Retired Gonzaga Athletic Director Mike Roth’s phone rang frequently when Kelly Graves resigned in early April 2014 to take the Oregon women’s basketball coaching position.
Roth didn’t have to look far to find Graves’ replacement. He ultimately interviewed just one person.
“There were a lot of people wanting this job,” Roth said in an interview before a game at the Kennel last week. “Hiring sometimes comes down to what you feel inside, not so much what’s between your ears.”
It didn’t matter to Roth that Lisa Fortier, a seven-year assistant for Graves, had yet to be a head coach.
“Mark Few had never been a head coach either. That seems to have worked out pretty good,” Roth said.
At the time, Fortier was a candidate for the head coaching job at the University of Portland. Roth asked her not to interview at Portland.
“What it comes down to is Lisa made me look way smarter than I am,” Roth said. “One of the first things I said to her was, ‘Let’s look at what your staff might look like.’ That was my way of telling her that I was thinking of her as the head coach. It took her aback a little bit.”
Fortier wondered if she was ready for the challenge.
“I didn’t know if I was prepared or qualified to take over this job,” Fortier said. “But Mike really believed in me and that was one of the most important ways I ever felt believed in.”
Fortier hired her husband, Craig, the associate head men’s basketball coach at Eastern Washington; Idaho and Idaho State assistant Jordan Green; and Stacy Clinesmith, a former Mead standout who was an assistant for three years at Santa Clara.
Graves built the foundation at Gonzaga. The Zags were 316-136 (.699) in 14 seasons and made their first trip to the NCAA Tournament in 2006-07.
Among several noteworthy feats under Graves, Gonzaga captured 10 straight West Coast Conference titles and went to the NCAA Tournament seven times, including an Elite Eight appearance in 2010-11 and three trips to the Sweet 16.
“I knew more than likely (Gonzaga) would hire from within,” Graves said. “Lisa’s done an amazing job there. We obviously had it at a great place and everything was in place to continue. Lisa has elevated it to another level than what we had it at.”
Graves is quick to point out he didn’t discover Fortier. He gives that credit to the late Jerry Krause, the former men’s head coach at EWU and assistant at Gonzaga.
Lisa and Craig Fortier first met Krause while working for the company in Monterey, California, that published his books and videos.
“Jerry told me he hadn’t worked with two better young people (than the Fortiers),” Graves said.
The Fortiers were finishing up undergraduate degrees at Cal State Monterey. They both wanted to go to graduate school at Gonzaga.
Krause got them in the door.
“He was the conduit,” Lisa said. “He brought us to Spokane and we were like family. He put us up in hotels, showed us around. And he let us live with him for a while right after we got married.”
Krause got Lisa Fortier an interview with Graves.
“I showed up to interview with Kelly and I’m in a suit,” she said. “I was 22 and dressed for the job. He was, of course, dressed in basketball shorts and a T-shirt. It was a good fit.”
Fortier is grateful for her time with Graves.
“Kelly let me do a lot as an assistant,” she said. “He gave me a lot of autonomy with the guards, with recruiting and with defense. He prepared me well.”
At her husband’s urging, Lisa Fortier hired Green and Clinesmith first and then officially hired Craig a month after she was named head coach.
The coaches all share recruiting and scouting duties with their areas of expertise.
“Craig and I always talked about working together,” Lisa said. “Then once I got the head coaching job I put the brakes on it because I didn’t want him to give up on being a head coach.”
But Craig Fortier wanted to do everything he could to help his wife get off to a good start.
Lisa Fortier and Green had met each other as assistants on the recruiting trail.
“He’s really, really smart,” Lisa said. “He’s been fantastic. And I knew I had to hire a woman. I wanted a person kind of like me who was good with the players but not a pushover. I didn’t think it was Stacy at first. But she persisted and persisted to get me to do an interview with her. When she came to interview she blew me away. I fell in love with her.”
“Once the job became a reality, I told Lisa she had to get some people that have a network in women’s basketball and who were super experienced,” Craig Fortier said. “She hired for comfortability, for loyalty, and for character.”
