Every spring, the coaching carousel begins its spin. This month, Penn State and Georgia Tech hired new women’s basketball coaches within about a week of each other, and both schools are approaching what they hope will be new eras.
In another year, those might have been the two biggest coaching vacancies. That’s not the case in 2019, because Tennessee and North Carolina also came open. Tennessee went with former Lady Vol Kellie Harper. North Carolina might opt for a former player as well, such as Elon’s Charlotte Smith, but we’re still awaiting the Tar Heels’ decision, which likely will come quickly after longtime coach Sylvia Hatchell stepped down last week.
But looking a little more in-depth at Penn State and Georgia Tech provides a chance to examine the challenges faced by those coaches — Carolyn Kieger and Nell Fortner, who are more than two decades apart in age — and the solutions they might have.
For Penn State, the biggest challenge is trying to reassert itself as a top program in an evolving Big Ten, and that’s a long-term task — which is why Kieger, 35, makes sense. She was an assistant at Miami for six seasons and head coach at her alma mater, Marquette, for five seasons. She has experience, but also the energy of youth. Both will be important, as Penn State has missed the NCAA tournament the last five years.
Meanwhile at Georgia Tech, there has to be a more immediate and extreme change in the tone and culture of the program — which is why Fortner, 60, was a good fit. She brings an unfailingly upbeat personality, along with 30 years of coaching experience and 10 years as an ESPN analyst in two different stints.
Having spent the last seven years away from coaching, Fortner brings a fresh perspective into Georgia Tech, along with the wisdom of understanding that patience will be required. There’s less concern about whether Fortner might still be coaching a decade from now as there is about what she can do right away to bring in a different feel to the program.
Georgia Tech fired MaChelle Joseph after 16 seasons because of player complaints of verbal abuse, bullying and a toxic atmosphere, although she has contested the allegations. While Joseph’s tenure ended badly, she was the most successful coach the Yellow Jackets have had, going 311-204 and making the NCAA tournament seven times.
Now the Yellow Jackets have lost two players, Elizabeth Balogun and Elizabeth Dixon, freshmen who have transferred to Louisville. Balogun, a 6-foot-1 guard, was ACC Rookie of the Year this season, and the 6-foot-5 forward Dixon also was named to the league’s all-freshman team.
Along with selling her experience as a head coach — including at Purdue, Auburn, the WNBA’s Indiana Fever and the U.S. national team — Fortner will sell Georgia Tech’s academics, the city of Atlanta and the ACC.
What are the realistic expectations for Fortner in an ACC that in recent years has been dominated by newcomers Notre Dame and Louisville? Georgia Tech has never won an ACC regular-season or tournament title. The highest the Yellow Jackets have finished in the ACC standings is fourth, and their best NCAA tournament finish is the Sweet 16, which they’ve reached once (2012).
Fortner will talk about contending for championships, and maybe she can do something that has never been done at Georgia Tech. But she’ll have accomplished a lot if she’s able to stabilize the program, put together a few good recruiting classes and get Georgia Tech back in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2014.
“It’s going to start with honesty and trust — you’ve got to trust your players on and off the floor,” Fortner said of her coaching philosophy. “Who’s in the fox hole with you? It takes some time, but that’s where you start.”
Kieger’s predecessor, Coquese Washington, was let go because Penn State was ready to go in a different direction. It looked as if she was establishing something long-term when she led Penn State to four consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, including two trips to the Sweet 16, from 2010 to 2014. Penn State went 101-31 in that stretch and finished first in the Big Ten three times.
Since, Penn State has had just one winning record, both overall and in the Big Ten, going 21-11 and 9-7 in 2016-17. Marks this season of 12-18 and 5-13 (12th in the 14-team league) doomed Washington.
She had a difficult task at Penn State. She took over in 2007 after a contentious end to Rene Portland’s 27-year career there. Portland went 606-236, with 21 NCAA tournament appearances, including the 2000 Final Four. But Portland’s anti-gay policies, and the Jennifer Harris lawsuit that precipitated her resignation in 2007, overshadowed her success. The lawsuit was settled a month before Portland resigned, but an internal review by Penn State found Portland had created a “hostile, intimidating, and offensive environment” based on Harris’s perceived sexual orientation.
While Washington was in the midst of establishing herself at Penn State, the Jerry Sandusky scandal consumed the university. It’s difficult to say how much that affected recruiting over the next few years, but there’s little doubt it had an impact.
Still, Washington’s 12 years not only had a measure of success, they created a necessary separation from the negative aspects of the Portland era. Washington has joined Sherri Coale’s staff at Oklahoma, which should be a good partnership for both.
“I think the Big Ten is ready for a breakthrough. … As a whole, I think we’re ready to explode. In the next couple of years, you’re going to see that.”
New Penn State coach Carolyn Kieger
Kieger is from Minnesota, so she grew up in Big Ten territory. The conference has changed with expansion, adding Maryland, Nebraska and Rutgers. The Big Ten has just one NCAA women’s basketball title — Purdue in 1999 — and only newcomer Maryland (2015) has reached the Final Four since 2005, when Michigan State fell in the national championship game.
“I think the Big Ten is ready for a breakthrough,” Kieger said. “I’m familiar with where it’s been and the challenges that have been there. But I think as a whole, I think we’re ready to explode. In the next couple of years, you’re going to see that.”
Kieger went 99-64 at Marquette, including 30-6 in the last two seasons of Big East play. Marquette fell in the NCAA tournament second round both years. Kieger called the difficult decision to leave her alma mater “unbearable,” but sees Penn State as a destination job.
“We talk to players all the time about goal-setting and going after what you want with everything you have,” Kieger said. “I needed to look at myself in the mirror and make some tough decisions about what I wanted for the future and what I want my career to look like.”
Kieger said there are also benefits to having a woman, Sandy Barbour, as athletic director.
“To have her care and be as invested as she is in women’s basketball, I think, is rare,” Kieger said. “I know that together, we can do great things.”
Barbour has acknowledged this will take some time, but she’s looking for steady progress.
Penn State lost leading scorer Teniya Page to graduation, and has seven returning players listed on its 2019-20 roster.
“I’m thrilled and fired up,” Kieger said. “Obviously, there’s going to be challenges, and we’re going to have to work very hard. If we do it the right way, I believe we can make a big splash in women’s basketball.”