Gonzaga followed its history and turned to one if its own by hiring Lisa Mispley Fortier to replace Kelly Graves as the women’s basketball coach.
Gonzaga athletic director Mike Roth said the interview that resulted with his offering the job to Fortier actually started years ago on bus rides and airplane trips to tournament games.
“I’ve known for a long time,” Roth said. “We will see a very competitive person who really wants to win. I felt for the longest time that’s she was going to be the coach someplace else.”
That, too, almost happened. Fortier said she conducted a telephone interview for the coaching job at West Coast Conference rival Portland. But she postponed the on-campus visit until she could speak with Roth.
He then offered her a multi-year contract on Sunday afternoon. Fortier has coordinated the team’s defense for the past seven years, but has a total of nine years with the program.
“I’m truly honored and incredibly humbled … to have this exciting chance,” she said. “My husband and family couldn’t be happier than to be staying here in Spokane.”
The position opened April 7 when Graves announced that he was leaving Gonzaga after 14 years to become the head coach at Oregon. Graves’ teams won the last 10 WCC regular-season championships and had six straight appearances in the NCAA tournament.
Graves said he hoped that Roth would offer the job to Fortier or Jodie Kaczor Berry, who has been with Gonzaga for 11 years and coordinated the Bulldogs’ offense.
“We have extended offers to Jodie and the staff for everybody to stay,” Fortier said. But she added that she doesn’t yet know who will return or if some assistant coaches will join Graves at Oregon.
After her introduction sparked a standing ovation, Fortier talked about how the men’s director of basketball operations, Jerry Krause, walked her and her husband around campus on their first visit to Gonzaga.
Everywhere she went, Fortier said she found signs that read “educating people the world needs most.”
Krause “really showed me what it was like to be a Zag,” she said. “It’s hard to put your finger on it, but it’s the people. People here invest in you.”
Fortier invested much of her time recruiting most of the players who finished 29-5 after falling to James Madison in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
As soon as she was hired, some of her first calls went to the three signed recruits: Lexi Bando of Eugene, Georgia Stirton from North Idaho College and Jill Barta of Fairview, Mont.
“Everybody is still on board,” Fortier said.
Wednesday is the first day of the spring signing period and Fortier hopes Gonzaga will add another three players. Under NCAA rules, she’s not allowed to discuss them before they sign letters of intent.
The new players are especially needed because the Bulldogs lost senior guards Haiden Palmer and Jazmine Redmon. And Redmon’s main backups, Danielle Walter and Maiki Viela, will not be returning for their senior seasons.
“We don’t have a lot of guards,” Fortier said. “But we do have a good core group returning.”
That group includes starting shooting guard Keani Albanez, who Fortier recruited out of Santa Barbara, Calif.
“We were hoping it was going to be someone inside the program,” Albanez said. “We are all really happy.”
The players were “shocked” when Graves let them know he would be leaving for Oregon.
“Everyone has to make changes in life. We recognize that,” Albanez said. “But fortunately, good things come from change, too.”
As is his norm, Roth declined to say how much Gonzaga will pay Fortier.
“We keep specifics about contracts confidential,” Roth said. “We are a top-25 program, one of the top programs in the West. We want to make sure we are treating our staff accordingly.”
Roth said he received tips, offers and calls from coaches all around the country after Graves left.
“The success of the program has never been just about one person,” he said. “We want to keep that together as much as we can.”
Fortier’s husband, Craig Fortier, is an assistant coach for the Eastern Washington men’s team. He managed 4-year-old Marcus and 2-year-old Calvin as Lisa fought her way through her prepared statement and greeted supporters of the program.
“I’m really excited for her,” he said. “She worked hard to have this opportunity.”
More work is coming. Lisa is due to have the couple’s third child in July.
Asked what he thought his wife would say about this opportunity 10 years from now, Craig Fortier said he didn’t have a clue.
“She’s the philosopher. I’m the grinder,” he said as his son fought to escape his grip. “She’s the big-picture person. I’m the give-me-the-list-and-I’ll-get-it-done guy.”
Subscribe to The Spokesman-Review’s sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.