Fortiers balance family with coaching careers
She never played basketball, but Sara Fortier is pretty quick off the dribble.
It’s halftime at Reese Court, and her grandson Calvin is twirling his milk straw all over Sara’s lap, but the mess gets wiped up in a hurry.
“It keeps us young, that’s for sure,” laughed Fortier, who, along with husband Gary, always has her son’s back.
That would be Craig Fortier, an assistant coach at Eastern Washington who stands 20 feet in front of them as the Eagles begin the second half.
Twenty miles away, Craig’s wife, Lisa, is in gameday mode as an assistant with the Gonzaga women’s team.
Theirs is a story of raising a family against a full-court press of practices, games, meetings and recruiting trips – and they wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Game days are the easiest, especially when one of us is home,” Lisa said as she and Craig, both 32, relaxed in GU head coach Kelly Graves’ office, which doubled as a romper room when Graves’ own kids were younger.
Lisa ticks off the Thursday routine: she drives the boys from their home in Five Mile to the nearby home of Gary and Sara, who later take them to preschool while the Zags and Eagles hold shootarounds and meetings.
That evening, the grandparents drive them to one game or another. After it’s over, Lisa said, “they’ll chase each other around the court, and one of us brings them home.”
Their story goes back a dozen years, from high school in California, to Spokane, to Colorado and back again. Along the way, Craig and Lisa were blessed with a few good bounces before they were graced with two bouncing boys.
And a lot of car seats.
The road to opportunity
In the coaching business, it helps to be driven.
After being cut from the basketball team in her junior year at Grass Valley High School, the former Lisa Mispley faced a tough decision: finish high school with the kids she’d known since kindergarten, or take a different path.
“I picked basketball because I was passionate about it,” said Fortier, a 5-foot-7 guard who decided that a smaller school would help her realize some big dreams.
She found both at Cool High School, a smaller school 30 miles down the road. She also found Craig, a starting guard for the varsity team, but they didn’t start dating until both were playing at NAIA Cal State-Monterey Bay.
In another coincidence, both worked as college students in the book publishing business run by former Eastern men’s coach Jerry Krause, who at the time was between stints at Gonzaga.
By the time they graduated in 2004, both were set on careers in coaching. In another happy coincidence, both found jobs as graduate assistants at Gonzaga – Craig with the men’s program and Lisa with the women’s.
Two years later, on Mother’s Day, they took their master’s degrees in sports administration. Two weeks after that, they took each other’s hands in marriage; a month later, they took off for Colorado.
“I had some things fall through,” Craig said, but a good word from former GU assistant Leon Rice led to an assistant’s position at Colorado State, while Lisa got a similar job at Northern Colorado.
Apart from Lisa’s 32-mile commute from home in Fort Collins to the UNC campus in Greeley, it was the perfect situation – until the entire Colorado State staff was fired after the 2006-07 season.
But just as suddenly, the planets realigned. Graves needed an assistant, and remembered the hard-working grad assistant from the year before. “I wouldn’t have gone for anything else,” Lisa said. “I was pulled back by the family atmosphere.”
Meanwhile, Craig was hired as head coach at a high school in Fort Collins, then resigned five days later after Lisa was hired at GU.
“I have the distinction of having the shortest tenure in Colorado high school, but this was so good for her,” said Craig, who began to look at opportunities in Spokane.
And there it was, an opening at Jim Hayford’s successful program at Division III Whitworth. Except that it was closing fast. But talent and hard work don’t go unnoticed. Few and others put in their recommendations “and I moved to the top of the list.”
“He was not going to be denied that job,” Hayford said of Fortier, who has been with him ever since.
Raising programs and families
That summer of 2007, the Fortiers packed their U-Haul with their belongings and their dreams and drove back to Spokane – and straight to the Hayford driveway.
“I remember this young couple pulling right in,” marveled Hayford, who had built a powerhouse at Whitworth.
The Pirates were coming off Hayford’s best season to date, a 26-4 campaign that included a spot in the Sweet 16, but Hayford gave his new assistant “the freedom to put my stamp on things” as a defensive specialist.
Meanwhile, Graves was beginning to build something special at Gonzaga, and likewise turned to Lisa for some help on the defensive side of the ball.
“Lisa’s been a great balance for me,” Graves said. “She’s an absolutely terrific coach, and sees the game differently than I do.”
For almost three years, life slowed as much as it could for two 20-something basketball coaches. Then came the sweet season of 2009-10: another Sweet 16 for Whitworth, and one for the Zags as well.
Just one problem: Lisa was pregnant, and expecting to deliver as the Zags were to play in the Sweet 16 in Sacramento.
“It was planned, but a little bit miscalculated, obviously,” Lisa Fortier said. “We’re going into our slow time of the season, but we were by no means trying to have it at this time because we knew this team was going to go far.”
Her doctor gave the go-ahead for Lisa to travel, and Marcus was born after the season ended. Perfect timing, as it turned out – not to mention that Craig’s parents had sold their home in California and had bought another in Spokane by the time Marcus was a week old.
“We were close to retirement age,” Gary said. “They asked us, ‘Why don’t you guys move to Spokane – it’s just like Sacramento.’
“No it’s not like Sacramento,” Gary said, sitting in a heavy coat. “But it’s a good place to raise kids.”
Then came the inevitable: the first road trip. “That was really hard,” said Lisa, but even that was a happy coincidence. The Zags had games in South Dakota and Hawaii, while Whitworth men took a rare flight to – you guessed it – Hawaii.
Craig brought Marcus to Hawaii, but didn’t get much help from the guys. “He might as well have been radioactive,” Craig said.
A year later, the commute got a little longer for Craig, who followed Hayford to Eastern soon after the 2010-11 season.
“Everything was going 100 miles an hour,” recalls Craig about a year that didn’t include a minute of downtime.
“It’s funny to watch,” Hayford said. “Craig always brings his own lunch, and I’ve seen him go as many as 10 straight days with the same thing – it’s almost like he’s saying ‘I don’t have time to do that.’ ”
With the arrival of Calvin in 2012, life got a little more complicated, but the Fortiers adjusted.
On Mondays and Tuesdays, Marcus attends preschool, while Calvin stays with Craig’s parents. On Wednesdays, both stay with the elder Fortiers, and both attend preschool on Thursdays and Fridays.
Occasionally, wires get crossed.
“They don’t get crossed – I’m just wrong,” Craig said.
“You said it, not me,” replied Lisa, who breaks the routine when the Zags travel to the Bay Area. That’s when her parents get a chance to share in the joy.
Next year, that joy will grow even more – the Fortiers are expecting another baby later this year.