By: Sean Cartell
SEC Digital Network
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Standing at midcourt at the Pepsi Center in Denver this past April, Nell Fortner had to take a step back to remember why she was being honored.
As she looked to her right, there stood Van Chancellor, the former Ole Miss and LSU head coach who had been the architect of the four-title dynasty of the WNBA’s Houston Comets. To her left stood longtime UCLA head coach Billie Moore and the legendary Pat Summitt, she of 38 years at Tennessee and eight NCAA titles.
Surely, she thought, she didn’t belong among this elite group.
“What am I doing here?” Fortner asked herself.
A common bond linked all of the legendary coaches in her company. They had all had the opportunity to serve as head coach of Team USA women’s basketball in the Olympic Games at one point in their careers.
For Fortner, who guided Team USA to the gold medal in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia, and later coached Auburn from 2004-2012, it was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.
“For me personally, it had been one of my goals since I had been a young player,” Fortner said. “I knew I wanted to be a coach and one of my goals early on was to coach the Olympic team. I had the opportunity to be an assistant in 1996 and then, in 2000, it was a dream come true for one of the goals I had set for myself. It was just phenomenal.”
In fact, one might look at Fortner’s entire career as a dream fulfilled.
Fortner was an early product of Title IX, earning a two-sport scholarship in both basketball and volleyball at the University of Texas, where she competed from 1978-81. While in Austin, she helped the basketball Longhorns to their first national ranking and a seventh-place showing in the AIAW Tournament.
Fortner still ranks fourth all-time in career games played (142) and 10th all-time in career field goals made (658) at Texas, where she was the leading scorer with 13.7 points per game during the 1979-80 season. During her playing days, the Longhorns compiled an impressive 127-26 (.830) record. She also helped the Texas volleyball team capture the 1981 AIAW Championship.
She leaped onto the international basketball scene as a freshman and a member of the 1978 U.S. Olympic Festival South team, which captured a silver medal.
Fortner started her career in coaching as the girls basketball coach at Killeen High School in Texas and then moved on to assistant coaching positions at Stephen F. Austin under Gary Blair and Louisiana Tech under Leon Barmore, before being named the head coach at Purdue in 1996.
It was in 1995 when the beginnings of Fortner’s Olympic dream became a reality.
She was selected to become an assistant coach for Team USA under Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer. During her two-year stretch as an assistant with USA Basketball, the United States charted a perfect 52-0 record, including capturing the gold medal at the 1996 Olympic Games.
Fortner developed a reputation for her prowess in scouting and preparing for opponents during her work as a Team USA assistant coach.
“When I did my year with the national team in 1995-96, it gave me the opportunity to scout every team that we played in the Olympics,” Fortner said. “When we were traveling around the world and training the team, I had to be very familiar with the opponents and what the rest of the world had.”
That experience provided Fortner the necessary qualifications needed to become Team USA’s next head coach, a position she was tabbed for on April 1, 1997. She departed Purdue to focus full time on her job with USA Basketball and it paid dividends, as she became their all-time winningest women’s basketball coach with 101 victories.
“When it came time for the U.S. to figure out who the next coach was going to be, I was very familiar with the current USA players and the talent pool in this country, as well as the rest of the world,” Fortner said. “At the time, we had the ABL and the WNBA in existence, so from 1997-2000, we had players who were playing in two different leagues. We had six players on our team from the ABL and six from the WNBA, so we had to have consistency in the coaching to train those players at different times of the year. That’s why I was definitely in the pool: I was a young head coach with international experience and I wasn’t so entrenched in my current college job that I couldn’t take three years off to train Team USA.”
Even though Fortner had been given the opportunity to do something she had only once imagined, the job provided its fair share of challenges and stresses. With opportunity came responsibility, and the expectations were palpable, especially considering Team USA had won gold at three of the previous four Olympic Games heading into 2000.
“When I was going through it, it’s very stressful because winning is the only outcome acceptable,” Fortner said. “There’s a lot of stress on the head coach for sure. People watch the games and think you’re up by 20 points, no one is going to get close to you, but you don’t feel that as a head coach. You’re worried about everything.”
There was also the adjustment between coaching college basketball and coaching international basketball. The environment was less controlled; the players had to assume more accountability.
“With a college team, you kind of have your thumb on them 12 months out of the year and you know everything about them and what’s going on,” Fortner said. “The hardest thing with the national team is that you don’t know what’s going on so you have to keep tabs on them and make sure they’re doing the little things that are going to help them when everyone comes together.
“I think one of the things that helps with the national team is that they’re professional athletes and the know how to take care of their bodies to be at the top of their game wherever they’re playing,” Fortner continued. “They take great pride in how they conduct themselves and show themselves in public because they want to be great and want to show their greatness. That’s important as far as when all 12 of them come together. They take great pride in representing themselves and that makes it a little easier.”
While Fortner spent most of her time at the 2000 Olympic Games focused solely on coaching, she also made sure she took time to enjoy the experience of a lifetime.
“The Opening Ceremonies were fantastic in Australia,” Fortner said. “I really enjoyed it and it’s fun being around all the other athletes and all the other countries. You’re on your feet for a long time, so as coaches, you start to get worried about your players being tired because you play the next day. But you get so much energy from the Opening Ceremonies, it seems like it carries you right through to the game. When I was the Olympic coach in 2000, I really didn’t go and see much, though. You’re so focused and so intense, it’s hard to go relax in the middle of the Olympics.”
Fortner’s team had little trouble paving its path to the gold medal in 2000, largely due to her meticulous preparation and a team consisting of some of the best players to ever play the game – including five former Southeastern Conference standouts.
The United States defeated home-standing Australia 76-54 in the gold-medal game.
Fortner could finally relax.
“There was a point in the title game against Australia when I looked up at the clock around the seven-and-a-half minute mark and we were up by 20 or 25 and I knew we were going to win,” Fortner said. “Australia was the second-best team in the world, they were playing in their home country and there were 20,000 Australians in the stand. We were rolling, but I couldn’t say that to the team, but inside it felt so good. When the game was finally over, that was the best experience at the Olympics because all the stress, worry and preparation had given us a gold medal and I was extremely happy. The plane ride home was a charter 747 and we were riding home with the men’s team and everyone was a family. We had a lot of fun in the sky.”
Fortner has recently retired from coaching the game of basketball after eight seasons as head coach at Auburn. During her tenure, she led the Tigers to a 145-106 overall record, the 2009 SEC regular-season crown and four post-season berths.
She will enjoy watching this gold-medal game from her television. And there will be no bigger fan of Team USA than Fortner.
“Watching this 2012, it seems like nobody is going to get within 30 points of them,” Fortner said. “When you’re far away, it’s so easy to say that. Of course, when you’re going through it, it’s not easy to think in those terms. The 2012 team is phenomenal and it’s hard to imagine any other country beating them.”