#TGW: Nell Being Nell
Coach Nell Fortner back to doing what she does, the way she’s always done it
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
Nell Fortner didn’t notice anything different last Wednesday, when she took her place in the head coach’s chair at McCamish Pavilion as Georgia Tech women’s basketball head coach during an exhibition game against Clayton State. It was her first game as Yellow Jackets head coach and her first as a head coach in seven years.
Her being relaxed had nothing to do with the opposition being D-II Clayton State of the Peach Belt Conference, that the game was a relatively easy 73-35 win, or that it was an exhibition game and didn’t count. That last point is one best not offered up to her.
“I’m a competitive person. I want to win all the time. I want to win the day, that’s the first thing. I want to win every day as far as working hard and getting things accomplished and making this team better,” she said. “It’s like riding a bike. That’s what it felt like. You’re making decisions, you’re watching the game, you’re adjusting, you’re doing some things. It felt really good.”
It also felt normal. Fortner, named the program’s sixth coach on April 9, 2019, expects to feel really good and right at home Tuesday night when Georgia Tech takes on Houston in its 2019-20 season opener. So what if it’s her first game as a head coach since March 1, 2012, when her Auburn Tigers lost to Florida in the first round of the SEC Tournament?
Winning is in Fortner’s DNA and it didn’t leave her during her seven years working as an analyst for ESPN, where she brought the kind of insight sitting under the hot lights that she brought sitting on the hot seat.
You don’t forget how to win when you own a career 62 percent winning percentage (305-187) with nine years at Purdue (1996-97), Auburn (2004-12), and for the U.S. Women’s National Team, where she won 87.8 percent of her games (101-14), the winningest record in National Team history. She also proved she could win championships. She’s led teams to Big Ten (1997) and SEC championships (2009), Olympic Gold (2000 at the Sydney, Australia Games) a World Championship (1998, in Berlin) and the William Jones Cup (1998 in Taipei, Taiwan).
Sitting courtside actually proved useful and made the transition back to the coach’s seat easier.
“I think I was just naturally comfortable on the floor. It wasn’t having to get back to it,” she said. “Everything that I’ve done from the time I took this job has just felt as it should be. I never felt like I really left. Because I’ve stayed around the game for so long, it just felt natural to be right back in it.”
That doesn’t mean she’s the same.
“I think I’m a little wiser coach,” she said. “I don’t get as upset about things as I did when I was coaching before. I have more of a tendency to assess a little better and not get as excited on the negative side as quickly. It’s more about guiding this team. We have some experienced players that you just need to guide a little bit. It’s not so much about motivating them. It’s guiding and helping them in the right direction, make the right decisions at the right time.”
Fortner believed April was the right time to get back into coaching and, eight months later, she’s positive she’s in the right place. She’s seen how the game has changed and the changes in those that play the game.
“Kids aren’t different. 18-to-22-year-old kids are the same. They still are only that age and they only have that much growth, they only have that much maturity. So they need guidance, they need leadership, they need discipline, they need encouragement,” she said. “But their world moves a lot faster than it did when I was here. That’s the biggest difference.
“Their ability to have to take in a lot of information at a really fast pace all day long is amazing to me. But that’s the world they live in,” she continued. “So to be able to manage that when they get on the floor, when you get them in the film room, when you get them in the weight room, that’s the difference — that you can help them manage some of that information overload but that’s how they live. When they get between the lines on the court, my expectations of them are to give me their attention and to bring it for basketball in between those lines for 2 ½ hours every day. Then, after that, wow, their world takes off. It’s amazing to me.”
That first 2 ½-hour lesson comes against Houston. The Cougars will look for a fast start coming off their first 20-win season since 2010-11 and return their top two scorers, senior guard Jasmyn Harris and junior guard Angela Harris, both all-American Athletic Conference last season and Preseason all-AAC heading into this one.
Tech counters with senior guard Francesca Pan, former ACC Freshman of the Year, junior point Kierra Fletcher, burgeoning big, junior Lorela Cubaj, a star on the Italian National Team over the summer, sophomore guard Lotta-Maj Lahtinen, who successfully ran the point for the Finnish National Team this summer, and a big freshman class, featuring 6-5 center Nerea Hermosa, from Spain, and a young but hungry group, which will be expected to play their roles.
“The bench is going to have to come through for us, there’s no question,” Fortner said. “They’re going to have to be able to come in and step up and be difference-makers for us.”
Fortner is as amazed at the road she, her staff and her team have already traveled.
“I can’t believe it’s going on eight months since I got the job. Wow!” she said. “It’s fun to be at this part in time, starting the season. I’m looking forward to (tonight). The University of Houston is a really talented team that can put a lot of pressure on you and get up and down the floor at a very rapid pace, so it’s going to be a real challenge for us and it will be interesting to see where we are at this point in time.”
Precedent says the Jackets should be in a good place come Wednesday morning, as Fortner has been on the short end of only one opening-night game in her head coaching career. That came in 2004, her first season at Auburn, in a neutral-site game to Wisconsin-Green Bay — those Tigers would start 0-2, before reeling off nine straight wins — and she has never lost a home-opener.
She does not plan on suffering that first ‘L’ in her home opener on The Flats. She has big plans for the ‘19-20 Jackets but will be patient with this team, especially early on.
Fortner will measure that progress and set her expectations by following her instincts and her vision and those of her staff. Thus, being picked 11th by ACC coaches and 12th by the media in preseason polls barely created a ripple of concern.
“I can see where that would happen and I’ve got no problem with it,” she said. “It doesn’t mean anything to me or to us as a team. We work hard every day. That’s not our expectation. That’s what matters most.
“I can’t say that we have an identity yet. I think teams kind of discover that as the year goes on,” she added. “But the one thing that we do want to put on the floor is we work hard, we stay together as a team. We don’t walk, we don’t do things without great effort. We just want to be a hard-working, hard-playing team, and a team. We want to be the best team we can be.”
Starting tonight, she will be the best coach she can be for Georgia Tech. That’s a pretty darned good one and one who’ll calmly adjust to anything thrown at her, as she’s probably already seen and handled it.
“You know I don’t have pregame butterflies,” she said. “I’m excited. They’re not butterflies. It’s an excitement. I’m looking forward to getting the season started and getting going.”