SAN ANTONIO – Dawn Staley and Nell Fortner won Olympic gold medals together as player and coach. Now they are standing in each other’s way on the path to the women’s Final Four.
It’s not the first time they’ve faced off from the sidelines, but Sunday’s matchup between Staley’s top-seeded South Carolina and Fortner’s No. 5 Georgia Tech in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament Hemisfair Region will be the biggest stage they’ve shared together since the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia.
Back then, Fortner was coaching a team led by Staley, a fiery and intense point guard. They had also been together for the 1996 Olympic gold-medal team when Fortner was an assistant.
Fortner still calls Staley one of best team leaders she’s ever coached, and even she was a bit in awe of Staley the player back then.
After their first game in Sydney, Fortner was sitting on the team bus when Staley got on, patted her on the back and said “good job.” That simple moment of validation from star player to coach of an all-star team sent the message that everyone was on the same page for the same goal.
“You don’t get a lot of sincere compliments from people who you really value … Her saying that meant a lot to me. It still does,” Fortner said.
Olympic success forged a connection that will never be broken, Staley said.
“We will forever have a bond,” Staley said.
They have cut different coaching paths to their meeting in San Antonio.
Staley has built a powerhouse at South Carolina since taking over in 2008, winning the national championship in 2017. After the Olympics, Fortner coached in the WNBA, then landed at Auburn where she struggled to build the program beyond modest success. After several years in the broadcast booth, she returned to coaching with Georgia Tech in 2019.
That move has rejuvenated both coach and program. Fortner has the Yellow Jackets in the Sweet 16 for the first time.
“I missed the teaching,” Fortner said. “I missed energizing kids to help them achieve their goals.”
Staley and Fortner have raised similar, strong voices in the chorus of complaints about the NCAA and the disparities between the men’s and women’s tournaments.
“They want to make sure they are growing the game for all women,” said Katie Smith, who played on the 2000 Olympic team with Fortner and Staley. “It’s not just basketball. It’s bigger than that. It’s about equality … To them, this matters.”
This summer, Staley will coach the U.S. Olympic team in Tokyo, a year later than expected as the games were postponed by the coronavirus pandemic.
Fortner’s advice: enjoy the ride and bring home a gold medal.
“In the U.S. we’re supposed to win, `Nothing but gold, baby! Don’t come home without it’!”‘ Fortner said. “I have no doubt she can handle it. She’s handled it her whole life.”