It took Bill Fennelly only 15 minutes to make a positive impression on Muffet McGraw.
McGraw had just landed the women’s basketball coaching job at Notre Dame in 1987 when she stopped in to see Fennelly, an assistant for the Fighting Irish at the time. Fennelly had never met her before.
McGraw told him she had 15 minutes get up to speed on the program — she needed to get to the airport, so she needed an honest assessment. Fast.
“My interview literally was a 15-minute crash course into what’s the truth about Notre Dame and what’s the truth about the team,” Fennelly said.
Those 15 minutes were enough to impress McGraw. A week later, she called and offered Fennelly a job on her staff. The opportunity is one of the reasons why Fennelly is forever indebted to McGraw, one of the sport’s most successful and iconic coaches who announced her retirement this week.
“I wouldn’t be the head coach at Iowa State if Muffet hadn’t given me a job 33 years ago,” Fennelly said. “And I don’t forget that.”
McGraw, who won more than 900 games, two national championships and is a member of the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, played a monumental role in Fennelly’s coaching career. But Fennelly, who was already an assistant on the coaching staff when McGraw arrived at Notre Dame, didn’t know if he would even have the opportunity to stay on with the coaching change. He was preparing for a possible move.
Fennelly made quite the 15-minute impression. And he not only got to stay on with the Fighting Irish, but McGraw handed him a lot of coaching duties during their first season together. She had so much faith in Fennelly that when the head coaching job at Toledo opened up, she helped him land it. Former Notre Dame men’s basketball coach Digger Phelps vouched for Fennelly for the Toledo position. McGraw, his boss at the time, told administrators at the school that all Fennelly needed was an opportunity to be a head coach. Fennelly had worked as an assistant at William Penn, Fresno State and in South Bend, Indiana. But he had never been in charge.
“(She said) he’s done everything that a head coach does, he just doesn’t have the title,'” Fennelly said. “And basically, ‘If you don’t hire this guy, you’re making a big mistake.'”
Fennelly realized McGraw had such a powerful voice in the process when he started getting asked a lot of questions during his interview about Notre Dame. Fennelly got the job at Toledo, where he spent seven seasons. It become a launching pad for his next job at Iowa State, where he just completed his 25th season. Fennelly, who has built Iowa State into one of the most consistent programs in the Big 12 Conference, credits some of it to the coaching lessons he learned from McGraw. One of the most important ones is the importance of having a good point guard.
“I kind of learned during that time that everyone knows how important they are, but she was almost obsessed by it in a good way — like, you need a leader — you need that person,” Fennelly said.
Fennelly said he’s kept in contact with McGraw over the years. Watching McGraw have so much success has been rewarding for him.
“To see where Muffet ended up and what she did at Notre Dame … that career was incredible,” Fennelly said.
Fennelly can’t help but wonder where he would have ended up had McGraw not given him the opportunity to stay on at Notre Dame or recommended him for the job at Toledo.
“Notre Dame opened up a lot of doors for me, and the doors of Notre Dame were open for me, or kept opening for me, by Muffet,” Fennelly said. “That’s something I’ll always remember and be thankful for.”
Tommy Birch covers Iowa State athletics and the Iowa Cubs. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 515-284-8468.
Source: Des Moines Register