Homegrown Tigers off to perfect 10-0 start

AP Photo/Dave Martin

How many women's hoops watchers expected this from a formerly itinerant coach? That she'd find a place to settle down -- in part by convincing others not to wander?

Nell Fortner's Auburn team is 10-0 and ranked 10th nationally, the Tigers' first appearance in the top 10 since 2000. Auburn's top five scorers -- led by senior standout DeWanna Bonner -- all are from Alabama. Fortner kept them "home."

And Auburn, where she is in her fifth season, has become her home.

"Outside of being an assistant at Louisiana Tech for five years," Fortner said, "this is the longest I've been anywhere in my whole life."

When she took over at Auburn in 2004, Fortner didn't necessarily have an eye on the exit door. However, packing up and relocating had been the pattern since her childhood. Her father worked for United Gas Corporation and was good at his job.

"My dad would get promotions, and we'd move every two or three years," Fortner said. "I was born in Mississippi, and about three years later, we moved to Shreveport, La. Then St. Petersburg, Fla. A couple of years later, Laurel, Miss., and then New Braunfels, Texas."

Fortner finished high school in New Braunfels and moved on to the University of Texas, where she played both basketball and volleyball (winning a national championship in the latter).

Then came her coaching career, another travelogue. She started at the high school level in Killeen, Texas. Her next stop was Stephen F. Austin State University, then Louisiana Tech, the U.S. senior national team, Purdue, the national team again, studio work for ESPN, the WNBA's Indiana Fever … and then she took over for the retired Joe Ciampi at Auburn.

"I think in my journey -- in experiencing so much -- what it got me ready to do is settle down in one place," Fortner said. "Because I've been so many places. It prepared me to stay in one spot and build something."

Actually, make that rebuild something. Auburn once was a women's basketball powerhouse under Ciampi, going to the national championship game in three consecutive seasons from 1988 to 1990. In 1991, the Tigers reached the Elite Eight.

But they missed the NCAA tournament in '92 and in seven subsequent NCAA appearances got as far as the Elite Eight just once. In Ciampi's last seven seasons, the Tigers made the NCAA field three times and didn't advance beyond the second round.

It wasn't that Auburn had become a bad program by any means. But the Tigers had fallen from elite status, and a window seemed to have closed. Ciampi retired in 2004 after 25 seasons without a losing record. He had more than done his job in both building and maintaining Auburn. But it was time for a change.

Fortner came in -- and remember, at that point, she'd been a head coach at the college level just one season, in 1996-97 at Purdue. Her other head coaching experience was with the national team and the Fever.

"You know, it's taken me a while to settle in, to be totally honest," Fortner said of being at Auburn. "Now that I have, it feels so good. People here are so nice and so passionate about Auburn. We've been able to recruit quality athletes here, and we're in a great area to do that."

Whitney Boddie's father, Otis, is a local hoops hero in his native Florence, Ala. He stayed home to play for North Alabama from 1977 to 1980, helping lead the school to the NCAA Division II title in 1979. He scored 1,963 career points and was a Division II first-team All-American as a senior.

"I'm from a small town," said Whitney Boddie, who was born in 1987 in Florence, "and what my dad did for our town was a lot."

Even so, Boddie, now a 5-foot-9 senior point guard for Auburn, didn't grow up with a basketball in her hands and her father's instructions in her ear.

"He encouraged me to do my own thing," she said. "We didn't even talk much about basketball until I was in high school and he knew I was serious about it. He let me learn things on my own, and I think that helped me out.

"When I started playing, I was known as Otis Boddie's daughter. Nobody knew my name. But he told me, 'Don't worry about it. Keep working hard, and people will come to know you for who you are.'"

Whitney Boddie didn't really play AAU ball, so she was under the radar in recruiting. Until Fortner got the job at Auburn, the Tigers hadn't contacted Boddie, then a high school junior. She recalls Fortner's first phone call to her as funny and upbeat. She visited Auburn and, "It just felt natural. It felt right."

It didn't hurt that a few other Alabama kids Boddie knew also were interested in Auburn. Including that big, lanky girl named DeWanna from the Birmingham area.

Bonner pretty much stopped being bugged by "skinny" jokes after hearing her fill of them in grade school.

"It got on my nerves then," she said. "But I got used to it. Now, nobody really says too much about it."

She's 6-4 and still thin. Fortner said Bonner has put on 15 pounds of muscle but, "you can't see it on her."

Fortner compares Bonner's body type to that of former North Carolina player Sylvia Crawley, now Boston College's coach. The big difference is Crawley was a pure center, while Bonner is a guard and can play any position.

"I don't think there's another player in the country like her," Fortner said. "When she walks out on the floor, people underestimate her. But they figure out real quick that they can't."

Bonner is averaging 19.5 points and 8.0 rebounds per game, and Fortner loves her versatility.

"She's got every part of the game that you'd want a player to have," Fortner said. "She can handle the ball like a point guard, shoot the 3, put it on the floor and finish; she can post you up. She's added a midrange game, too."

Bonner was an All-American coming out of Fairfield High and recalls talking to Boddie and Sherell Hobbs, who's from Huntsville, Ala., over the phone during the recruiting process.

"We decided we wanted to play together since we were all Alabama kids," Bonner said. "We were excited about it -- we knew it was going to be a struggle at first, but we kept going."

KeKe Carrier, a 6-7 center from Lake Charles, La., joined that 2005 recruiting class. Then a hometown player from right there in Auburn, Ala., forward Trevesha Jackson, went to the Tigers after one season in junior college.

In 2006-07, the Tigers went 21-13 and made it to the WNIT. That set up the 2007-08 season to be a real breakthrough for Auburn, but two major things went wrong. Carrier, who'd been slowed by a foot injury her sophomore year, missed what was to be her junior season because she was academically ineligible. The Tigers were adjusting to that, but then Boddie was declared academically ineligible for the second semester, meaning she lost the heart of her junior season.

"It was devastating to her," Fortner said. "It shocked her. Kids sometimes think they are invincible in all situations. But she learned a lot from it."

And even without Boddie and Carrier, the Tigers made it back into the NCAA tournament, where they lost in the first round.

"There was a definite plan with this senior class," Fortner said, counting Carrier, although she redshirted last season. "It was our first recruiting class. Back then, I would have projected the kind of season we're having now as coming last year. But we had some injuries and academic losses.

"We've got it coming together this year -- so far, that is. We've got a ways to go. But at least we're on this track right now. And if feels good."

Boddie, especially, worked hard in the offseason, burning with desire for redemption.

"She's been doing a great job for us," Fortner said. "I think she feels she's got a lot of ground to make up."

Over the summer, Boddie gained some inspiration from a visitor who worked at Auburn's camps. When Ruthie Bolton spoke, Boddie listened intently.

"When we first came here, we knew of the history that Auburn had. But we didn't really know the players from back then," Boddie said. "However, a lot of them have come in, and we've gotten to pick their brains. It's been good for all of us.

"Ruthie Bolton helped me a lot -- just talking to her about work ethic and how she helped Auburn get to where it got to. And if feels good to be part of the re-emergence, I guess you'd say."

Fortner wanted this -- the names of Auburn's past to mean something to today's Tigers. Names like Mae Ola and Ruthie Bolton, Vickie Orr, Sharon Stewart, Diann McNeil, Carolyn Jones, C.C. Hayden, Lauretta Freeman.

With respect to them, Boddie chuckles and says, "We haven't really done anything yet. But we're trying to."

Mechelle Voepel is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.