It took Nancy Fahey all of two moves to go from coaching high school girls basketball to coaching women’s basketball at the Big Ten level.
Granted, Fahey (pronounced FAY) had a long stop in between.
She spent 31 years as head coach at Division III Washington University in St. Louis after she left Johnsburg High School in the far Northwest suburbs.
But she is living the dream now as head coach at the University of Illinois.
“Everyone has their own path, there’s no typical path, and no right path,” Fahey said.
“It’s what works for you. I just knew I wanted to coach Division I basketball someday, but I didn’t want to make 15 moves to get there.
I didn’t even want to make five.”
Fahey, about to start her second season in a rebuilding project at Illinois, was about as efficient as she could be.
After Fahey, still in her 20s, guided a rebuilt Johnsburg team to a sectional final in her fourth season in 1986, she found out about some nearby college coaching openings and sent out a few resumes to test the waters.
She ended up getting a bite from Washington University, was invited to interview and, before she knew it, was offered the job.
It would be the second job of her career. The Johnsburg job was the first for Fahey out of college.
Fahey graduated from the University of Wisconsin, where she played basketball as a point guard. She was also a physical education teacher at Johnsburg.
“I didn’t know a soul at Washington,” Fahey said. “But I think they liked the fact that I turned a program around.
We got kicked around my first year. And then we got it going.
“They wanted to build a program at Washington and they felt I had done that at Johnsburg.”
In her first season at Johnsburg, Fahey’s team won 5 games.
Then it was 16 games the next season, then two straight 20-win seasons that included two regional championships and a sectional final appearance.
“The thing I remember most fondly about my years (at Johnsburg) is that I was only 25 or 26 years old and the girls hung in there with me,” Fahey said.
“They believed in me and that was special.”
Fahey’s career at Washington started strong and kept skyrocketing.
In her first season Washington was 16-5. Over the next 30 years, she led the way to 27 20-win seasons and two perfect 30-0 seasons in back-to-back years, (1998-99, 1999-2000).
Those perfect seasons yielded Division III national championships, two of four straight national championships for Washington from 1998 to 2001.
Overall, Washington won five national championships under Fahey and never had a losing season.
In fact, Washington never won fewer than 19 games under Fahey after her first season.
“When I first got to Washington after coaching at the high school level, I remember feeling a little overwhelmed,” Fahey said.
“But coaches at Washington are given what they need to flourish. You’re really encouraged and I remember a couple players early on coming in to tell me they thought our program could be really good.
And for me, Washington ended up being 31 years of really special moments and special kids.”
After more than three decades, Fahey felt completely at home in St.
Louis. Leaving Washington for University of Illinois, even though that was a huge promotion and dream job for Fahey, wasn’t easy.
“I was just telling someone that I hope people will allow me to love two places, even now,” Fahey said. “After 30 years somewhere, you have an attachment there.
“But at the same time, I was so humbled to get the Illinois opportunity. To me, to be in the Big Ten was incredible.
And I had always wanted to be a Division I head coach.
“To think about the trust that has been given to me at Illinois, that means a lot to me.
This is it. This is where I’m going to be.
What Fahey means is that Illinois is going to be her third and final stop in coaching. She wants to build something special at Illinois before she eventually rides off into the retirement sunset.
“Our goal is to get into the postseason,” said Fahey, whose first season in Champaign last year yielded a 9-22 record. “But our goal is to do it the right way.
You don’t build the Brooklyn Bridge if you don’t build a strong foundation. We want to get talented kids but we want to do it with character kids.
We want to build a program in a way that people can be proud of us.
“I want little girls in the state of Illinois to say, ‘Illinois is where I want to go to school, this is where I want to play basketball.
Fahey was reminded of how well she once was able to connect with high school girls in Illinois when she was back in the suburbs last season. Her Fighting Illini were in Evanston to take on Northwestern.
To her surprise, about six players from her Johnsburg teams, now grown women, showed up at the game to support Fahey and her new team.
“I didn’t even know they were coming, it was so nice,” Fahey said.
“They brought this sign and it said ‘It started at JHS,’ meaning Johnsburg High School. I still have that sign in my office.
I thought that was pretty special.”
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