Billy Fennelly: The recruiting guru

Billy Fennelly has turned himself into a recruiting wizard in his short time as an assistant coach. 

Jack Macdonald

Editor’s Note: Brenda Frese was originally listed as a player under Billy Fennelly. Brenda was an assistant coach, while her sister played under Bill Fennelly.  

It’s been six seasons since Billy Fennelly was promoted to assistant coach. But deep down, Billy Fennelly has bled cardinal and gold for much longer than that. In fact, Billy Fennelly arrived in Ames in 1995 with his father, Bill Fennelly.

When Bill Fennelly arrived in Ames to coach Iowa State, in a sense, so did Billy Fennelly, but not until 10 years later. In 2004, Billy Fennelly officially joined the Iowa State staff as a manager. Far from what he is now — a recruiting wizard.

Fast-forward 11 years from when he left Iowa State in 2007, the Cyclones have a lot to be thankful for after he returned for good in 2010. Today, Billy Fennelly is known as one of the main recruiters and he has turned that title into a form of art.

What almost wasn’t

With the success he has had, it’s funny to think that his father didn’t even want him to be a coach. Billy Fennelly was born with a heart condition and had to quit playing basketball at a young age, but one thing never wavered: his love for basketball.

There was one problem though. Bill Fennelly never wanted his oldest son to get into coaching. He knew of the sleepless nights it would bring and the hardships a coach goes through. But Billy Fennelly knew there were more things to celebrate than dwell on. Billy Fennelly’s dream was to be a basketball coach and no one was going to change that.

“I’ve kind of been spoiled all the way through to see the insides of it, which is the goods and the bads, but obviously a lot more positive than negative,” Billy Fennelly said. “I just kind of knew at a young age that that’s what I wanted to do and go on recruiting trips or watch video or whatever.

“I never really probably gave myself a chance to do anything else. I don’t have any regrets.”

Bill Fennelly’s eldest son jump-started his career as a student manager for the Cyclones in 2004 and ended that run in 2007. Following that, he went to Maryland to coach under Brenda Frese, a former assistant coach under his father. A Final Four run as the recruiting coordinator highlighted his short stint with the Terrapins.

Then, there was one final stop before returning to the place he’s called home for most of his life. That last stop was at Northwestern and he was met with success once again. This time, bringing the Wildcats back to postseason play for the first time in 13 years.

“[At Maryland] we were the No. 1 seed and 33-4 and that was an unbelievable year, but the fanbase even at that was nothing near [Iowa State’s],” Billy Fennelly said. “Again, [Northwestern was a] phenomenal place to live, Chicago, all that stuff — no fanbase.”

Iowa State, part two

Billy Fennelly has gone out and gotten the likes of Emily Durr, Alexa Middleton, Adriana Camber and future Cyclone Maddie Frederick. Of course, there is also Ashley Joens, who is arguably one of the best recruits to ink a commitment to the Cyclones since the Fennellys have been in Ames.

However, recruiting doesn’t come easy. It takes hours of work and sometimes those hours can turn into a player choosing a rival school. For example, Billy Fennelly recalled of a certain school east of Iowa State that snagged a recruit the Cyclones were after. And the eldest Fennelly didn’t sugar coat the hardships of recruiting.

“Recruiting is luck, science, art, work — it’s all the above,” Bill Fennelly said. “The one thing that he’s learned from me probably is you celebrate the ones you get, you don’t worry about the ones you don’t get.”

Billy has used more science, art and work in his recruiting than luck. One might say the luck is just part of the Hilton Magic. Part of the reason he has seen so much success is the style in which he recruits.

He’s not going to go out and promise his recruits a national championship their first year on campus. It’s going to be straightforward and what’s best for the player to hear.

“We are who we are, we’re not gonna run from that and we’re not gonna hide from that,” Billy Fennelly said. “We’re in Ames, Iowa, which is a great place, it’s not for everybody, but it’s for the people that it’s for.”

That motto has stuck with the players he and the Cyclones are after. It’s what makes Iowa State stick out from other programs chasing some of the top girls in the country. 

