Photo courtesy of Athletics Media Services
The Winningest Coach in Northwestern History
Coach Laurie Schiller (G82) describes fencing as “physical chess,” drawing athletes who are self-motivated and individualistic. “You can be 5-foot tall or 6-foot-7,” he says. “You don’t have to be big or strong. It’s a one-on-one, quick action sport.”
Schiller, who has been coaching these unique athletes for 26 years, watched his team hand him his 800th win last season, further solidifying his place as the winningest coach in Northwestern history. His women’s teams have had only one losing season during that stretch. (Schiller notes that the varsity men’s fencing teams that he coached, from 1977 to 1994, had several losing seasons. He has also coached the men’s fencing club since 1994.)
A three-year letter winner and captain of the Rutgers University fencing team, Schiller came to Northwestern as a graduate student in 1972. The women’s fencing team was formed in 1977, and Schiller became its head coach two years later. “We started from scratch here,” Schiller recalls. “I was starting at the time when women’s athletics was starting. We were a real mom-and-pop shoestring operation.”
In some ways it still is. Everyone on the team works the concession and registration tables before matches. There are no bleachers or stands for spectators.
For many years Schiller operated at a competitive disadvantage, with women’s fencing at Northwestern having varsity status but operating as a nonscholarship sport. That made recruiting extremely difficult, especially against East Coast colleges where fencing was more established and popular. Then-athletic director Rick Taylor added scholarships to the women’s program in 1998.
Though the NCAA only allows five scholarships for fencers, this gave Schiller the opportunity to attract fencers who had been involved with their sport for years. “Top competitors are going to be kids who started at 10 or 11,” he says. “It’s difficult to start a kid in college and make them into an All-American. Now we’re on an equal level with schools, especially in the East, that offer scholarships.”
One fencer who made the team with no previous experience was Melissa Dattalo (WCAS04), who walked up to the fencing booth at an activities fair and got hooked. “It’s a real family atmosphere. They really took me under their wing,” she says. “They said it was a big time commitment, but I was looking for that.” In the fall and winter, the fencers practice three hours each day during the week and compete almost every weekend.
Dattalo says that Schiller’s style made her three seasons on the team special. “For someone who’s been coaching that long, you’d think he’d be set in his ways,” she says. “One of the things that impressed me is that he’s flexible. If someone needs to be screamed at, he’ll scream. If someone needs a different approach, he takes it. He understands what motivates people, and he’ll change for the individual. He takes a lot of input from the team.”
Dattalo also valued Schiller’s “huge emphasis on academics. If you mentioned that you had a test, or needed time off to study, he knows that’s why people are here,” she says.
With the retirement earlier this year of Senior Associate Athletic Director Ken Kraft, Schiller has been at Northwestern longer than any athletic department employee. And he’s not planning on going anywhere soon. He’s set his sights on reaching 1,000 wins as head coach. “At the level my team is, with more than 25 wins a year, it’ll take seven or eight more years,” he says. “That’s my goal. And I’d like to have the best women’s team in the country.” — T.S.