Fahey heads north to Illinois
Decorated basketball coach departs for Division I school after 31 years
Early yesterday morning, women’s basketball coach Nancy Fahey sent out an email to her players calling for a team meeting at noon. Through 31 years, five national championships, 29 tournament appearances, an 81-game winning streak and 737 victories at the helm of the women’s basketball team, Fahey had made a lot of announcements, but this one was going to be unique.
Fahey had just accepted the head coaching position at the University of Illinois.
As the team received the news in the Athletic Complex green room, it made for an emotional atmosphere. Few coaches have represented their team as wholly as Fahey has during her three-decade tenure.
“As long as I’ve known her, she’s been [Washington University] basketball,” senior and team captain Jenn Dynis said. Dynis is a better authority than most, as she attended Fahey clinics and passed water to Bears players when she was young.
Fahey’s legacy is undeniable. Her five championships are a Division III record. She’s the fastest coach in NCAA women’s basketball history to reach 600 wins and the second fastest to 700 behind University of Connecticut’s Geno Auriemma. Fahey is also Division III’s first representative in the women’s basketball Hall of Fame.
Chris Mitchell has witnessed Fahey coach for the past 16 years, first when he was the sports information director and now as the assistant athletic director for communications. He likes to compare her to Pat Summitt, the legendary University of Tennessee coach. But, Fahey actually has the better winning percentage.
Fahey’s legacy is success without interruption. In 1986, she took over a program that was just finding its legs. It took her two seasons to turn her Bears into national competitors. In 31 years, she’s never worn a winning percentage under .700.
At Wednesday’s meeting, her achievements were not lost on her players.
“We expressed our adoration for her and everything that she’s been able to accomplish,” Dynis said. “She deserves a chance with a big time school and a big time program.”
Still, it didn’t make the news any easier to swallow.
“We’re a family,” Dynis said. “It’s hard to say good-bye, and a lot of people were upset…there were a lot of tears shed, but for the best reasons.”
In truth, many on the women’s team already had an idea of what was coming. Rumors of the potential hire had already been circulating for a few days. That was before a 6 a.m. Wednesday morning report from The News Gazette in Champaign, Ill. all but confirmed it. The official announcement from the Illini and Wash. U. came later that afternoon.
The Bears now have somewhat of an Illini connection. In February of last year, former Athletic Director Josh Whitman was hired by Illinois to lead their athletic program after around 18 months at Wash. U. It was Whitman who ultimately hired Fahey away from the Bears.
From Dynis’ point of view, Fahey never pursued the position at Illinois, which was left vacant after Matt Bollant was fired March 14.
“It just kind of fell into her lap,” Dynis said.
But, volleyball head coach Vanessa Walby said, Whitman is not headhunting.
Fahey led the Bears to a 26-3 record and a second straight NCAA quarterfinal finish in what results as her final season in St. Louis.
Nobody had a better seat to watch Fahey work than Mark Edwards, the head coach of the men’s basketball team. His office is right across the gym from Fahey’s, and the court between them bares both their names.
The two took over at roughly the same time, Edwards a hair earlier in 1981. Together, they practiced the mantra that Wash. U. basketball was one program with two teams.
“We both had an understanding that we had a chance to build a program where the men and the women had a mutual respect for each other and mutually shared the same goals of achievement,” Edwards said. “The programs evolved with a vision, and now, they have evolved to a point of expectation.”
Starting with humble years in the 1980s, both the men’s and women’s teams have grown into national powerhouses.
After 30-plus years, though, Edwards said life will be strange without Fahey.
“I’m walking around like I just lost somebody, like I just had a divorce,” Edwards said. “But it’s a good thing for her, and I’m sure we’re going to be just fine here.”
Edwards actually has a pretty good idea of what Fahey is in for when she steps foot in the State Farm Center. Before his 36 years at Wash. U., he was an assistant coach at Washington State University, another Division I program.
When you make that move, as he puts it, “a lot of the dynamics are going to be different, but the base is still there. The game is still the same, the kids that are playing are still the same … The success she had here; she knows how to translate that to Division I.”
In what many may see as a curious decision by Fahey, to depart from a program where she owns such a legacy, Edwards completely deferred.
“They’re all kinds of factors that go into making that decision,” Edwards said. “I don’t think it’s fair for us to try and sit here and analyze what was important to her. Looking at the totality of it—the chance to coach at a Division I school, a salary that’s beyond most of our earning potential—I can’t deny her that chance.”
In the days leading up to Fahey’s decision, she sought Edwards’ council.
“My advice was to do what’s best for her,” Edwards said. “I know she cares deeply for her student athletes here, cares very deeply about Washington University, and that the decision did not come easy.”
That attitude was reflected in her official statement released by the Wash. U. Athletic Department.
“Washington University will forever hold a special place in my heart,” Fahey said in the official statement released by the University. “To the players that have been part of our program since the beginning to now, I want to say thank you. I feel so lucky that I had the opportunity to share some wins, championships and, of course, a few losses along the way. The incredible feelings I have of being part of the Bear family will never change.”
Fahey was unavailable for comment at time of publication.