Green coaches wings and defense. Clinesmith coaches the guards and offense. Craig Fortier coaches forwards and offense.
The wife/husband dynamic has been full of challenges and victories.
“It works OK for us most of the time,” said Lisa, a Grass Valley, California, native. “We have to make sure we’re intentional about our marriage. The work part isn’t trouble at all. You’re professional at work and then you go home and you’re married people who get to be friendly and cozy and kiss each other.”
The coaches are all in the same age range. Clinesmith is the oldest at 45, Green is 44 and the Fortiers will soon turn 43.
Lisa Fortier and staff got their 250th career victory last week. Fortier’s winning percentage (80.4) is fifth among active head coaches behind Tara VanDerveer (Stanford), Karl Smesko (Florida Gulf Coast), Kim Mulkey (LSU) and Geno Auriemma (UConn).
The Zags’ staff marvels that they’re still together. In their 10th season together, it’s the second-most continuous staff in the nation behind Iowa State.
“It was a no-brainer for me to come here,” Green said. “The culture Lisa has created here is amazing. It’s the best culture for the coaches and the players.”
Lisa Fortier has had multiple Pac-12 head coaching offers and her assistants have had opportunities. Graves said he gets calls every year about Lisa.
“I think they all want to be head coaches, but it goes back to don’t mess with happy,” Lisa Fortier said.
Craig Fortier is glad he joined his wife’s staff.
“I was excited about the opportunity to work with her,” he said. “I’ve been around some quality coaches. I’ve never met anybody who has a better feel for people, who has more of a drive to succeed but succeed the right way, than Lisa.
“While I think Lisa is a great tactician, unequivocally the best thing she does is manage and coach people. She knows how to navigate difficulties and fill in the gaps for people. That’s really the special sauce for her.”
Craig may be the husband, but he gladly works for his wife.
“It’s pretty easy,” he said. “The second I step outside my house I do whatever she tells me pretty well.”
Lisa Fortier often looks at the two men’s Final Four plaques on the walls in the bowels of McCarthey Athletic Center.
“We have goals. That’s something we haven’t done and we haven’t hosted (NCAA Tournament first and second rounds). We thought we were going to then COVID hit.”
Clinesmith was overjoyed to return to her hometown. She calls the coaches her best friends.
She said if Lisa Fortier gets mad at any of the coaches, nine times out of 10 she takes it out on Craig.
“When he’s getting yelled at, I can’t look at him because I know I’ll laugh,” Clinesmith said. “He does a great job. He’s a really, really good coach.”
“We (coaches) have great relationships,” Green said. “Sometimes we’ll argue about different things, but at the end of the day we’re just trying to make the team better. There is no place I’d rather be than here.”
Gonzaga (18-2) is two wins away from having a 10th straight 20-win or more season under Fortier.
Fortier has come a long way since her early days as an unpaid volunteer and graduate assistant for Graves. She remembers finishing work on a master’s and waiting tables at a downtown restaurant when she got her start at Gonzaga.
Roth put the continuity of Fortier’s staff in perspective.
“The reality of keeping a staff together is hard with success,” Roth said. “With mediocrity, it’s easy. With success, it’s not easy because people want to find out what the secret sauce is. Ten years together is a great run. We’re hoping for another 10 years together.”
“We’ve turned down other jobs,” Lisa Fortier said. “I don’t know if we’ll stay forever, but so far we continue to get better here. I don’t think we’ve hit our ceiling. We’re happy here, we love the community. It’s a good fit for our family. We haven’t gotten stagnant. We haven’t leveled off.”
“It’s the friendships,” Clinesmith tsaid. “We all complement each other well at work and we’re friends off the court.”
Clinesmith remembers the staff’s first game at McCarthey Athletic Center.
“The crowd was on their feet pregame. They were clapping and it was loud. I got chills. And today, I was sitting over there watching the same thing 10 years later and I still get chills. It is such a great atmosphere here – like no other.”
Lisa Fortier would like to keep the band together for several more seasons.
“Hopefully, we have another 250 (wins) in us,” she said.