By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
Nell Fortner looked all snazzy Wednesday afternoon when she was introduced as Georgia Tech’s sixth women’s basketball coach while wearing a white suit, which wasn’t at all the way she appeared as she began her interview process a few days earlier in a “sweat suit.”
But hey, this is about transition, as Fortner is returning to coaching after seven years as a broadcaster, so maybe it’s no surprise that she described her week bridging from one profession to another as “a merry-go-round.”
Truthfully, before this spin could even begin, a switch had to be flipped.
Fortner was happy with ESPN from 2012, still near the game where she coached collegiately for a year at Purdue before coaching the U.S. Women’s National team from 1998-2000 (to an Olympic gold medal), running the WNBA’s Indiana Fever from 2000-‘03 and then helming Auburn’s program from 2004-‘12.
Fortner is not on The Flats because Tech pulled her away from the mic and camera.
She got an itch last fall, though, and wanted all the way back in the game.
“I never left the game. I was re-charging my battery,” she recalled of the past season. “This year I got bit; I got bit bad by the coaching bug and said I need to jump back in this thing but the only way I’m going to do that is in the right situation.”
Before diving into her work at the Final Four, Fortner last week contacted Tech deputy director of athletics Mark Rountree, whom she worked alongside when she was an assistant at Louisiana Tech from 1990-’95 while Rountree was director of academic support there.
“I did have someone reach out to him because I wanted them to know (she would be interested in the job) because I had been out so long,” she said. “I don’t think it’s the natural thing to go, ‘Oh, let’s call,’ when she’s been at ESPN so long. So, I had a couple people reach out to Mark and that’s where it started.”
Not surprisingly, one of Stansbury’s questions for Fortner was, why do you want to do this?
“Re-upping for coaching is significant, and I knew she had a pretty good gig so that was something that we definitely discussed,” he said. “It was pretty apparent that she really missed the development of young people piece that coaching brings.”
Even before Stansbury had the chance to ask that question, he and a sizable portion of the athletic department’s senior staff traveled to Tampa last Thursday to meet with Fortner. Meanwhile, another chunk of staff traveled to the men’s Final Four in Minneapolis, ostensibly because Tech will be host to next year’s men’s Final Four in Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
They went for a dry run, so to speak.
Fortner wasn’t dry for her first interview in Tampa, last Friday.
“If you could have seen the first meeting between us . . . let me tell you I was in a warmup suit. I had come straight from practice with one of the Final Four teams and they’re like, ‘Nell, we don’t care how you’re dressed, just get here,’” she recalled.
“I get to the hotel. There’s no air conditioner in this room. It’s burning hot in this room. Todd is in a cab listening to the first part of the interview on the speaker phone on his cellphone and it’s me, Joeleen (Akin), Mark (Rountree) and Marvin (Lewis) talking. He gets there, and he’s pretty much in a warmup suit and it makes me feel pretty good.”
Everybody seemed to swell after that interview.
Stansbury called Tech president Bud Peterson in Atlanta and said as much.
“I don’t know that there’s another president in the country that you could call on Friday night and they’re in Tampa first thing Saturday morning so they could talk to the candidate that you’ve identified, so I really appreciate that,” he said of Peterson.
Fortner said, “When I walked out of the room, I knew that this could be the right fit if we could make this happen because I’m a people person first.”
Another interview, and Stansbury and company made up their minds.
“I extended the offer Saturday because my real ambitious hope was once I knew that she was the coach I wanted that I could potentially get this thing done prior to the start of the championship game (Sunday) knowing that would be a pretty good platform for the coach to be recognized,” he said. “But she was very, very busy and we weren’t able to do it (that fast).”
By Monday, Fortner accepted.
She’ll tell you that she treasures the academic mission of The Institute, loves the roster and has already started recruiting it all over again to dissuade transfer considerations. Fortner predicts filling her staff by next week.
“My No. 1 priority is the players on this team right now, and keeping this team and this roster intact,” she said shortly into her first public address. “That’s my No. 1 priority, and I look forward to getting to work – not just myself but my staff – so we can do what’s necessary to make sure this team stays together.”
All but two members of the team were at the press conference while senior Martine Fortune and junior Chanin Scott were in Greensboro receiving ACC awards.
“I think it’s a great sign (all team members were present), but I’m not surprised,” Stansbury said. “They really have taken it upon themselves to maintain themselves as a team (with men’s head coach Josh Pastner offering to run women’s workouts in recent weeks).
“They’re still practicing, doing all the things they would normally do, so seeing them here today was obviously a beautiful thing but not totally unexpected.”
The nature of Tech’s roster factored in Stansbury’s coach search. He said, “we cast a very, very wide net,” and considered about 15 candidates before choosing perhaps the one most experienced.
“This is not a rebuild. I wanted somebody that I felt could navigate the situation of trying to pull a team back together and it’s a team that could be good right away,” he explained. “I was really looking more at breadth of experience knowing that our team in my mind is a Sweet 16 team . . .
“When I asked her why she wanted this job, she said, ‘Because I want to make a difference,’ and at Georgia Tech that’s what we do. We make a difference by developing young people who will change the world.”
As several members of the athletics staff scrambled to return Tuesday from Minneapolis to Atlanta while the airport there was jammed, she scuffled to line up attire for her introduction.
“What I’m really nervous about is spilling something on this white suit. I don’t wear a lot of white, but I was trying to get my Georgia Tech colors together (and) I don’t wear a lot of this color blue on TV; I wear a little different shade. So, I had to work really hard to get this together.
“Thank you, Karen, Todd’s wife, for the necklace so I could get some gold . . . I know that gold is very important.”