Georgia Tech got real fortunate the day it hired Nell Fortner

Nell Fortner has led Georgia Tech to just its second-ever appearance in the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16, where it will meet South Carolina Sunday. (Danny Karnik/Georgia Tech Athletics)
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Nell Fortner has led Georgia Tech to just its second-ever appearance in the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16, where it will meet South Carolina Sunday. (Danny Karnik/Georgia Tech Athletics)

Credit: Danny Karnik

Credit: Danny Karnik

Whenever the book is closed on Todd Stansbury’s directorship at Georgia Tech – years and years from now; there’s no rush – it may well be said that Nell Fortner was his best, most inspired coaching hire.

Bringing Fortner back from the calm and comfort of a network studio, back to where she belongs, back to where she’s never been better, is beginning to look like nothing less than a coup.

Just look at Tech women’s basketball now in only her second season, still so near the messy and litigious parting with predecessor MaChelle Joseph. On Sunday afternoon, the Yellow Jackets play South Carolina in a Sweet 16 NCAA Tournament matchup. Its their second time ever exploring this deeply into the bracket – Joseph took them there in 2012.

And while South Carolina has become one of the elite in women’s basketball, a 2017 national champion that spent time at No. 1 this season, Fortner is prepared to concede absolutely nothing. Yes, they can go farther.

Asked what coaching tricks she may employ to build belief within her team that it can win Sunday, she said none is necessary.

“First of all, we can (win),” she said. “It’s not hard; it’s not like you’re trying to convince them. The bottom line is that the match-up is a good matchup for us. They’re a strong man-to-man team, and we’re used to playing man-to-man defenses. We’ve played against big post players (South Carolina’s 6-foot-5 Aliyah Boston is a Naismith Trophy finalist and SEC Tournament MVP). We match up with them well. ... It’s not a matter of convincing them. It’s a matter of getting the game plan in place and then making sure we can execute it.”

For all the impressive bullet points in her resume – coaching 2000 Olympic gold-medal team, conference championships in both the Big Ten (Purdue) and the SEC (Auburn), 1997 national coach of the year, 2021 ACC coach of the year – Fortner never has ventured this far into the NCAA Tournament. Yes, even at 62 years old, there are still new frontiers.

Fortner didn’t exactly foresee that it would be this team – the core of which were players Joseph assembled – getting her to the second week of the tournament. “I’ll be honest with you, I did not know what this roster was capable of,” she said of her first impression.

What has made this group special has been the unique international makeup of the roster and the maturity the upperclassmen have imported. Leadership has come from all corners of the globe – their three leading scorers are Lorela Cubaj of Terni, Italy; Lotta-Maj Lahtinen of Helsinki, Finland, and Kierra Fletcher of Warren, Mich. Strange lands all to natives of the South.

They responded quickly to the credibility Fortner brought to the Flats. Just as the coach came to recognize the talent she had to build around. Although we’ll never know, the coach believes the Jackets would have made the COVID-canceled tournament last year. There was no question after a third-place ACC regular-season finish this year, the highest in school history.

“They have a maturity about them. They have a real toughness about them,” Fortner said. “Their leadership has been extremely important throughout the year bringing the freshman class along. They’ve been really focused and driven and a real pleasure to coach.”

The kicker here is that when Fortner decided to leave ESPN – she spent the last Women’s Final Four as a studio analyst – she was determined to come back after seven years away from coaching a more balanced and therefore better person. Having left the profession to catch her breath and find a little peace, she wasn’t about to throw that away at this stage of her life.

The result: Fortner found herself delegating more responsibilities to her staff, trusting them more as she concentrated on getting back to what she most loved about coaching. Hence, she appears to be thoroughly enjoying this tournament run as much as any experience in her long career.

Said Fortner, “I told myself if I’m going to get back in it, I’m not going to let the job control my life. And this profession can do that to you. It can affect you in a tough way and I was not going to let that happen.

“I’m not going to get so stressed out about everything because it’s hard to live that way. I think I’ve done a good job keeping things in perspective, being a better listener, a lot more flexible and more patient. Patience is something I’ve had a lot more of than when I was a younger coach.”

So, she’s even been able to control the stress level here in the win-or-leave-San-Antonio conditions of the tournament?

“Definitely,” she said. “It has made this tournament a lot more fun.”

“Being around the players, giving them confidence, teaching – all of that – is really important to me,” she said. “I missed teaching the game and encouraging kids. These are some physically gifted, bright young women and you want to help send them out into the world in the best possible way. I like doing that.”

No athletic director will ever find someone who more ideally states the coaching mission.

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