April 23, 2004

Fortner succeeds Ciampi as coach
Leaves ESPN studio to get back in game

Nell Fortner became a familiar face while serving as ESPN's studio analyst for women's basketball, but a recent telephone call from Pat Summitt changed all of that.

"Pat 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?'"

The gentle nudging by the Tennessee coach pushed Fortner off the television set and back into college coaching. Auburn University introduced Fortner as its new women's coach Thursday to end a three-week search to find a successor to Joe Ciampi.

Fortner's experience is deep. She's served as an ESPN analyst since 2001, she led the United States to gold medals in the 1998 World Championships and the 2000 Olympics, she was the coach and general manager of the Indiana Fever of the WNBA from 2001-2003 and led Purdue to a Big Ten title in 1997. She was an All-American player at Texas and served as an assistant coach at two of women's basketball storied programs in Louisiana Tech and Stephen F. Austin.

Fortner has agreed to the principles of a five-year contract, which is expected to pay her more than $300,000 annually. Fortner said she would announce her coaching staff later.

"She's a big name for our program and she'll help get us some good recruits in," said Auburn center Marita Payne.

Fortner said she came back because she missed the college game.

"I enjoyed my opportunities in the pros, but the college game is different," Fortner said. "I love the players from that age group. There's so much growing and development for them."

Auburn was successful under Ciampi, making the NCAA Tournament 16 times. Fortner said she hopes to build on that.

"I know this program is already in great shape, but to take it to another level is the challenge," she said. "It's something I look forward to."

Fortner will differ from Ciampi in style of play. While Ciampi stressed defense and a methodical offense, Fortner promises an up-tempo game

"I think it's a fun game, I think kids like to play that way and fans like to watch it," Fortner said. "Those are the kind of players I will try to get in here."

She'll have plenty of opportunities to mold the team in her image. The Tigers have up to six scholarships to give this spring signing period, which began last week.

"I've already been on the phone to find out where there are some players," Fortner said, an hour after being whisked away from her Florida vacation. After a brief press conference, Fortner met with her new team.

The players were impressed.

"She is really keen on getting everyone on the floor as soon as possible, and that's really exciting," said forward Louise Emeagi. "The fact she mentioned within minutes of having met us about the prospect of fighting for a championship...someone brings that positive feel, it gives you a season of confidence."

Fortner's promise of an up-tempo game was also a big hit.

"The teams that are more aggressive have a chance to intimidate the other team and they can set the tempo," said guard Nitasha Brown. "She said she's looking for a team that can score and play pressure defense, and I think we're ready for that. We want to set the tempo and be the aggressors."

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