In December, I wrote for ESPN.com about Nell Fortner at last really finding a home at Auburn after moving around a lot while coaching at the college, pro and international levels, plus doing broadcasting. There had been quite a few stops.
So many that I even forgot one until a reader reminded me that Fortner had taken the Wisconsin job _ for about four days in May 1994 _ but then changed her mind.
The wanderlust, if one could call it that, wasn’t surprising when you considered that Fortner had moved around a lot growing up as her dad climbed the ranks in his job. Still, it’s interesting to contrast the “two” Nell Fortners, as it were: the one who never seemed quite settled vs. the one who now is planting deep roots at Auburn.
After a 30-4 season _ which made her record over five years with the Tigers 101-57 _ the time was right for Fortner and Auburn to further cement their relationship. They did that with a contract extension, announced April 17, that goes through the next six seasons.
I talked with Fortner recently to discuss all that’s happened in the past few months, including the deal that really secures her future.
“It feels really good,” said Fortner, who was SEC coach of the year. “It’s kind of like you might think the grass is greener on the other side, but if you just stop and water where you are, you find out it’s really nice there.”
With a base salary of $226,800, Fortner’s pay swells to a minimum of $570,000 annually with allowances for incentives based on results. So Fortner is being very well compensated, and says she welcomes the pressure that’s supposed to go along with that.
“The new arena is coming, the expectations have grown,” she said. “But that’s what you want as a coach. You want what you’re doing to be important to the people where you’re at _ important enough that they do have expectations for you.”
The mutual commitment between Auburn and Fortner tells us something not just about that school and that coach, but also the future of the SEC. The league that for many years has garnered the title of “toughest conference,” had the indignity this season of not having any team advance beyond the Sweet 16. Vanderbilt was the last of the seven SEC teams standing the NCAA field, with the Commodores falling to Maryland in the Raleigh regional semifinals.
It was a strange season for the SEC. Tennessee and LSU – one virtually always a Final Four contender, the other having ascended to that level the last six years or so – got clobbered by graduation. That resulted in an unprecedented NCAA first-round loss for Tennessee, against Ball State. LSU, though, actually had nothing to feel too badly about after a second-round loss to eventual national runner-up Louisville.
Georgia, which has been an enigma in recent seasons, fell in the first round. Mississippi State had a gallant effort in Columbus, Ohio, that almost left Ohio State with another disastrous early-tournament loss. But the Buckeyes won that second-round game. Florida had guard Sha Brooks get whistled for three fouls before the national anthem even started (or so it seemed), making the Gators’ impossible task against UConn in the second round even more impossible.
And then there was Auburn, the regular-season champion that had lost the SEC tournament title game to Vanderbilt. The Tigers were still 29-3 after that, but then got hit by one of the biggest stink bombs of Selection Monday.
Fortner knew, of course, as soon as she saw the NCAA Tournament bracket that it was really big trouble: a potential second-round matchup with Rutgers on the Scarlet Knights’ home court. She didn’t pass on those worries to her players, though.
“You can’t be the Grim Reaper before you go up there, but it was a tough situation,” she said. “You have to give them the confidence that, ‘We’re OK. Let’s do the job and go home.’ That’s the way we approached it.”
But the Tigers weren’t OK, and they didn’t do the job. They did go home … and the great season was over, abruptly. The No. 7 seed Scarlet Knights showed themselves as the force that everyone was expecting they would eventually be, and Rutgers throttled the Tigers 80-52.
Fortner steers around controversy in talking about it, which at least publicly is the smart thing to do.
“I haven’t complained about it, I haven’t gone stumping on it,” she said. “Look, we might not have beaten Rutgers on a neutral floor.”
Perhaps not. But Rutgers’ home-court advantage was a huge factor in how that game turned out. And for those who say that a No. 2 should beat a No. 7 on any court, my response is … OK, I won’t use that bit of profanity in my blog.
