By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
Tasha Butts has just about always had Georgia on her mind, so when Nell Fortner called a just over a month ago, her heart flipped a bit.
Georgia Tech’s new assistant women’s basketball coach grew up in Milledgeville, near Macon, with sublime basketball skills. She was good, really good, a big guard with a touch of bullhead whose skillset took her away from home for nearly two decades.
She played for legendary Tennessee coach Pat Summitt for four years, did a short stint in the WNBA with Minnesota, worked briefly as a graduate assistant back on Rocky Top before playing overseas for a couple years, and then caddied for a year at Duquesne, three years at UCLA and the past eight at LSU.
And then the new coach at Tech called her down on The Bayou, and said, ‘Hey, Tasha, would you like to join my staff?’ or something like that. A heart fluttered.
The chance to work with Fortner, who was coming off a notable run as a broadcaster with ESPN and more notably coached as an assistant in 1996 and as head coach in 2000 for the U.S. Olympic gold medal teams, was pretty darned appealing.
The pull of the Peach State was just as intense. Sure, the title of assistant coach/recruiting coordinator rang bells, but going home, or quite close to it, well, that was a siren with bright, flashing lights. Butts was, without doubt, recruited first by heartstrings.
When it comes to her job of drawing prospects to The Flats, she said, “You can sell Atlanta, you can sell Nell, you can sell Georgia Tech, but I think that the older I get, there are things to me that become more important . . .
“The older I get, family is extremely important to me and to be able to see my family: my mom, my dad, my brother, my seven-year-old nephew who is like my own . . . to be able to see them more than once or twice a year, to me that is something that put it above everything else.”
So, here she is.
Her office is not yet set up at Tech. Butts, 37, has been coming and going quite a bit in the last two months – recruiting and moving — but she has some newly established routines with her kin.
“At the most, I would see them three times a year, but I’ve seen them probably about 10 times in one month since I’ve been home,” she said with a hard smile.
Butts goes full blast at just about everything, and she can be stubborn.
Growing up in Milledgeville, a hotbed for boy’s and girl’s basketball in the late 1980s and ‘90s, she had plenty of role models. Somewhere around eighth grade, when she began traveling with her AAU team – the Atlanta Dream – the big guard took a flight for the first time and landed at a faraway tournament.
She’s not sure if it was Iowa or Nashville, but she remembers Audra Smith being there. At the time, Smith was an assistant coach at Virginia, where she’d played collegiately. Before that, she was a legend in Milledgeville. Later, she became a head coach at UAB and Clemson. She’s now at South Carolina State.
Back in that day, Butts ran up to and hugged Smith without knowing that NCAA recruiting rules prohibited contact – let alone hugs – between coaches and prospects in the summer.
Smith practically pushed Butts away for fear of an NCAA violation, and it wasn’t long before Tasha pushed back on recruiting.
As she worked her way through a wildly successful high school career at Baldwin, Tennessee – the colossus of women’s college basketball – kept calling. Problem was, her aunt, Valerie Freeman, and another Milledgeville legend, Lisa Webb, had already played for UT head coach Pat Summitt.
“I was kind of being defiant. I was like, ‘I’m going to make my path,’” she said of her initial resistance to coach Pat and her staff. “Probably around my sophomore year [in high school] when Mickie DeMoss started calling . . . it really got serious towards my sophomore year, junior year, and I think I committed going into my senior year.”
That went pretty well. The Volunteers won the SEC regular season championship in each of her four seasons, going 51-1 in league play, and in order of her years UT made it to the Sweet 16, the Final Four, and a pair of national runner-up finishes.
A funny thing happened in the winter/spring of 2004, when the coaching seed was planted oddly.
“I got that bug my senior year in college, when our starting point guard, Loree Moore, tore her ACL and I remember calling Pat crying . . . She just looked at me and said, ‘You’re going to have to play point guard,’” Butts remembered.
