BILLINGS — When he first got into coaching, Luke Fennelly set a goal: To be the head of his own NCAA program by age 33.
"I was one year off, so I failed," joked the 34-year-old Fennelly, who on April 6 was named the successor to the retiring Mick Durham as Montana State Billings men's basketball coach. "But no, I'm extremely fortunate to be where I'm at and at this great university as well."
Fennelly, who grew up in the Flathead Valley and is a 2007 graduate of Whitefish High School, takes over an MSUB program coming off its first 20-win season in 17 years and its first berth in the NCAA Division II West Regional since 2012.
He also takes over for a Montana coaching treasure in Durham, who announced his retirement in March after 41 years on the bench, including 30 as a head coach in stops at Shepherd High School, Montana State (his alma mater), Alaska Fairbanks and finally MSUB.
In all, Durham accumulated 397 head coaching wins.
Fennelly, who is eagerly awaiting his first, says he will do his best to put his own stamp on the Yellowjacket program, and that starts with the core philosophies he's cultivated not only under Durham but in particular working for three separate head coaches at Montana State — Brad Huse, Brian Fish and Danny Sprinkle.
"Defensively we've been one of the top programs in the" Great Northwest Athletic Conference, Fennelly said. "That's kind of been one of my main roles, and that's certainly not going to change. We're still going to make it hard for people to score and we're going to be disruptive, and that's going to be our bread and butter.
"Offensively our style is going to be all about the skill level and talent we have in place. I would like an extremely deep team; I like playing nine, 10, 11 guys because the style I want to play is fast and free. Pace and space, so to speak, where guys are playing together. It's not so much run-and-gun, but it's pretty close."
Notably, the Yellowjackets are saying goodbye to a pair of first-team all-league and All-West Region players in Carrington Wiggins and Bilal Shabazz. Wiggins was conference MVP and Shabazz was named it's defensive player of the year. But they do return three starters in twins Jalen and Jajuan Tot and Steven Richardson, who make up what Fennelly touted as "a strong nucleus."
Additionally, Fennelly is counting on the notion that next year's MSUB squad can continue to galvanize the local support and interest that seemed to spike during its run to the West Regional in 2022-23.
Having lived in Montana for most of his life, Fennelly knows how important brand-building can be for the state's third NCAA athletic department, which has labored to maintain visibility among the popularity of Montana and Montana State and the hyper-local flavor of the Frontier Conference institutions.
"It was a start this past year, creating some buzz," Fennelly said. "So the main objective is to grow that and be well-known throughout the state. It's a goal to someday be in the same breath as the Bobcats and the Griz. It's a long way to go and it doesn't happen over night. It's a huge objective, but you've got to create a product that creates excitement on the basketball court with great kids that Montanans can be proud of."
Fennelly will officially be appointed MSUB head coach on July 1. In a press release, Yellowjackets athletic director Michael Bazemore praised Fennelly for his work ethic and impact.
"Luke has been instrumental in the success of our program and has earned the opportunity to lead our men's basketball program," Bazemore stated. "He has a depth of experience as an assistant coach and carries with him strong references from his peers, and support from student-athletes and administrators. I am excited for Luke and look forward to supporting him in this new role."
Fennelly has paid his dues and is ready for that new beginning — he's ready to recruit, ready win and ready help build MSUB's brand as the leader of his own NCAA basketball program.
Even if it is, as Fennelly joked, a year too late.