Things were looking grim for Sarah Fairbanks, in her own words. The former Elizabethtown Area High School girls basketball star and Saint Joseph’s University women’s basketball player was looking to enter the college coaching ranks after graduating from college and spending time playing professionally overseas.
However, she was having trouble getting her foot in the door. Seven programs had turned her down this summer. Then, out of the blue, Fairbanks connected with Bill Cleary, the head coach for the Colgate University women’s basketball team, and after a visit to the campus in Hamilton, N.Y., finally received the offer she was hoping for.
“It was incredible to feel wanted by Colgate with an offer that seemed to have fallen in my lap,” she recounted. “I already had a pretty good feeling about all of it, but the visit up to Hamilton only made me feel more comfortable about the opportunity. It truly was a blessing and felt right from the get-go.”
“We’re very lucky to have Sarah,” Cleary said. “I can’t tell you how thrilled we are. She’s gonna help our program immensely. We can’t wait to get her up here.”
Fairbanks will be joining the Colgate coaching staff as the director of basketball operations for this upcoming season. She takes over for Katie Curtis, who was promoted to assistant coach to replace the departing Mahogany Green, who left to become the head coach for the Hamilton College women’s basketball team. As the “DOBO,” Fairbanks will be responsible for the organization of team travel, camps and recruiting visits, as well as additional “light” coaching work with the team’s post players.
Cleary, who was the head coach for the women’s programs at Bloomsburg and Wilmington College before taking over at Colgate in 2016, first became aware of Fairbanks after reaching out to some fellow coaches at both Saint Joseph’s and Drexel University for potential coaching candidates to fill the void left by Green. Both schools immediately brought up Fairbanks, who had previously told the former about her interest in coaching.
“We lost (Mahogany) pretty late in July,” Cleary said. “It was kind of tough because normally the transactions happen literally right after the season. So you’re calling some friends in the business, trying to figure out if there’s someone out there who’s a diamond in the rough. I’m very close with the Drexel University staff, and they highly recommended Sarah. Obviously the coaching staff at St. Joe’s sang her praises. Even coaches who were not at St. Joe’s anymore reached out on her behalf, which tells you all you need to know about a person. From that point on, she was someone I targeted immediately.”
After the visit to campus, Cleary moved fast, offering the job to Fairbanks in less than a week. The two both felt that she’d be a nice fit with the team and the rest of the coaching staff.
“Without question,” Cleary said. “When we first spoke on the phone, you could tell she was anxious in a good way (and) that she reallywanted this opportunity. One of the things we saidto her was ‘We’re gonna be recruiting you, Sarah;we’ve heard nothing but great things, and we wantyou here.’ When she came on campus and we were showing her around, you could tell it was a great fit. The players really liked her a lot. In my
opinion, it’s so important that the staff jell, and she fit with our staff immediately.”
“This team is headed in the right direction, first and foremost because of the tone and mindset Coach Cleary and his staff are setting,” Fairbanks said. “More and more current players are buying in to the system, and we are bringing in gritty, hard-working players in the years to come. I like what the program is about and only see improvement upon improvement over time. I’m excited to see how much better this team gets this year.”
The experiences Fairbanks had in college and overseas also played a huge factor in her hiring at Colgate. After graduating from Elizabethtown in 2012 as the secondhighest scorer in school history, she moved onto Saint Joseph’s, where she worked her way up the ranks to finish her college tenure with 1,064 total points (19th all-time), 636 rebounds (10th all-time) and 113 blocks (third alltime). A team captain for two seasons, Fairbanks cited the team’s run during her sophomore year, where the Hawks reached the second round of the NCAA Division I Tournament, losing to eventual champion UConn.
“I really lucked out with a program rich in its roots and a staff that really cared–and still care–about me,” Fairbanks said. “It made me a stronger and more confident woman, and opened so many doors for me.”
Following graduation from Saint Joseph’s, Fairbanks headed to Dublin, Ireland, as part of Sports Changes Life, a foundation partnered with the Atlantic-10 conference that allows athletes to simultaneously continue their educations while also playing professionally. Fairbanks studied business management at Dublin City University and also played with DCU Mercy as part of the super league division for Basketball Ireland, winning the player of the month award twice and ranking as one of the league’s top scorers.
“My year in Ireland was also one of the most challenging and best things I’ve ever done, and it was so good for me in broadening my horizons,” she said. “One of my dreams was to continue playing abroad after college, and I was fortunate enough to be able to do so in Ireland and then in Greece for a few months after that. All of (my) experiences have prepared me for this position at Colgate in both professional and personal ways, so I’m truly grateful Coach Cleary saw that and pursued me.”
In spite of all the traveling she’s done, Fairbanks’ time in Elizabethtown still holds a strong place in her heart. After all, it’s where she was initially spotted by Saint Joseph’s, and one could argue that the effect she left on the program is still being felt today, months after the Lady Bears returned to the District 3 playoffs for the first time since Fairbanks’ senior year of high school.
“What I miss most about high school and this area is being around my family and familiar faces in the community,” she said. “As many of us do once we return home, I have a greater appreciation for my parents and how they raised me. I ask them more questions, want their advice on more things and enjoy being around them. I love being around my siblings and cousins regularly as well because they are so much fun and give me so much joy. The support and love they have offered over the years only continues to this day and helps me believe in myself in whatever I do.”
Colgate’s women’s basketball team has struggled in recent years. The Raiders have not competed in the Division I Tournament since 2004, posting a
combined record of 109-311 in the next 14 seasons. They’ve gone 17-43 under Cleary’s watch. However, both he and Fairbanks are hopeful that they, along with the rest of the staff, can begin to turn the tide and transition the team back to competitive play.
“I think she’s gonna give us a different perspective,” Cleary said of Fairbanks. “One of the things we liked about Sarah was that she was coming from St. Joe’s, which is a great program that (head coach) Cindy Griffin runs top notch. And they have the same core principles that we have. We’re very big on family and togetherness. I think she’ll give us a different perspective on how St. Joe’s did things that might be able to help us making some things better here. I also think that we can show her some things that will help make her better as well. I’m excited about the opportunity. I haven’t stopped smiling since she told me she was coming on board. I just think it’s gonna be a win-win for all.”
“I am most excited to be on a team again!” Fairbanks said. “I know I won’t be a player this time, but I love being around good people who share a love of basketball, (women’s basketball especially), and that’s how I feel about the Colgate staff and players. I also enjoy the schedule variations, too, like being on the road and very busy during the season, but (staying) more local during the preseason and postseason. I am also looking forward to being an instrument in the growth of a program.”