Coach’s Chair: Lisa Fortier, Gonzaga University

Coach Lisa Fortier meets with Zykera Rice at a timeout. Photo by Mike Wootten, Gonzaga Athletics.
Coach Lisa Fortier meets with Zykera Rice at a timeout. Photo by Mike Wootten, Gonzaga Athletics.

Longtime Gonzaga assistant coach Lisa Mispley Fortier was named the program’s head coach in April, 2014, taking the helm after Kelly Graves, who turned the Zags into a national power house in 14 years.

In her first season, Fortier guided Gonzaga to a 26-8 finish and was named WBCA Division I Rookie Coach of the Year. The Zags made it to the Sweet Sixteen round of the NCAA Tournament after pulling upsets in rounds one and two. Last season the team ended their season in the second round of the WNIT.

Fortier was Gonzaga’s director of basketball operations from 2004-2006, and left for an assistant coaching job at the University of Northern Colorado before becoming assistant coach for the Zags in 2007. Her duties included recruiting coordinator, defense coach and guards coach.

Fortier and her husband Craig, who is an assistant coach for the team, are the parents of three children age six and under. Their daughter was born in July, 2014.

Though you had already been with the Gonzaga program for nine years before you were named head coach, did the appointment to head coach surprise you at all?

Honestly, a little bit. After Kelly took the job at Oregon, our AD Mike Roth walked through the gym and said, “when you get back I’d like to talk to you about what the staff would look like.” I didn’t get it at the time, but later it dawned on me what he was saying. I was a little bit surprised, as I was in the middle of interviewing for another job. Mike talked to me about how he and the University president were committed to the program and thought I’d be a great fit because I was an integral part of what we’d been doing here.

How do you follow in the footsteps of a coach like Kelly Graves, who built the program from the ground level?

There’s a little bit more pressure than there was an as assistant coach; there are a lot of expectations. And it’s much harder to stay at the top than it is to get there. There are a lot of eyes on our program. Even though it’s my first head coaching job, I don’t have the luxury of making mistakes – or at least not that many. With other opportunities, you’re able to grow with it. But I’m happy to be surrounded by great players and great coaches, which makes it easier.

Kelly’s such a great personality and a great guy, and I have a personality of my own which includes some bite. But I don’t want to try to be him.

Have the players made the transition easier?

They have. They already knew me, and I didn’t have to get to know the University or the town or them.

How have you been putting your own stamp on Gonzaga basketball?

There are things that we’ve done before, a lot of Xs and O’s and the recruiting that we’ve done in the past has transitioned into something that’s current and relevant. As a woman I have a different impact on their lives and in the way I look at things. We’re spending a lot of time developing them as women – how they can be successful women beyond Gonzaga. It’s a different kind of toughness that I’m trying to instill in them. I feel like I’m pretty tough, and I want to show them what they’re capable of. Since we’ve been successful, we’ve had a guy at the helm. It’s been good for them to see that I’m dragging three kids around, I’m cooking dinner and I’m telling people that you can do what I can do, and you can do it better, so let’s go.

What are your keys to building a successful program?

It’s really important to care about them and get them to care about each other. We develop discipline. We’ve had players in the past who were really talented and some that were disciplined, but some were both, like Courtney Vandersloot and Kayla Standish. I’m trying to develop this team as a team, and we’re working on that. Then we try to develop chemistry, which is something people take for granted. Then there’s leadership. For some, they would just be OK players unless we helped them improve their leadership and their voice.

If I were one of your players, how would I describe your practices?

They’d say they want to play more five-on-five, because we do a lot of breakdowns. They’d say we’re on them, because we like to coach them. We coach a lot of possessions. Tehy wouldn’t say practices were quiet. They’d probably say we do shell drill every day. Hopefully they’d say they were fast-paced.

How do you balance being a parent with a demanding job?

Sometimes I don’t think very well.  have really great help. I don’t bring the kids to practice very much, but they’re on the road with us. We figure it out and we try to be off our phones from the time we pick up our kids to the time we put them to bed. Once they’re in bed, we’re back to work. We make it exciting and fun for the kids. They were with us in the Virgin Islands for our Thanksgiving tournament, and they rode the player’s bus because they wanted to. You could probably sum up my quote of my life as, “we’ll just figure it out.”

How did you feel being named head coach when you were about to have a baby?

A little apprehensive because because I didn’t feel like I could take time off. I just brought her with me to work for the first month or two. When Kelly first got the job I was hyperventilating because I didn’t know yet where we were going or what we were doing.

What’s the best thing about coaching at Gonzaga?

The support that we have. That’s staff support, fan support, and we’re down the hall from the men’s basketball staff, who is very supportive. I can’t think there’d be a better community that supports women’s basketball, the players and the coaches than this one. I feel like I grew up here a bit, and I feel like I have great support from the community. People aren’t waiting to see what mistake you’ll make next – they’re just supportive. Whether it’s radio shows, or whatever we do in the community, we get a tremendous outpouring of love.

Why did you want to be a coach?

Because I loved basketball, initially. Because I had some really great coaches on the way. In college I had a couple, and I always thought of coaches as the best people. They were always caring and wanted to help their players, and I wanted to be that kind of person. I wanted to be a teacher and have an impact on these athletes an their future.

What’s your favorite movie?

“Pretty Woman” and “Jerry Maguire” are up there. More recently, I’m a fan of “The Heat.” I far prefer funny to sad.