Marita Payne, a six-foot-four center who just finished her sophomore season for the Tigers, found out on Thursday that former USA Olympic head coach and former WNBA head coach Nell Fortner is Auburn's selection to replace retiring coach Joe Ciampi.
"It is exciting it is Nell Fortner," says Payne, who set a school record for blocked shots last season as she helped Auburn advance to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. "We have heard a lot about her. She is a big name. She will help get us some good recruits. I am sure she will be a positive influence on us."
Fortner, who has been working as the women's college basketball analyst for ESPN the past three years in addition to being head coach of the WNBA's Indiana Fever, met with the returning players on Thursday at Beard-Eaves Coliseum immediately after being introduced at a press conference.
"I think all of the girls are going to respect her and look into what she says because she is well known," says Nitasha Brown, a 5-8 point guard who was a reserve last season. "We know she knows what she is talking about."
Louise Emeagi, a 6-1 part-time starter at forward who will be a senior next season, says that she was impressed that Fortner was already talking about competing for championships when she met with the team on Thursday. "Basically, it was just an introduction session, just getting to know us," Emeagi notes.
"What was really good to see is that she was really keen on getting everyone on the floor as soon as possible and starting to work out. That is really exciting. The fact that she mentioned within minutes of having met us about the prospects of fighting for a championship...I never really contemplated the idea of being in contention for a championship, but I guess if somebody brings that positive feel it gives you a sense of confidence that it is not just a dream and you can get back there."
AU interim president Dr. Ed Richardson and Fortner agreed to a five-year deal worth a little more than $300,000 per season for the new coach to take over the Auburn program that has been led by Ciampi for 25 years, which covers the entire time frame in which the NCAA has run a championship tournament for women's basketball. Ciampi was making $300,000 per year in his final season at AU.
At her press conference on Thursday, Fortner promised an exciting brand of up-tempo basketball, much the same as new men's head coach Jeff Lebo promised two weeks earlier. Lebo was among those in the audience as Fortner was introduced.
Brown says she is excited about the style of play. The guard is one six returning players. The Tigers lose their top performer, senior forward Le'Coe Willingham, as well as starting center Mandisa Stevenson and starting small forward Nancy Derrick. Nicole Louden, a point guard, and second team All-SEC pick Natasha Brackett, a two guard, will be seniors this coming season.
Richardson's assistant, Hal Baird, who led the search for a replacement, wouldn't say that Fortner was the first choice to replace Ciampi, but he does note that Fortner brings an impressive resume to the post. "I would have to say the number of varied experiences she had from what she has done from being a player to being the Olympic coach, an assistant at two schools as well as the WNBA, it just offered a wide range in experience. People in all of those areas seemed to be very impressed with the work she had done, not just in one or two of them. Those people she had worked with had good things to say in all areas about her."
Baird said that he discussed improving home attendance with Fortner and the three other candidates that Auburn interviewed--Southwest Missouri State's Lorie Abrahamson-Henderson, Old Dominion's Wendy Larry and Ciampi's top assistant, Joanie O'Brien.
"She's effervescent and I think that is always a plus," Baird says of Fortner. Baird says it will be important to promote the program, but the bottom line will be winning. "When you play the first game the marriage starts between the fans, the constituencies of the team and yourself so we are going to have to win, but I have to believe she is going to try to reach a lot of people and sell the product. I really believe that will be a large part of what she does."