out if we should pay attention again.