Fabianich Still Spreading Joy in Skyhawk Athletics
Story by Ryne Rickman
“Did you see this?”
That four-word phrase has been uttered thousands of times over the years, accompanied by the hand gesture that features the index finger and thumbs connecting to form a circle. The signal can occur spontaneously while speaking with Danelle Fabianich (‘97), who intently checks to see if her audience wanders their eyes to her target, usually held below the waist.
“We called that ‘Hoops’ when I was in junior high school, and I’ve played it all my life,” Fabianich said. “You would show the hoop to somebody, and if they looked, you got to playfully jab them in the arm. I always joked that our student-athletes can’t graduate until they quit looking. It’s silly, but it speaks to kids, and it’s a great icebreaker. People have gotten really creative over the years, and I still exchange the sign with former student-athletes when I see them. It’s just a shameless plug for them to keep me in their lives.”
Spend five minutes with Fabianich, and you know that she likes to keep things lighthearted. However, her professional career is no laughing matter, as the senior associate athletic director for administration is one of the most respected members on the UT Martin campus.
Fabianich’s titles since joining UT Martin have included senior woman administrator (a designation she still holds), senior secretary for women’s athletics, business manager, assistant athletic director for administration and assistant athletic director for academics and student-athlete services. She is also the adviser for UT Martin’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) organization, which runs successful annual community service projects like the “Blood Battle,” “Can Caravan” and “Hoops for Heroes” initiative.
“I completely trust Danelle in all aspects of our department,” Skyhawk Athletic Director Kurt McGuffin said. “There’s no bigger fan of the Skyhawks than Danelle, and she’s a good one to have on your side in any situation. She has an innate way of connecting with student-athletes both past and present. When they come back to visit campus, they often make her office one of their first stops. She has made so many lifelong friendships with our alumni, and that speaks volumes to the impact she’s had on their lives.”
Not bad for a career she never envisioned happening.
“It’s funny because I played sports in college, my dad was a coach, and I was married to a coach, but I never in a million years thought that I wanted a career in athletics. But it surprises me every day; it’s such a cool job,” Fabianich said.
Fabianich’s route to UT Martin began in August 1994. She had spent two years in Knoxville working at the University of Tennessee Transportation Research Center while her then-husband, Drew, was a graduate assistant football coach for the Volunteers. When her husband earned the co-defensive coordinator position alongside Mike MacIntyre at UT Martin in January 1993, Fabianich stayed back in Knoxville while she was pregnant with the couple’s first child, Ashleigh.
“I tried the ‘stay-at-home-mom’ thing for 18 months, and it wasn’t for me,” Fabianich said. “I finally moved to Martin, and there was a job open as a secretary for women’s athletics. I interviewed with Benny Hollis, who was the new athletic director at the time. I’ve been lucky to work my way through the system.”
It was the start of an extremely busy stretch of time for Fabianich. Her second child Dominic was born in 1996, and she obtained her master’s degree from UT Martin a year later. She was working three jobs and was tempted by a teaching opportunity when she had a meeting with Phil Dane (MBA, ‘84) at the campus cafeteria.
“Mr. Hollis was retiring, and Phil was coming over from being the chief business officer on campus to be our next athletic director,” Fabianich said. “There was a teaching job at a local high school. I loved athletics and wanted to stay, but I went to school to be a teacher, and I knew that would pay more than my secretary job. I talked with Phil, and he hired me as the business manager for athletics.”
Fabianich estimates it took her about six years before she felt comfortable in her new role but was thankful for the guidance she received from Dane, who served as UT Martin’s athletic director from 2000-13 as part of a Hall of Fame career.
“Closing up the books is hard, and to be good at that, you have to be able to sit still and be quiet – neither of those are skills I possess,” Fabianich said with a laugh. “Phil was a great teacher; I learned his philosophy of how to do things. He would give me a list of things to work on until I mastered them.”
It was her work ethic that caught the attention of Dane.
“Danelle was one of the hardest workers I ever worked with,” Dane said. “But her concern for student-athlete welfare was unmatched. She would spend time listening to their concerns when she knew she had other tasks to complete. With that said, she always completed her assignments, even if it meant working weekends, nights and holidays.”
“I’m not always here early, but I’ve been known to be in the office at 5 a.m.,” Fabianich said. “I try to be a good planner – I have a set schedule with meetings that happen sporadically throughout the day, but it’s a constant juggle. My days never end at 5 p.m. In fact, I always joke when everybody’s packing up to go home that I am starting up my second shift.”
No matter the time or the day, Fabianich has been known to drop what she is doing to assist a student-athlete in need. There’s been a running joke that she is the official “Martin Mom” to many student-athletes, which is a designation that Fabianich literally embraces.
“This is a self-declared title, but I am the official hugger of UT Martin athletics,” Fabianich said. “Your coaches, teammates and friends aren’t going to hug you like your momma does. It’s tough being away from home, and I realize that sometimes kids just need that release and know that everything’s going to be ok. Every student-athlete deserves somebody in the stands who is rooting for them. There’s so much pressure on them to be perfect, but at the end of the day they’re 18 – 22-year-old kids, and that’s not going to happen every time. I’m still going to absolutely adore them and be there for them, win or lose.”