My edited response is, “Fine. Then let’s make all the No. 2 seeds play on the home court of their opponent in the second round. Same for the No. 1 seeds. Hey, it doesn’t matter, right? The better seed should always win regardless of where the game is, right? Right? Right?”
Seriously, the predetermination mess will have certain random victims each season, and this year it was Auburn and Duke. Next year, it will be somebody else. Suffice to say, Auburn got a terrible break – hardly the “reward” for the season it had – but Fortner focuses on things she wishes she’d done differently to attempt to stop Rutgers’ momentum in certain stretches of that game.
Afterward, she told her players the standard things about not letting the last game define their season and congratulated them on re-igniting interest in Auburn women’s basketball. Then … privately, she stewed about it, of course. If coaches could let go of crushing season-ending losses very easily, they probably wouldn’t be coaches.
Yet Fortner’s voice now sounds upbeat, not at all like, “Oh, no, we missed our window.”
That’s because despite losing seniors DeWanna Bonner, Whitney Boddie, Sherell Hobbs and Trevesha Jackson, Fortner isn’t writing off next season as some dreaded exercise in rebuilding drudgery. Nor is she worried that Auburn can’t be a consistent force in the SEC.
Sure, Auburn took advantage of being one of the more experienced teams in the SEC this past year and benefited from Tennessee and LSU being young. Next season, those two teams seem likely to re-establish themselves back on top, as both had so many rookies go through trial by fire in 2008-2009.
Mississippi State will return five of its top six scorers from this season, led by guard Alexis Rack. Georgia’s recruiting class, with some very strong post players, is ranked No. 6 in the nation by HoopGurlz. At Florida and South Carolina, Amanda Butler and Dawn Staley are high-energy coaches trying to build consistent challengers. Earlier this month, Staley secured star recruit Kelsey Bone, a 6-5 post player, to become the centerpiece of her team.
And Vandy is comparable to Auburn in its need to replace seniors who carried a lot of weight. Fortner understandably went with her seniors a lot. But what she saw of younger players, both in practice and when they got a chance to be on the floor in games, gives her optimism for next season.
“We were so unknown off the bench, I understand that people probably don’t give us much of a chance for next year,” she said. “But I love what I’ve got coming back. I think we’re going to maybe fly under the radar early, but that’s OK. We’ll be that kind of quiet storm.”
The only returning starter for the Tigers will be rising junior Alli Smalley, a guard who averaged 11.1 ppg and led Auburn with 68 3-pointers. Fortner is eager to see what Chantel Hilliard, a 6-2 post player, will do as a sophomore when she gets more playing time. Same for 5-8 point guard Morgan Jennings. Both rookies played in 30 of the Tigers’ 34 games this season and each averaged around 12 minutes.
With such an exodus of seniors, there’s a big recruiting class coming in: five players who fill different needs for Auburn, including a gem of a point guard in Morgan Toles and a 6-8 center in Pascale West. Toles should be able to step in quickly and contribute, while West is a player who will take a little more time to develop. Which is not unusual for posts.
“I’m excited about what she can potentially turn into,” Fortner said of West. “With Morgan, she’s a tremendous athlete with great speed and quickness. She just does a lot of what we need.”
In 6-3 forward Blanche Alverson, the Tigers have a player that Fortner compares to Vandy’s graduating standout Christina Wirth. Auburn’s other two signees are shooting guards Nicolle Thomas and Megan Perkins. These incoming freshmen will play one season in Beard-Eaves-Memorial Coliseum before the Tigers move into their spiffy new arena, which will be a recruiting tool itself.
Auburn, a women’s hoops power in the late 1980s and into the early 1990s, wants to be in that highest tier of teams again. The school is committed, and Fortner is committed. She sees this past season as the breakthrough year in Auburn’s renaissance, something to be continued.
“We worked hard to get the community rallying around this team,” she said. “That was so much fun this year, watching the crowds grow. To hear everything that was being said, the excitement that surrounded the team. Women’s basketball is being talked about at Auburn. It’s important.”