- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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Steven Fennelly has tried to prepare the Cal State Fullerton players -- all of whom are from California -- for their trip to Iowa State this weekend. The warmest it will be in Ames, Iowa, is about 20 degrees. Before wind chill.
Then there are the Cyclones themselves -- perennially one of the best teams in the Big 12 -- who are 7-0 and have one of the top players in the nation in Hallie Christofferson, who's averaging nearly 24 points per game.
And there's the Iowa State crowd. Fennelly, an assistant coach for Cal State Fullerton, is not sure if any of the Titans have ever played in front of 10,000 fans before, and there are likely to be that many at Hilton Coliseum on Sunday. Plus, there's Ames itself; Steven jokes that it takes 10 minutes to get across town there … as opposed to 10 minutes to go one block in Southern California.
This trip will be pretty much like going to another world for the Titans. It will be going home for Fennelly.
He's the younger of Iowa State coach Bill Fennelly's two sons; the eldest, Billy, is on the Cyclones' bench as an assistant to their dad. All three Fennelly men acknowledge it will be "weird" not being on the same side; wife/mom Deb Fennelly will be in the stands hoping for good performances from both teams.
"She will be going crazy," Bill joked. "She'll probably be watching both benches more than what's going on in the game. I've gotten emails and texts from fans saying, 'I can't wait to have Steven home.' I hope they're still rooting for us, but it will be cool to have him here."
It's not too corny to say the Fennellys are the first family of Iowa State sports. In his 19th season with the Cyclones, Bill has been at Iowa State longer than any other current coach at the school. And he is the dean of Big 12 women's basketball coaches, too, having taken over the program in 1995-96, the last year of the Big Eight.
Both his sons have followed him into the coaching business, although he said with a bit of mirth, "I tried to talk them out of it."
In truth, though, Billy and Steven seemed destined for this. Anyone who has been around Iowa State since the Fennellys arrived has watched the boys grow up from little-kid superfans to young men who each came to coaching in his own way.
"It's in their blood, and it's great," Bill said. "They are good people, and they are committed to their profession."
Billy recognized at a little earlier age that coaching would be his path. He got some very difficult news while still in middle school: A congenital heart condition would prevent him from competing in sports that might be too strenuous, such as basketball or football.
"I think I cried myself to sleep for a week straight," Billy recalled. "But then, I realized I just wanted to find a way to stay involved. I knew I needed to go to the coaching side. Just growing up around it, it was always something I enjoyed."
Steven played some basketball competitively, but his primary sports were football and baseball. He also knew he wanted to be involved in athletics as a career, but wasn't sure exactly what path he'd take.
"Then I started having some serious conversations with my dad about it," Steven said. "I was a student manager at Iowa State, and being right there on the floor, in the huddles, that's when it really hit home that this is what I wanted to do."
Billy had also been a student manager at Iowa State, and then got his first job at Maryland working for coach Brenda Frese. She had been an assistant at Iowa State in Bill's early years and had known Billy since he was a grade schooler.
"It was important for me and for my dad that I go see another program and how it worked," Billy said. "Everyone does things a little differently, and it was a really good learning experience. Brenda was great, and she'll forever be the person who gave me my first job."
Then Billy worked a couple of years for Joe McKeown at Northwestern. When an opening came up on the Iowa State staff in 2010, Billy was ready for it.
Now an assistant coach for Bill, he has not just the insight of having watched his father so long, but also another great sounding board. Billy's wife is former Cyclones point guard Lyndsey Medders, who starred for Iowa State from 2003-07.
"Marrying somebody who played has helped me, because she understands the business," Billy said. "We sit here and watch it, talk it, breathe it, live it every day. I'm not sure what we would be doing if it wasn't for basketball."
Steven, meanwhile, will be getting married next year, but his fiancée has no hoops background. Asked his all-time favorite Cyclones player, Steven said, "Tracy Gahan. And ... well, Megan Taylor, too. They might be tied. And Angie Welle. And, of course, I love Lyndsey, too."
Indeed, the Cyclones for so long were like big sisters to Steven, and now one of them really is his sister-in-law. Also, Medders can give him insight into life in Southern California, since she grew up in Los Angeles.
Steven ended up on the Pacific Coast after being both a student manager and grad assistant at Iowa State. New Fullerton coach Daron Park had gotten to know Billy while they were both at Maryland working for Frese. When Park took over the Titans earlier this year, he reached out to Steven about joining the staff.
"The cost of living and the traffic stinks, but other than that, I love it," Steven joked of greater Los Angeles. "Seriously, though, it's great. I love Ames and will always call that home. But going from Ames to Fullerton/L.A. … I tell people there is almost too much to do out there. It's a long way from home, and I miss my family, but I could be in a lot, lot worse places. I love the staff and the team here."
Cal State Fullerton, which was 11-22 last year under Marcia Foster, is at the opposite end of the spectrum from Iowa State. The Titans have not had a winning season since 1991, which was the last time they went to the NCAA tournament.
The Cyclones never had an NCAA berth before Bill Fennelly took over. They've been to the Big Dance 14 times in his 18 seasons and have advanced as far as the Elite Eight twice.
The first time they made a regional final was in 1999, when Iowa State upset Connecticut in the Sweet 16. That's a favorite memory of the entire Fennelly family. Bill says one of his cherished photos is him walking off the court after that victory -- one arm saluting the Iowa State fans who'd made the trip to Cincinnati, the other arm around little crew-cut Steven celebrating next to him.
"A huge part of why we came here was our boys," Bill said of taking the Iowa State job after seven years at Toledo. "Deb and I are both from Iowa, so being close to the grandparents and providing them the chance to be around family and this community was important.
"They grew up around some tremendously talented and motivated young women. Our players helped mold them and taught them what this profession is about. I think it's something that got into their souls."
Billy and Steven both said they really didn't give much thought to coaching anything other than women's basketball. It was the world they knew best. They are also refreshingly honest and pragmatic about how having a dad so well-known and respected has been a help to both.
"In terms of networking and the ability for me to get a job, it was easier in the women's game," Billy said. "I talk now with some of my buddies who are in the men's game, and that's great for them. But it was never like I had to choose. I knew I really wanted to do this."
And the possible next generation in the Fennelly coaching tree is on the way. Billy and Lyndsey are expecting their first child in May. Both of them know the lessons they'll be repeating to their little one over and over, because of what both heard from Bill. As did Steven, as did anyone who has played for Bill at Iowa State.
"The players will ask, when he seems to get heated, they'll say, 'Oh, man, did you deal with this at home for 18 years or whatever?'" Billy said, laughing. "But the things he demands of our players are what he and my mom demanded of Steven and I growing up.
"It sounds cliché, but it's the truth. It's simple things like looking people in the eye, communicating and always trying to do the right thing. If it doesn't feel right, it's probably not right. Our kids hear that every day, and they're probably bored stiff with it. And when we were younger, we probably were, too. But now I realize what my parents did helped me become the person and husband I am, and soon-to-be dad I will be."
And while it will be weird for Bill and Billy to look over and see Steven on the other bench Sunday, it's also going to be a time where the entire family takes stock of what they've given to basketball, and what it has given to them.
"We're going to have Christmas with my wife's family this weekend because Steven's coming home," Bill said. "It's a great sense of pride for us as parents that your kids are doing something they really want to do."
17dBonnie D. Ford