Last fall, as her seventh college basketball season away from coaching was beginning, Nell Fortner began to feel the call back to the bench. That feeling only grew more certain as the season went on, as the former coach of the U.S. national team and Auburn traveled the country calling games for ESPN.
“Not that I spent a lot of time just thinking about it and harping on it and whatever,” she said. “But I knew I was wanting to get back in the business, and had some conversations with some coaches, and they were like, oh, God. Do it.”
Fortner’s reignited passion led her to the Edge Center on Wednesday afternoon, when she was introduced as Georgia Tech’s new coach, the sixth in team history. Fortner, 60, has a five-year contract, a talented roster she is hustling to keep intact and a potentially unsteady transition she’ll be tasked with overseeing. Fortner replaces MaChelle Joseph, who was fired two weeks ago after an investigation into her conduct found that players said that she was verbally, mentally and emotionally abusive and that none of them trusted her. (Joseph has denied the charges of abuse.)
As Tech began its search, Fortner had a representative reach out to deputy AD Mark Rountree (she was an assistant coach at Louisiana Tech 1990-95, during which time he was there as director of academic support) to indicate her interest. A meeting was set up for Thursday at the women’s Final Four in Tampa, Fla., where she was on the broadcast team for the games. Fortner was one of about 15 candidates considered, athletic director Todd Stansbury said.
Her resume packs a punch – she led Purdue and Auburn to shared conference regular-season championships, was a head coach and general manager in the WNBA, was an assistant on the victorious U.S. team in the 1996 Olympics and was head coach for the gold-medal team in 2000.
But Stansbury wanted to make sure Fortner was ready to go all in on coaching.
“I knew she had a pretty good gig, and so that was something that we definitely discussed, and it was pretty apparent that she really missed the development of young people piece that coaching brings,” Stansbury said.
Fortner said she had considered other opportunities to return before this hiring cycle – Tech was the only job she considered this time around – but said she wasn’t ready.
“I was really enjoying my time at ESPN,” she said. “I just wasn’t ready. That’s why I go back and say it had to be a situation that I felt like could be a good fit and after the first meeting (with Stansbury and his staff), I knew it could be a good fit. This was the right time and place.”
The offer was extended Saturday night in a meeting with Stansbury, as Fortner tried to keep her interview a secret from the army of ESPN employees in Tampa. Following the broadcast of the championship game on Sunday, she accepted Monday.
She will need to get started quickly. At least three players (all starters) are in the transfer portal, although all but two team members were at the news conference Wednesday, and the missing two were in Greensboro, N.C., to receive a community-service award from the ACC on behalf of the athletic department. Fortner was about two minutes into her opening comments when she said that her No. 1 priority will be to keep the roster intact.
“I think this is an extremely talented roster,” Fortner said. “It’s full of potential.”
Stansbury went so far as to call it a team capable of making the Sweet 16, a destination that Tech has reached once in team history.
It won’t be her first experience managing such a situation. Her first college head-coaching job, at Purdue in 1996, followed a rocky separation between the school and coach Lin Dunn (and Joseph, who was an assistant).
“One of the things that I was definitely looking for was a person that had experience transitioning a team,” Stansbury said. “And those of course, there can be all kinds of reasons for that. Her experience having been through this before definitely is something that just added to her holster.”
Stansbury also saw Fortner’s time away from coaching spent with ESPN as a positive, as her job has entailed talking with coaches, picking their brains and observing their practices.
“So it’s almost the best of all worlds in that you’ve got an established coach who is well-respected at every level and then has taken the time to really step back and analyze the game in a way most coaches don’t have the time to analyze,” he said.
Fortner chose to steer clear of commenting on Joseph and the situation surrounding her dismissal.
“I don’t know anything,” she said. “But how I look at this is, it’s not about that for me. I’m the new coach here, so everything to me is looking ahead.”
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