Illini women's coach Nancy Fahey ready for challenge of Big Ten

Illini women's basketball coach Nancy Fahey was very patient and picky in her choice to make leap from Division III to Division I

CHAMPAIGN - Nancy Fahey considered other opportunities to make the leap from Division III to the big-time, especially when she became a hot commodity after leading Washington University to four straight Division III national championships from 1998-2001.

“I became very ‘smart’ at that point, so I did look,” Fahey said as she was introduced as the ninth head coach in Illinois women’s basketball history. “You just have to have a lot of things come together in a career, and it wasn’t then time (then).”

Fahey finally made the jump 16 years later when one of her former bosses offered a Big Ten job in the state she began her basketball coaching career. After 31 years at WashU, Fahey finally felt the overwhelming desire to test herself at the highest level.

“We’ve had a lot of success at WashU and I’m very proud of that,” Fahey said. “I’m a very challenge-oriented person. I like challenges. I like having an opportunity to make an impact.” She had an extreme comfort level with Illinois athletics director Josh Whitman, her boss at WashU from 2014-2016 who elevated her to an assistant athletics director role.

“I know Josh, and I know his leadership and I know his excitement,” Fahey said. That’s easy to follow.”

Fahey also was sold on the potential of taking over a program with the Illini’s resources.

“The facilities. The community. The state,” said Fahey, who takes over an Illinois program that hasn't made the NCAA Tournament since 2003. “My appreciation for the talent in this state and the tradition of women’s basketball. It’s not just one thing. I love Josh, but this is a big picture. So there’s so many reasons professionally and personally.”

Fahey’s Division III record speaks for itself: 737-133, .847 win percentage, 29 NCAA Tournament appearances, 23 conference titles, 10 Final Fours and five national titles.

But will that Division III success translate to the high-major level? Those were the questions expectedly most lobbed at Fahey on Friday. Understandable, especially given her predecessor Matt Bollant’s struggles to translate mid-major success at Wisconsin-Green Bay (148-19 overall record) to the Big Ten, where he finished 61-94 over five failed seasons.

Recruiting at a high-major certainly is different. Fahey recruited at a national level at WashU, a nationally renowned academic institution. She pulled recruits from California to New York to Texas.

“We did recruit,” Fahey said. “The difference is it’s Division III recruiting. I’m fully aware of that. The one thing that I’m not afraid to do is ask questions. And I’m not afraid to put really strong people around me. This is not about me. This is about making Illinois basketball the best. So what you want to do is put yourself around people who know what you don’t know as well and be willing to learn. I am 100 percent a sponge to make myself better to make this program better. But you have to empower people around you and you have to trust.

“We have recruited. Trust me. They didn’t just show up at WashU. Yes, it’s going to be a different athlete and skillset. But it’s not like I just sat at my desk and people just walked in and said, ‘Let’s go play basketball.’”

Fahey said she has reached out to several of her peers who have made the D-III to D-I leap, including Oregon State’s Scott Rueck (who leaped from George Fox) and SLU coach Lisa Stone (who made the jump from Wisconsin-Eau Claire).

Fahey, who said she wants to play a fast and tough style, takes over a team that finished 9-22 overall last year and 3-13 in the Big Ten. But the team returns almost its entire roster and adds a solid Big Ten recruiting class.

Whitman, who himself has made the transition from WashU to Illinois look seemless, has few doubts Fahey won’t miss a step up the ladder.

"To me, this is the least risky hire I've made,” Whitman said. “I know how she leads teams. I know how she connects with student-athletes. Whenever you hire someone, you really don't know. There's always some element of risk. To be able to mitigate some of that and know what we're getting and have great confidence in Nancy's leadership for me, it was a no-brainer for me."

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