Originally created 04/23/04

Auburn hires Fortner as women's basketball coach



AUBURN, Ala. -- Nell Fortner led the United States to an Olympic gold medal and directed a WNBA team for three seasons.

Her next challenge: Replacing Joe Ciampi, Auburn's winningest women's basketball coach.

"He's done so much for women's basketball," Fortner said Thursday of her predecessor. "The neat thing about Joe is he's a great person.

"It may be daunting, but I'm honored. I'm really honored to have that opportunity to follow him."

So honored that she cut short a vacation to Key West, Fla., to come to Auburn and made a quick beeline for the mall for appropriate clothing for an introductory news conference- except for shoes. She wore flip flops.

Fortner is Auburn's second major hire of the past month, joining new men's coach Jeff Lebo.

Ciampi retired after his 25th season, shortly after taking the Tigers to the NCAA tournament for the 16th time. He went 568-203 and led the Tigers to three straight national championship games starting in 1988.

"I know that this program is already in great shape but to take it to another level is the challenge I have before me," Fortner said.

She spent the last three seasons as the head coach and general manager of the WNBA's Indiana Fever, compiling a 42-56 record before resigning in September after failing to make the playoffs.

Fortner was more successful coaching amateurs. She led the U.S. Women's National Team to a 101-14 record from 1997-2000, including gold medals at the 1998 World Championships and the Olympics two years later.

Before that, she led a Purdue team that returned just four players to a Big Ten Conference regular season title in 1997 and was named league coach of the year.

"I missed the college game," Fortner said. "I enjoyed my opportunity in the pros, but the college game is different. I love the players from that age group."

She has served as an ESPN studio analyst since 2001 during the offseason, including the last four NCAA tournaments. Tennessee coach Pat Summitt put that job in perspective when Fortner started pondering a return to the college ranks.

"Pat Summitt told me, 'Nell, you've got a decision to make. Do you want to talk about the game or do you want to coach the game?'

"When she put it that way, I said there's no doubt. I want to coach the game and be back around those players."

Fortner was also an assistant coach for the 1996 Olympic gold medal-winning team that won 52 straight games.

The former Texas player was an assistant under Hall of Fame coach Leon Barmore at Louisiana Tech from 1991-95.

Fortner also helped lead the Texas volleyball team to the 1981 national championship.

"When we started this process, we were looking to find a successor to someone who coached 25 years here at this level," said Hal Baird, athletics assistant to the president. "It's clear to me it's going to take some extra skills, a wide range of success at different levels.

"I don't think anybody exemplifies that or reflects that more than Nell Fortner. I don't know how you could have a whole lot more experience than that."