A pair of former UT Martin student-athletes are quick to credit Fabianich with their success not only during their time on campus but in life after college.
“I knew I could count on Danelle for anything, including the tough love that I sometimes needed to hear,” said former Skyhawk cheerleader Stephanie Blount (‘10, ‘12), who also served as a student-worker under Fabianich when she was the business manager. “Danelle has never met a stranger, and she loves fiercely. She goes out of her way to pay attention to and engage with others no matter how busy she is. The time I spent under Danelle’s mentorship taught me many things that that have helped me in the real world, but the most significant has been the importance of relationships and connections.”
“Danelle means a lot to me,” said former UT Martin men’s basketball student-athlete Daron Hood (‘11). “From the time that I first stepped on campus in the summer of 2006, she made me feel at home and that I had family there. She was always there for me, no matter what the situation was. If I was struggling in class, on the court, or just in life, I knew that I could walk down to her office and have an honest heart-to-heart conversation with her, and everything would be fine.”
The COVID-19 pandemic rocking the world of collegiate athletics since March 2020 put a temporary pause on the hugging. Fabianich joked that one student-athlete was so concerned about the lack of hugs in her future that he made a welfare check phone call to her last May.
However, the pandemic served as a blessing in disguise as the unofficial “Martin Mom” to the student-athletes has been able to spend more time with her own kids. Her daughter Ashleigh’s company has gone remote, and she has moved back into her childhood home. Her son, Dominic, is taking his UT Martin courses online from home.
“It’s the craziest thing – we’ve gone back to where we were,” Fabianich said. “I am in such a great place right now because when my kids were little, I’d be working, and they’d be sleeping on the couches out in the lobby of the athletics suite. I’ve gotten to go back and have a little bit of a redo. Most days of the week, we all three sit and have dinner together, which we never did when they were kids.”
Through 26 years as a Skyhawk, Fabianich has a plethora of memories. She’s seen 54 conference championship squads stroll through UT Martin during her tenure. On an individual basis, she quickly recalls when Skyhawk soccer alum Emily Miller Land defeated osteosarcoma bone cancer and was one of only three student-athletes to win the NCAA Inspiration Award in 2004.
Fabianich’s top memory was when UT Martin became the first collegiate team east of the Mississippi River to win the national men’s rodeo championship in 2014.
“That was the most amazing thing I have ever been a part of,” Fabianich said. “I was so fortunate to be there in Casper, Wyoming, when we won. It was so surreal because in other sports when you win, everybody runs around going crazy and yelling. In rodeo, you don’t know right away; they have to tally the scores. The arena was emptying out and there’s not a big announcement or anything. It was the most quiet, subdued celebration, and I’m a tacky person, so I had to hold in my screams. It was so neat because that was such a great group of guys, and there’s no better person on this earth than our head coach, John Luthi.”
For all of the highlights, Fabianich remembers the heartbreaks as well. She’s one of the first people to share a tear with the student-athletes after a tough loss. A pair of occasions recur every year that particularly hit her deep.
“I joke around that my least favorite two days of the year are Senior Day and graduation,” Fabianich said. “Of course, we all love both of those, but the reality hits me that the student-athletes won’t be bopping in to say hello, take my phone and leave funny pictures or leave notes on my desk anymore. I have a hard time with that. I’m an attacher, and I swear that I will never, ever love a class more. Then the next wave of freshmen comes in, and we start all over again.”
Fabianich’s impressive body of work was culminated in January 2019 when she was named a recipient of the Ohio Valley Conference Thurston Banks Award for Distinguished Academic Service. The award recognizes individuals for their outstanding contributions to OVC student-athletes’ academic success, learning and development as well as for their overall commitment to the institution’s athletics program. The namesake of the award is Dr. Thurston Banks, an OVC Hall of Famer who was the faculty athletic representative at Tennessee Tech University for 25 years. Fabianich was just the second Skyhawk recipient of the prestigious award, joining Dr. Nell Gullett who received the award in 2016.
“Winning the Thurston Banks Award was pretty special,” Fabianich said. “To say that I’m in the same company as Dr. Banks and Dr. Gullett is such a humbling honor. Dr. Gullett was such a big part of me getting my master’s. I don’t know what she saw in me, but she invested in me. When things were hard, she encouraged me. I remember when I walked at graduation, I turned the corner to go down the main aisle and Dr. Gullett was right there on the corner. She bowed her head to me, and I lost it. People who go the extra mile to be involved in the student-athlete’s lives, they don’t do it because they’re trying to win an award. You do it because it’s what you love.”
Fabianich’s love for UT Martin meets no match. Her glowing personality and enthusiasm for the job are still as evident today as they were in 1994.
“I would do anything for this place,” Fabianich said. “UT Martin is a sweet little community, and the people here are precious. When they say they’re glad to see you or ask how your day is, they mean it. We’re the campus that cares; I got here and fell in love with it. I still skip through the doors every morning with a smile on my face. The thing that has always driven me is hoping to make a difference in someone’s life, that’s what gets me up in the morning. I feel so blessed to be a part of so many great experiences here.”