Washington Evening Journal
111 North Marion Avenue
Washington, IA 52353
FAIRFIELD — Fairfield High School’s gymnasium has been named in honor of Dan Breen, the former girls’ basketball coach that led the Trojanettes to five straight state tournament appearances, including the state title in 1983.
The Fairfield Community School Board announced its decision to rename the gym in July, in the wake of a letter-writing campaign led by Breen’s former students and players who urged the district to honor one of, if not the, most accomplished coaches in Fairfield’s history.
A ceremony to honor Breen is planned for Friday, Dec. 2 at the FHS gymnasium, which will take place between the varsity girls’ and varsity boys’ basketball games that evening.
Starting the girls’ program
Breen was not only an incredibly successful girls’ basketball coach, he was the school’s first. Fairfield did not field a girls’ basketball team until 1972, when the school board approved creating a team, and hired Breen to lead the team a month later. Breen was teaching junior high social studies at the time, and was eager to coach. He agreed to coach the girls’ team, but only if it didn’t stop him from getting the boys’ coaching job as soon as that opened up.
“A cadre of people were interested in starting a girls’ program, and they kept pushing me,” Breen said. “I said I’ll do it until I get what I really want, which is to coach the boys.”
Years later, when the boys’ job became available, Breen was no longer interested.
“Now these were my girls,” he said. “I got really attached to them and to the mission. I wanted to see it through.”
Though not a native of Iowa, Breen was already well known to Fairfield residents because of his standout career as a college basketball player, including his final two years at Parsons College, where he started for the Wildcats. Breen came to Fairfield from Lorain, Ohio, where he had received recognition for his superior play in high school, which led to a starting role on Lorain County Community College’s team.
Learning a new game
Breen said that, though he knew the game of basketball well, he was a fish out of water when it came to the girls’ game, which had different rules. Lorain had no girls’ sports of any kind, and he hadn’t even seen a girls’ basketball game until he came to Iowa. Girls’ six-on-six basketball consisted of a team of three forwards and three guards, which stayed on opposite ends of the floor and could not cross half-court. The rules at that time limited the number of dribbles a girl could take to two.
Since this was the first year any of the Fairfield girls were playing organized basketball, their skill level was fairly basic.
“We didn’t have anybody who could shoot the ball, but I’ve always been grateful for those girls because they played hard,” Breen said. “People liked watching them. They played with passion, and wanted to win. They had a good attitude about being an athlete. People asked me, ‘How did you treat the girls?’ I just treated them like athletes.”
For the program’s first two years, wins were few and far between. Breen said small schools liked scheduling Fairfield because it gave them a good chance to “beat up on” a big school.
“By the end of our second year, we were getting better, and by the third year, we were pretty good. We went 15-8 the third year,” Breen said.
Breen’s playing career
In his own playing career, Breen was a good scorer, but was better known for his tenacious defense. He was a guard growing up, but in high school, he grew a foot, and ended up just shy of 6-foot-3. He transitioned to playing forward after his growth spurt.
“There was no AAU back then, but we didn’t need it,” Breen said. “I grew up playing against grown men.”
Lorain was a hotbed for basketball, and even some of the school’s regular season games drew crowds of 4,000 people. Though Breen loved the basketball culture, he wanted out of northern Ohio, and when it came time to transfer out of his community college, he picked the school that was the farthest of all his options, Parsons College. He liked that Parsons scheduled games against bigger schools such as Gonzaga, DePaul, Portland and Chicago State.
“We had great support for the basketball team in Fairfield,” Breen said. “And Parsons was nothing like a party school. It had great professors, and I was never more engaged in academics than I was at Parsons. It was subdued compared to Lorain. Lorain was part of the non-stop development on [Lake Erie], while Fairfield was very rural. It felt so different at first, to see people wave at you as you drove by. I liked it.”
The Breen style of play
Breen said that, though he had no experience with girls’ basketball, he relied on insights from his own playing days to help him craft a winning formula for the Trojanettes, one that was built on defense.
“Everybody focuses on the fact that the girls were only allowed two dribbles, but being a defensive-minded person, I saw that what really drove the game was that you could only hold the ball for three seconds,” Breen said. “And the refs really counted, not like today where they’ll let the players hold it for 10 seconds. That was a very important part of the game.”