“I hadn’t played point guard since high school and that’s how I kind of ended up going in a different direction because now I had to be in Pat’s office all the time, whether it was good, bad, whatever. I was always watching film with her, so I saw a different side of the preparation and all the things that the coaches did, which made me appreciate it a little more.”
First, though, she was drafted in 2004 by the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx, and head coach Suzie McConnell-Serio.
After playing as a reserve in almost every game, she returned to Tennessee and spent the better part of a year as a graduate assistant, getting a taste of the coaching life. She wasn’t finished playing, though, and in 2005 took off to play professionally in Europe, chiefly in Portugal and Israel, before trying to work her way back into the WNBA with the Houston Comets.
Her time in coaching was coming fast, though, in 2007.
“Injuries started happening that I didn’t know could happen. In Israel, I tear ligaments in my ankle and had to come home,” she said, “I’m in training camp with the Comets and I pull my quad and my hamstring. Things started happening. I didn’t know the direction I wanted to go.”
When McConnell-Serio tabbed her again, to be an assistant at Duquesne, in Pittsburgh, a career was officially launched.
“I was at the cross roads, and injured and it just so happened that the lady who drafted me into the WNBA, and waived me, Suzie McConnell-Serio, was also the woman who gave me my first coaching job,” Butts recalled.
“She was originally from Pittsburgh, Olympian, gold medalist . . . so when Duquesne came open she got the job and I got lucky to work for her.”
Quickly, she went west.
After one season in the Steel City, another acquaintance, former Tennessee assistant coach Nikki Caldwell Fargas took the head coaching job at UCLA in 2008. She invited Butts to assist, and for three years Tasha worked with perimeter players in Westwood before Fargas took the LSU job. Butts helped coach the Tigers for eight years, and enjoyed Baton Rouge.
The chance to return home, however, was strong and upon investigation Butts came to look at Tech as something of a dream job for a lot more than sentimental reasons.
“With Nell, not even looking at the basketball part, when you meet her and talk to her, you realize that she’s more than just basketball. She’s a person who cares about people, someone who cares about developing relationships,” she said. “The basketball speaks for itself. I’m working for an Olympic assistant and Olympic head coach who’s won gold medals.
“Not too many people can say that. Not too many people can say they coached in the WNBA. Not too many people can say their head coach played basketball and volleyball at the University of Texas, so to me there are a lot of good things.”
It’s been a minute since Tasha grew up playing basketball and softball in middle Georgia. She and her brother, Spencer Jr., developed their games in the old Baldwin Middle School gym, which their father, Spencer, was tasked to clean as a janitor. Her mother, Evelyn, was the driving force behind softball before Tasha went all in on hoops, and left the “outdoor sport” behind.
She’s back in her old neighborhood, or at least within a 90-minute drive of it, and already loving her new address on The Flats. She’s practically overwhelmed by the internships made available to Tech student-athletes, leaping to mention that rising senior guard Chanin Scott is interning this summer at IBM, in Smyrna, and getting paid “extremely well,” to do it.
“When it comes to Tech, I learn stuff every day. The academics is one thing . . . I saw something that said 44 percent of people who graduate from Georgia Tech become millionaires,” Butts said of her new recruiting tools. “I mean if you tell me I have a 50-50 chance of becoming a millionaire, I’m coming.
“To me, one of the biggest things that I have been talking about [with recruits], is that at some point, no matter your skill level, that ball is going to stop bouncing and you want to make sure that you have a degree that is worth it . . . And a Georgia Tech degree is well respected, not only in the state of Georgia, but in the world. That is something that you can recruit to . . .
“We’re recruiting students. We’re not just recruiting athletes . . . I think we have over 110 student-athletes doing internships . . . I don’t know who can even say that. That’s a huge selling point. For us to put them in those situations with businesses after their junior years, with companies that could hire after they graduate, that’s a huge selling point to tell a parent, that probably they will have a job offer after they graduate, you can’t beat that.”