By: Sean Cartell
SEC Digital Network
NASHVILLE – In the current dynamic of college athletics, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the importance of wins and losses. And, there’s no understating the importance of big victories and championships.
For two coaches who have meant so much to the game of women’s basketball – those wins are a major part of their legacy – but the results on the hardwood aren’t as much a part of their memories as the people and the special moments.
Auburn’s Nell Fortner and Mississippi State’s Sharon Fanning-Otis both closed the chapter on their coaching careers at their respective institutions on Thursday at Bridgestone Arena in the Southeastern Conference Tournament. Despite the losses, the occasion provided a unique opportunity to celebrate the careers of two of the game’s most successful figures.
For Fortner, the experience at Auburn was just what she needed after finishing a stint with the WNBA’s Indiana Fever. The former U.S. National Team Coach, who led the United States to a gold medal at the 2000 Olympic Games, Fortner was the 2009 SEC Coach of the Year, after leading her team to its first SEC regular-season title in 20 years.
“Auburn came into my life at just the right time,” Fortner said. “It was the perfect job for me at just the right time. We had so much fun building that program, just doing a lot of things – winning the SEC Championship in 2009, getting that Coliseum filled up and getting Auburn excited about women’s basketball. I’m most proud of that. I think we’ve recruited fantastic student-athletes; not only are they good people and good basketball players, they’re great in the classroom. I’m so proud of what they’ve done.”
Junior guard Blanche Alverson, the 2012 SEC Scholar-Athlete of the Year and perhaps one of the sport’s best examples of a true student-athlete, said that her coach has meant so much to her and what she has been able to accomplish.
“Coach Fortner was the reason that we all decided to come here,” Alverson said. “When she told us that this would be her final year, we were shocked and upset. A lot of our last few games have just been coming out and playing hard for her, giving it all we’ve got just to finish strong.”
Fanning-Otis concluded a 36-year coaching career, including 17 seasons at Mississippi State, finishes her career with more than 600 career victories.
“I think what makes it so special is the people,” Fanning-Otis said. “With a small college town, usually there is a community that embraces the university. I got involved with church when I first got there and it’s just the friends. I think, in life, as we look back on whatever we do, usually the people we work with, that’s where the memories come from, all the people who you’ve been with, all the players, all the coaches, and anybody that you worked with at the University.”
Mississippi State senior Diamber Johnson said Fanning-Otis has been a major part of her development not only as a player, but as a person.
“I’ve been here for four years and every year you look at my career and it’s grown every year,” Johnson said. “It’s because of this woman here. She’s guided me in every aspect on and off the court, has really helped me become who I am today on and off the court.”
Fanning-Otis knows that the experience of coaching at Mississippi State has been much more meaningful to her than the 608 wins to her name. She will now move into a role with the school’s development office to continue working for the University that she loves.
“I am very thankful for the blessing of being able to continue work with the university,” Fanning-Otis said.
And both schools are very grateful for having the opportunity to work with Fortner and Fanning-Otis. Though their teams may have left the building with losses on Thursday, the sport is better because of the two coaches concluding their careers at their respective institutions this year.