Breen said being an outsider was actually an advantage for him, because he had no preconceived notions of how girls’ basketball was supposed to be played.
“I didn’t like a lot of what I saw,” he said. “I couldn’t understand why the coaches were letting the girls do these things, and I said we’re not going to do that. We played differently than most teams. We contested everything. We made it hard for the other team to advance the ball, especially in the middle third of the floor. Our forwards were also excellent defenders, and that was uncommon at the time.”
In that era, Breen said it was common for a team to lob the ball to their tallest girl and let her do all the scoring. He didn’t like that approach, because he knew Fairfield wouldn’t have a big girl every year. Instead, Breen encouraged a balanced scoring attack using all three forwards, and using both the high post and low post.
Breen said most of his girls had a track background, so they were used to running, an essential part of their full-court pressure.
“We never lost a game because we ran out of gas,” he said. “Our girls were very well conditioned. We did agility exercises and even weightlifting in the 1970s, which almost no girls’ teams did, but we did.”
Hard work pays dividends
By Breen’s fourth year at the helm, the Trojanettes had become a powerhouse. They rattled off 94 home wins in a row, a streak that spanned 12 seasons, starting his fourth year and ending his final year of coaching.
“Nobody outside our conference in Southeast Iowa wanted to play us anymore,” Breen said. “And we didn’t want to play them anyway, because we kept upgrading our schedule. Our nonconference schedule was all against Des Moines and Davenport schools, and that’s who we wanted to play. That was our best preparation for the tournament.”
The Trojanettes were must-see entertainment. Fairfield’s gym only held about 800 people back then, and every home game was a packed house.
“If you weren’t in the gym before the JV team came out, you couldn’t get in,” Breen said. “We had such a loyal following. We probably had 200-300 senior citizens come to every game no matter how big a blowout it would be.”
According to statistics compiled for Breen’s induction into the Parsons College Wall of Honor, he amassed a career record of 334-60 including a sterling conference mark of 97-3, had 13 seasons in a row of at least 20 wins, reached the regional final 11 times, reached the state tournament five years in a row from 1982-1986, and his crowning achievement, a state title in 1983.
Hanging up his spurs
By 1988, Breen had put together a Hall of Fame career and wanted to keep coaching, but his health wouldn’t let him. He decided to step away from coaching. He had developed chronic sore throats and struggled to speak (years later, Breen was diagnosed with throat cancer). He could also see that changes were on the horizon, with the state switching from six-on-six to five-on-five, modeled after the boys’ game.
“Coaching took so much of my time and effort,” he said. “I reached a point where I was so disappointed when we lost, that I felt I had failed the team. Even if we lost to a team where every girl on the floor was bigger and faster than ours, I always knew there was a way we could have won. The losses were ever more devastating to me, and the wins were just a relief.”
In addition to leading the FHS girls’ team to new heights, Breen also started a basketball program for seventh-grade girls during his second year of coaching.
“That became a linchpin to our success,” he said. “We had 50-70 girls in seventh grade, and they played every Saturday morning. I’d referee the games while I was coaching them. That really set us apart, and when they went to eighth grade, we won almost every game, every year.”
Because of this background teaching young kids, Breen was inspired to get back into youth sports after retiring from high school coaching. When his son Collin was little, there were no organized youth sports, so Breen started a basketball program in 2007. According to his Parsons College Wall of Honor induction letter, Breen’s youth basketball program grew to 150 participants and 12 teams. Breen led the youth sports league until his own children started playing in high school, because he didn’t want to miss their games.
Apart from his work with high school and youth sports, Breen is proud of having founded and led a task force to update Fairfield’s recreational facilities, which resulted in the construction of a new outdoor pool in 2015 and a new gymnasium in 2016 at the Roosevelt Community Recreation Center.
“I was really happy with how the pool fit right into the existing facility,” he said. “It looked like it belonged there. I was very happy with all that.”
Breen said he had no idea that a group of people had petitioned the school board to rename the FHS gym in his honor.
“I’m grateful for the recognition,” he said. “People talk about me taking girls to the state tournament, but I always have to correct them, ‘No, they took me to the tournament.’ They had to win the games. I was just there to give them a way to do it.”
Call Andy Hallman at 641-575-0135 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org