Fortner Fitting In At Auburn

FAYETTEVILLE -- Joe Ciampi's retirement after 25 seasons as the Auburn women's basketball coach came at a good time for Nell Fortner.

A former Purdue coach who directed the U.S. Olympic team to a gold medal in 2000 and then coached the Indiana Fever while also working in television, Fortner was ready to don the whistle again.

"I had some long, hard 20-hour days in the studio," she said.

Ole Miss coach Carol Ross, a former Auburn assistant who tried the coaching sabbatical route herself, had been telling Fortner to keep an eye on the Auburn job if it ever came open.

"Carol told me it was the best job in the SEC," Fortner said.

Kentucky coach Mickie DeMoss put a similar bug in Fortner's ear.

"I always told her the college game is where she belongs," DeMoss said. "She's from Mississippi and Texas. Auburn is a good fit for her. I was there two years as an assistant in the 1980s and loved it. Nell has that down-home appeal that Auburn will love."

Fortner, who got her start in coaching as a graduate assistant at Stephen F. Austin under former Arkansas coach Gary Blair, has more than down-home appeal.

"I always expect to win every time I step on the floor," she said.

That expectation should be met often this season, as Auburn returns seniors Natasha Brackett (a three-time All-SEC selection), Nicole Louden, Dayana Lorza, Taneshia Thompson and Louise Emeagi, and juniors Marita Payne (6-foot-5) and Nitasha Brown from a 22-9 team to go with six newcomers.

Ciampi didn't exactly leave the cupboard bare.

It's a good thing, because Auburn plays 14 teams that reached postseason last year, including No. 6 Duke at home on Dec. 31.

The Tigers will have to learn a new defense after riding Ciampi's pet matchup zone to the second round of the NCAA Tournament last season.

"We're going to play man-to-man," Fortner said. "That's my style -- all I've ever known. We've got great athletes, but it's the technique that matters. There will be a lot more individual accountability, which is different for us."

Fortner looks forward to her new "neighborhood" in the SEC.

"It's great to be back South," she said. "I love it. I'm a small-town girl. A lot of my friends are in the SEC. Carol, Mickie and I talk basketball, share ideas and vacation together. It may be a unique situation, but it's a good one. If Carol hadn't gotten the Ole Miss job, she probably would have gotten Auburn."

Fortner brought with her to SEC Media Days at Birmingham, Ala., Emeagi, a 6-1 guard from Melbourne, Australia, who averaged 7.3 points last season.

"I love that kid's game," Fortner said. "She's gonna really surprise people. She's versatile, like (former Tennessee star Tamika) Catchings. She can post you up, shoot the 3, guard the perimeter, guard you in the post. She's fleet, she can play anywhere on the floor and she goes like the Energizer Bunny."

Among Fortner's six recruits from five states were 6-5 Aileen Rossouw of Plano, Texas, and 6-4 Juanitta Wallace of Detroit.

Still, with all of the Tigers' weapons, Fortner faces a tough encore.

In her only previous season as a college head coach in 1996-97, she guided Purdue to a 17-11 record and was named the Big Ten Coach of the Year.

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