“A lot of schools always say stuff, I can’t say like they don’t live up to it, but you never know,” said Iowa City High senior Ashley Joens. “With Billy, he was straightforward and he’d just tell you what he thought and it was just something that was a big selling point.”

There’s also the fact that the Iowa State women’s basketball team is built on a family attitude. For example, Billy Fennelly was recruiting during the Cyclones’ bye week this season and it just so happened that 2018 commit Maddie Frederick had her senior night game.

So, Billy Fennelly being Billy Fennelly, instantly decided he wanted to stop in and watch the Tippecanoe High School star play her final game in her home gym. That’s just the family instinct kicking in.

“That means a ton [for him to come out],” Frederick said. “It made my day just seeing him in the stands and the support they show all the time is amazing.”

Then, there are the stories of his tenacious recruiting style. His father even went as far as saying he’s relentless. For example, the ways in which he got Durr and Middleton to Iowa State are examples of what relentless recruiting can bring.

Durr was first noticed at a tournament in Franklin, Tennessee, when the Fennellys were in a bind. It was 3 p.m. and it was too late for lunch, but too early for dinner. So, what any basketball guru would do, they went to watch a game between a Texas team and the Albany City Rocks to see what the Texas schools in the Big 12 were going after. It just so happened that Durr was on the Albany team and caught fire in front of Billy Fennelly and Bill Fennelly.

“I’m sittin’ there like man, man, man. I’m like ‘where’s this team from,’ we weren’t even paying attention,” Billy Fennelly said. “[My dad] goes ‘I can tell this is your first summer out recruiting because you’re going to call a New York kid.’ Obviously, the rest is history.”

Without that tenacity, who knows where Durr would be playing her college hoops. There is also Middleton and her transfer story. Billy Fennelly knew Middleton was good. Heck, she started her career at Tennessee, a perennial powerhouse once led by the legendary Pat Summitt.

Billy Fennelly knew if he missed the window of contacting Middleton it might be too late. The only problem was he was in the Phoenix airport when the news dropped, but that didn’t stop him from calling a recruit.

“When you get an Alexa Middleton to fall into your lap, you better have a spot open for that because our fans will see next year that if we wouldn’t [have gotten her] that would be a problem,” Billy Fennelly said.

But again, it was that personable character he walks around with that ultimately sealed the deal for Middleton.

“He knows how to adapt to each person to talk to you to make you feel important, but also be important,” Middleton said. “He was very personable and I felt like I could trust him.”

That trust has allowed Billy Fennelly to churn out three recruiting classes ranked in the top 25, according to All Star Girls Report. In 2018, the Cyclones are set to have the 25th-best class and have the No. 5 class in the Big 12.

Joining Middleton, Joens and Frederick in that class is Morgan Kane.

And while their future is bright, so is Billy Fennelly’s.

The future

The success Billy Fennelly has had hasn’t gone unnoticed in the coaching world. As a top recruiter, any school would be crazy not to snag him. However, in Ames it’s a family business.

He grew up bleeding cardinal and gold. He went to school bleeding cardinal and gold. He now coaches bleeding cardinal and gold. That’s one of the advantages he has in the recruiting field, according to his father.

“He knows this is the family business, but in every family business everyone brings something different,” Bill Fennelly said. “His skill set and what he has, he does a lot of things better than I do.”

The fact that Billy Fennelly can provide first-hand knowledge of what it’s like to be a student at Iowa State is invaluable. His father put it best when he said this was personal for Billy Fennelly. It’s more than a job.

“This is personal to him, it’s not just his job,” Bill Fennelly said. “This is personal and sometimes whatever you do that’s personal it digs a little deeper and you’re a little bit better at it.”

The fact that it’s personal is what has kept him in Ames and what might keep him in Ames for sometime. At least that’s what his dad, and boss, wants.

“I’ve heard from a lot of people that Billy could go to a lot of places at a very high level and recruit at a high level, but he’s identified his own path,” Bill Fennelly said. “His next move might be head coach somewhere, but right now I think he’s comfortable where he is.

“This is home for him.”

Yes, home it is. Billy Fennelly kept his response simple, but the message was deep.

“I don’t see any changes in the near future,” Billy Fennelly said.