To athletes on opposing teams, Ron Fortner could be just another nameless assistant coach.
But those in the coaching world know Eagle High girls basketball head coach Cody Pickett snagged a gem when he convinced the 69-year-old retired government teacher to come aboard as an unpaid assistant.
Fortner’s 44-year coaching career includes 10 years as the head coach of the Pepperdine women’s team and a bottomless well of information gleaned from working camps with legendary college men’s coach John Wooden and breakfast with Bobby Knight.
It has never been the high-profile jobs that have brought Fortner the most joy.
In 1993, Fortner gave up coaching at Pepperdine to watch his daughter play high school basketball. After two years away from the game, Fortner got a call from an old college friend, former College of Idaho women’s coach Todd Corman, who suggested he come to Idaho to continue his career.
Fortner and his wife, Nancy Fortner (Owen), a former Olympic volleyball player for Team USA in 1964 (Tokyo) and 1968 (Mexico City), came to Caldwell for an interview, and he said they immediately fell in love with their surroundings.
“I wish I would have come sooner,” Fortner said.
In 1995, Fortner was offered and accepted the job as the Caldwell varsity boys coach. He inherited a group of 11 seniors who had not won a game since the eighth grade.
The Cougars finished their first regular season under Fortner 0-20. At the time, Caldwell was a member of the state’s largest classification, and the nine-team conference had the eighth- and ninth-place teams compete in a play-in game to advance to the district tournament. No. 9 Caldwell had previously lost twice to Mountain Home, the No. 8 team, by 20 and 15 points.
“We won, and looking up at the scoreboard and the clock went off, I didn’t even move. The stands emptied. We were 1-20 and the stands just emptied,” Fortner said. “The kids were crying. Parents were hugging, and my friend (Todd Corman) came up behind me and he’s shaking my shoulders saying ‘Ron, you won! You won!’
“I said Todd, think of the years you and I were at Pepperdine and Loyola, did we ever see that kind of emotion? Those guys were 1-20. That was really rewarding for me that year.”
Sitting out that basketball season with a broken left ankle he sustained in the last football game of the season was then-freshman Cody Pickett.
Once healthy, Pickett and Fortner went on to become one of the fiercest player-coach duos in the state. During the 1998-99 season, the Cougars went 20-4, losing at the state tournament to Idaho Falls on a half-court shot at the buzzer.
Pickett was named the A-1 All-Idaho Player of the Year at the conclusion of his senior year (1999) and says his memories from that season remain among his favorite in a decorated athletic career.
“The No. 1 priority to be really good at anything we do, whether it’s coaching or any other occupation, you have to have a passion to do it,” Borah boys coach Cary Cada said. “I don’t think anybody has more of a passion for coaching and working with kids than Ron does.
“The thing that sticks out most to me was how into games he was. There were times he would be on his hands and knees in front of his bench hollering at his players.”
Although Pickett went on to a record-setting career as a quarterback at the University of Washington and later for the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers, he kept in contact with Fortner, who continued to mentor him throughout his athletic career.
“We still have poker games and hang out. We wear (former Caldwell football coach Bill) Cooper out with our basketball talk,” Pickett said. “I just loved my high school experience, and (Fortner) was such a huge part of that. I went on to play for so many different guys, but nobody connected with me like my high school coaches did.”
When Cody decided his football playing days were nearing an end, he started a club basketball team called Team 208, coaching his younger sister, Carson, and many of her friends. He later became the head boys basketball coach at North Star Charter, leading the Huskies to their first state tournament appearance.
As his coaching career became more serious, Pickett found himself leaning on his old high school coach for advice. And Pickett hasn’t been the only one hoping to bottle up a bit of Fortner’s wisdom. Since he retired as Caldwell’s coach in 2002 and then from teaching in 2010, he’s happily shared his advice when called upon.
“When I first started at Mountain View, one of the things I asked him to do was come over and help me with different types of presses that he would run, and then we would sit down and talk,” Mountain View boys coach Jon Nettleton said. “I even had him come to a couple practices.
“I think he has given the sport of basketball — both men’s and women’s — most of his life. I think he really has been a great ambassador for hoops here locally in the Valley, and I know he loves the game. It’s cool to see. He’s been around obviously for a little while and has seen and met a lot of people in the world of basketball. It’s one of those things where I wanted to grab some of that knowledge from him just because he’s been there. He’s done a ton of stuff.”
When Pickett was hired to take over at Eagle in 2013, he knew he wanted Fortner by his side.
“I kind of put the full-court press on him,” Pickett said. “I said, ‘Alright, Coach, I’m going to Eagle, and you have to come with me.’ ”
Three years in to their stint at Eagle, players have bought in to Pickett’s style. The Mustangs have risen from an eight-win season the first year to 18 wins and a state consolation title last year. Eagle is ranked fifth in the most recent state media poll and has 14 wins with five games left in the regular season.
While their roles have in many ways reversed — with Fortner now giving way to Pickett’s commands and serving as more of a sounding board — their friendship has never been stronger.