clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How good can Illinois Women’s Basketball be?

Theresa Gerentz had the program at a level Nancy Fahey is aspiring for.

Illinois Women’s Basketball finished last season on an extraordinary 18-game losing streak and didn’t win a single conference game. Nancy Fahey wants the program to improve in her second season, but how good can the Illini really be?

The answer? Pretty good, just look back a few decades.

1997. So much has happened between now and then. Y2K. Facebook. Tesla. Trump. It seems like ages ago to some.

To others, however, it was a year filled with pride and a sense that something great was on the horizon. That they had finally reached the peak of their accomplishments and had done something no one else could have imagined not so long ago.

That was probably the feeling a lot of Illinois Women's Basketball fans felt 21 years ago, after Theresa Grentz and her squad won the Big Ten Championship.

The story behind Grentz and the success of 1996-97 is one of perseverance and the hard work of a basketball lifer.

Grentz grew up in Philadelphia, where she first cut her teeth in the game she loved. Wanting to go to school out of state, she was swayed to stay in state when her family home burned to the ground, and everything was lost. She decided on Immaculata College, which back then was an all-women's college, where she first experienced success on the hardwood.

Under the tutelage of head coach Cathy Rush, the Mighty Macs were the toast of women's collegiate basketball in that era. Grentz was her star pupil, amassing over 1,000 career points and starring for a team that won three AIAW National Championships, dominating the competition. She was named a three-time All-American and Player of the Year in 1974. It was only the beginning of an illustrious career.

After a successful stint playing for the U.S. in the World University Games (where they placed second to a tough Soviet Union team), she turned her attentions to an even tougher vocation: the world of college coaching.

A two-year stint at St. Joseph's College, where she compiled a 27-5 record, led to the first major opportunity of her career: Rutgers University.

As the first full-time female coach in women's basketball, she blazed a trail for future stars in the profession such as Pat Summitt and Vivian Stringer. She led the Lady Knights to nine straight postseason appearances, including a 30-3 season in 1986-87, where she earned National Coach of the Year honors, and an AIAW National Championship in 1982.

Yet, all of those accomplishments pale in comparison to what she did at the University of Illinois in two short years.

The Illini hadn't had a winning season in eight years prior to the hire of Grentz. Ron Guenther was trying to squeeze whatever he could out of this bloodless turnip of a program. It was dire. Illinois had never won a Big Ten Championship, never competed for multiple NCAA tournament berths, never had an All-American player. Nothing. It seemed hopeless.

Enter Theresa Grentz in 1995. She immediately went to work on the state's top talent, bringing in some highly coveted players such as Tauja Catchings, a power forward from Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Illinois, who was Ms. Basketball in the state of Illinois and who owns multiple Stevenson scoring records. Or Casey Leonhardt, a 6-foot-5 center from Downers Grove, Illinois, who averaged 23 points, 13 rebounds and five blocks her senior year.

She also inherited one foundational piece as well, as Ashley Berggren had already proven to be a star in the making.

In her second year, things started to come together.

Berggren played like an All-American (which she was named Honorable Mention at season’s end), and the team gelled under Grentz's hard-nosed, fiery demeanor.

First winning season in more than a decade. Twelve wins in conference play (out of 16). A Big Ten Championship. An NCAA Sweet Sixteen berth. A tough loss to the dynasty that is Connecticut, 78-73. A Big Ten Player of the Year (Berggren). A sold-out home game (the only sell-out in their history). It was an unbelievable turnaround for a team that had never seen the light at the end of the tunnel.

It ended with heartbreak, as these things usually do with Illinois. Grentz never captured the momentum from that magical season. She made the tournament again in 2003 and coached the first WNBA player from the University of Illinois, Angelina Williams. She resigned in 2007 (there are still some rumors that she was forced to resign by Guenther after a few less than stellar seasons) and became the coach of the U.S. Women's National team.

It seemed to be the perfect storm of events, and it faded just as quickly as it appeared. But it was a bright light brought on by the talents of a basketball purist who saw a vision and poured everything into it. Obviously a National Championship didn't happen, but she brought something to Illinois it had never experienced before: respectability.

And that’s what Fahey is going to have to do.