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Iowa State’s Bill Fennelly and his longest-tenured assistants prepare to face the program that brought them together

NCAA tournament first-round game against Toledo has special meaning for Iowa State women’s basketball staff

Iowa State’s Bill Fennelly and his longest-tenured assistants prepare to face the program that brought them together

AMES — Iowa State Coach Bill Fennelly stood near the back of the hotel conference room Sunday night, arms folded across his chest, waiting for his team’s name to be called during the NCAA women’s basketball tournament selection show.

When it finally popped up — alongside his team's first-round opponent — his eyes twinkled as he cracked a smile.

Fennelly’s career had come full circle, as the surging fifth-seed Cyclones will face No. 12-seed Toledo — the first school that gave him a head coaching job 35 years ago — at 2:30 p.m. Saturday in Knoxville, Tenn.

“I think the committee has a sense of humor, probably,” Fennelly said from that Kansas City hotel after the Cyclones (22-9) had capped their first Big 12 tournament title with a 61-51 win over No. 15 Texas. “I don’t know that that was a complete accident, but that’s OK. It’s a very special place to our family.”

That connection runs deep for his extended ISU family, too. His longest-tenured assistant, Latoja Schaben, played for Fennelly at Toledo before joining him on the Cyclones’ staff 26 years ago. His first college assistant, associate head coach Jodi Steyer, worked six seasons with Fennelly on the Rockets’ staff, then reunited with him at ISU in 2002.

The tightly-connected trio has been together for every triumphant and tumultuous moment ever since — navigating through big wins, tough setbacks, the loss of loved ones, and the abrupt cancellation of the Big 12 tournament three years ago because of a pandemic.

They lean on each other. They laugh together. They teach synergistically, relying on complementary methods to help their Cyclone players round out their lives both on the court and off of it.

“They do an amazing job,” ISU’s all-time leading scorer and rebounder Ashley Joens said. “Obviously Coach Fennelly kind of runs the show, but they bring a lot to the team. They really care about their jobs and the people they work with. They come ready to go every day.”

Iowa State's Genesis Lightbourne, (top)
Iowa State's Genesis Lightbourne, (top) shoots over assistant coach Latoja Schaben during an NCAA tournament practice in 2008. Schaben has played for Coach Bill Fennelly has been on his staff for many years. (Associated Press/Charlie Neibergall))

Schaben enjoyed the unique distinction of being recruited by Fennelly as a player and prospective coach. The All-America center for the Rockets recalled being driven home from her official visit by Fennelly, who impressed her with his extensive knowledge of popular music.

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“I thought he was the smartest man ever because for the whole time, for a 2 1/2-hour drive from Toledo to Mansfield, Ohio, where I’m from, he knew every song (on the radio),” Schaben said. “I was like, ‘Dang this guy is smart.’”

Schaben impressed Fennelly with her toughness.

“Played really, really hard,” Fennelly said. "For Iowa State fans, she was a Chelsea Poppens type. Undersized, but just a motor that was ridiculously high and high energy, and physical, and competed. I think she brings that to her coaching.”

Fennelly walked Schaben down the aisle when she was married.

“I asked him because I felt like he was that step-in dad that kind of gave me what I needed at the time,” Schaben said. “He said that was his biggest honor ever, because with two boys (Billy and Steven), he never had that opportunity, but I gave him the opportunity. It was great.”

One of Schaben’s greatest strengths, Fennelly said, hinges on her ability to relate to players. In her first season on staff, the Cyclones won 25 games for the first time in program history.

“I told him, ‘Listen, you’re pretty good, but you didn’t win 25 (or more) games until I became part of the staff,’” Schaben quipped.

Iowa State women’s basketball coach
Iowa State women’s basketball coach Bill Finnelly sits with associate head coach Jodi Steyer (right) during a game in 2016. ((Associated Press/Michael Thomas))

Steyer said she made almost every mistake imaginable when Fennelly recruited her to be his first and only (at the time) assistant on Toledo’s staff in 1989. First, she spelled his name wrong in a letter. Then she waffled on whether she actually wanted to be a coach during an interview with Fennelly, but he remained undeterred.

“He’s like, ‘Why don’t you just give it a try for a year?’” Steyer, then 22, recalled three years ago. “I’m supposed to be begging him and he’s saying, ‘Hey, I just want someone young that I can work with,’ or whatever. So I did all the wrong things in an interview and he gave me that opportunity.”

Steyer left coaching for several years when her and husband Ed’s, children, Eric and Jamie, were very young. A job offer in Ames for Ed Steyer — who was born and raised in Toledo — brought Jodi back into Fennelly’s orbit, setting up her second and current stint on his staff.

“It’s not just a job,” Steyer said. “We’ve kind of grown up together. I mean, I’ve grown up with him. I went to work for him at 22 years old so he’s kind of the one that’s given me my adult life.”

Fennelly considers Steyer to be the best assistant coach in the country — and she provided added proof of that when she assumed head coaching duties for the Jan. 18 win over Oklahoma State as Fennelly attended his mother Carol’s celebration of life service.

“We came together because of what coach Fennelly (means to us),” Schaben said. "That was a hard thing to go through and we let our players know, ‘This is for him.’ It’s a hard time. Everybody has to go through deaths in life, so how do you handle it? You do the best you can and kind of go from there. But it’s the foundation that coach Fennelly set in this program that is the reason we were able to be successful when he was gone for a little bit.”

Now flash back to three years ago. That’s when this story — without the ironic twist of facing Toledo — was slated to run for another media outlet. I’d spoken to Fennelly, Steyer, Schaben and a younger Ashley Joens for the article. The Cyclones had recently handed Baylor its first Big 12 loss in 59 games and were riding high entering the conference tournament

But 10 minutes before taking the practice floor at Municipal Auditorium, the word from league officials hit Fennelly hard. The tournament was canceled. COVID-19 had just become a global concern. ISU needed to pack up and go as it grappled with a wrought and uncertain future. So it made sense to shelve the story until reviving and reworking it now.

“It wasn’t 40 years ago,” Fennelly said of the wide-ranging shutdowns that followed in March of 2020. “It was a short time (ago). Three years ago the whole world stopped. It was a really hard thing for (the Cyclone seniors) to go out that way, but they went out probably in a way that (was) maybe greater than any senior class has in a weird way. But for everyone, it was surreal.”

Fennelly and his long-tenured staff helped keep players — and each other — grounded during the chaos that ensued. They’re doing the same now in a decidedly different and more pleasant situation, hoping to go through the program that first brought them together in order to mount another deep NCAA tournament run.

“We’ve always been very connected personally,” Fennelly said. “Latoja played for us. Jodi, it was her first job. When I hired her she was younger than two of the players on our team. And then myself, kind of, I grew into my head coaching track and those two were with me almost the entire time — one as a player, one as a coach.

“So we’ve always kind of grown together.”


Iowa State women’s basketball coach Bill Fennelly watches from the bench during a game against Baylor in Ames earlier this month. Fennelly and assistant coaches Latoja Schaben have been together a long time. (Associated Press/Charlie Neibergall)