Fennelly's actions louder than words
Iowa State coach cleared as cancer-free; Cyclones 5-6 in Big 12 after 0-5 start
Iowa State junior Chelsea Poppens talks about adjusting to a "quieter" coach Bill Fennelly, and how the Cyclones have turned around their season.
COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Exasperated, he pops off the bench, pulls at his belt, re-tucks his shirt, rubs his hands through his hair, and attempts to shout instructions. Iowa State coach Bill Fennelly just saw something he really didn't like.
And considering he sees everything that happens on court -- with the ball, away from the ball, in the paint, on the perimeter, out of the corner of his eye, and seemingly even when he's looking in the opposite direction -- he tends to have a lot he needs to point out to his Cyclones.
But they have to listen a bit more carefully than ever before. Because what comes out is more "the rasp," as junior forward Chelsea Poppens puts it.
Fennelly underwent radiation treatment starting last October for an invasive cancerous lesion on his vocal cords. He has been cleared as cancer-free, and feels good, saying, "My energy level is back."
One thing hasn't yet returned to normal, though. His voice -- one of the defining elements of not just Iowa State, but Big 12 women's basketball since the league formed in 1996-97 -- is slowly coming back to him.
Everybody has missed it.
"I've had to change some things," said Fennelly after the Cyclones' 65-52 victory over Missouri on Wednesday. "I use a microphone in practice. Everyone talks about how coaches need to be good communicators, and I haven't been able to be as good because I can't talk as much."
Fennelly, in his 17th season at Iowa State, has always been the kind of coach who's hardest on himself. The Cyclones lost 2010-11 leading scorer Kelsey Bolte to graduation, were starting a freshman point guard in Nikki Moody, and faced Okahoma, No. 1-ranked Baylor and defending national champion Texas A&M in three of their first four Big 12 games.
All that was the lion's share of why Iowa State started with an 0-5 league record. But Fennelly was worried he wasn't able to impact the team enough, and not just on the court.
"Just life lessons, talking about what's going on in school," Fennelly said. "I've had to do that in short messages. I write emails, write on dry-erase boards, I text. But it's not the same. I think as a coach, you're building over time messages to the kids. And that's been hard.
"You need to talk with kids individually, and talk to them as a team. And this team, unfortunately, probably needed it more than any team I've had in awhile. You're sitting there and thinking, 'We're 0-5,' and 'I'm not doing my job,' but you don't know what you can do about it. The kids have handled it great."
Actually, so has the coach.
"I know they went through some challenges, but they're doing well right now, and that's a credit to him," said Missouri coach Robin Pingeton, a former assistant to Fennelly at Iowa State. "He's a classy guy who does things the right way. He's extremely competitive and winning is important to him, but at the end of the day it's about impacting his players' lives. And there's no doubt that he's turned this into a great life lesson for them."
The Iowa State players say that while some things are a little different, Fennelly really isn't.
"We've adjusted to it; in practice when he talks, everyone goes completely silent so we can hear it," Poppens said. "His voice has come back better now, though.
"But even when his voice was gone, he could still get in your face and get his point across. It's different not having his 'yell' there, but his overall personality was still the same."
Poppens is now the team's top scorer (14.7 ppg) and was named Big 12 player of the week Monday after her combined 38 points and 26 rebounds in Iowa State's two victories last week.
The Cyclones, 14-8 overall and 5-6 in the league, have won five of their last six games -- the only loss in that stretch coming by just two points at Texas A&M on Jan. 29. That was just 15 days after Iowa State had lost at home to the Aggies by 26.
"We stayed positive," Poppens said. "We were more motivated than ever after we were 0-5. At first, we weren't quite clicking as a team and didn't have that trust in each other. Our chemistry has improved tremendously."
Bill Fennelly's wife, Deb, discusses how he has dealt with not having much of a voice this season.
The players, assistant coaches, and the entire Iowa State community have been behind Fennelly. He also has a lot of up-close support, with wife Deb and sons Billy, the director of player development for the Cyclones, and Steven. Plus Billy's wife, former Iowa State point guard Lyndsey Medders Fennelly.
Bill and Deb have been married for 29 years, and they acknowledge their partnership has been such a success largely because they communicate so well. When Fennelly's voice was essentially at zero, they had to find alternate ways to "talk."
"We texted each other when we were in the same room," Deb said. "That's maddening. He's a texting machine. I like to text, but not to my husband when he's right next to me.
"And on the sidelines, when he's been trying to get the players' attention, he's been more demonstrative with his actions. And he looks to other people more like a madman than he really is. You know, stomping his feet, waving his arms."
For the sixth consecutive year, ESPN will support the Kay Yow Cancer Fund during its annual Play 4Kay women's college basketball games Sunday and Monday.
Ideally, Fennelly would have rested his voice completely for a while. But considering he was diagnosed just before the start of college basketball season there was no way.
"He's done the best he can," Deb said, chuckling. "But if he'd tried not to talk at all this season, we'd all be in the loony bin by now."
Fennelly had to "cheer" on his beloved St. Louis Cardinals mostly silently during a thrill ride of a postseason that ended in a World Series title last fall. He and his family were in attendance at Game 6 of the World Series, the extra-inning game in which the Cardinals rallied for an improbable win, which he called "the most exciting sports event I've ever been to."
But he hasn't been able to do his usual rounds of public speaking and appearances. And he found that his night-owl ways were abandoning him, too. He'd find himself tired and ready to turn in by 10 p.m., which was very unusual for him. As mentioned, though, he said his energy is definitely returning to normal, too.
However, almost all difficulties also bring some surprising benefits. For Fennelly, he thinks not being able to speak as much has made him a better listener.
"Absolutely, you listen to more the little things that before maybe you thought weren't important," he said. "As a coach, a lot of time you think, 'If it's not a big deal, let's move on.' But whether it's staff meetings, meeting with players, doing interviews -- you listen harder.
"It's like you feel you need the information even more, because you don't have the voice to keep going back and forth if you weren't paying attention. Now, I want to get it the first time."
Sunday, the Cyclones travel to Texas Tech for a 2:30 p.m. ET tipoff that will be part of the whip-around coverage on ESPN2. It's one of the highlights of the Play 4Kay initiative honoring the late NC State coach Kay Yow, and Fennelly acknowledges that the event means more to him than ever. Iowa State's Play 4Kay home game wll be Feb. 18 against Oklahoma.
"I'm very lucky; I haven't had to fight the battle that Coach Yow did and many others do," he said. "Mine is so much better and easier than most people's. But there is a connection when you hear that 'C' word.
"It's like, 'Jeez, this is part of what I faced.' It does hit your consciousness a lot more. It's not that it wasn't very important before, because it was. It just hits closer to home now."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at mechellevoepelblog.com.