It took 11 years for Phil Forte to return to where he belongs in North Texas.
The road since helping Marcus High School in Flower Mound win consecutive state high school basketball championships has taken him to Stillwater, Oklahoma, St. Louis (twice), Huntsville, Texas, and now Denton. That’s where you will find him most days as an assistant coach with the University of North Texas.
His April hiring by new UNT head coach Russ Hodge not only gave him the chance to come home, but it also meant being part of a team that won the 2023 National Invitation Tournament.
“It was about growing up 15-20 minutes down the road but also the previous staff and coach Hodge did a great job in building this into something that’s a well-respected program around the country,” he said after helping run a practice session. “There’s a lot of momentum right now winning 31 games last year, moving to the American (Athletic Conference) and all the excitement around this campus combined with all the positives of being back in the state and being closer to home.
“There’s a bunch of things that pulled me in this direction. But a lot of it too is where the program is at and the success they’ve had over the years.”
Success has followed Forte since being one of the stars of the 2011 and 2012 Marcus Class 5A title teams. He and National Basketball Association veteran Marcus Smart then both took their talents to Oklahoma State University where five years later, Forte finished as the school’s all-time leader in three-point baskets. Plus, he earned a bachelor’s degree in recreational management.
Unlike Smart, Forte knew he wouldn’t play professionally.
“I really hadn’t thought much about the pros,” he said. “I always wanted to get into coaching. When I was done playing, I knew I wanted to get into coaching right away. I didn’t want to go any other route. I knew I was done. My body was done. Mentally, I was done. I had just put so much into it and was ready to try something new.
“Obviously, I wasn’t going to quit basketball. Coaching is always something I wanted to get into, so I figured why not start now – get into it early, try to move up and get my coaching career started.”
So, he was able to follow his collegiate coach Travis Ford to St. Louis University as a graduate assistant earning his master’s degree in organizational leadership. After two years in Missouri, he joined the staff at Sam Houston State University where he served another two years before returning to St. Louis as a full-time assistant there.
“Sam Houston was a great experience because I went into the fire there as an assistant wearing a bunch of different hats and trying to figure it out on the fly,” he said. “Then going back to St. Louis again which was special with Coach Ford and ending up back here. The last five years have been a journey of a lot of change and a lot of movement. Every stop, every job I’ve had has been a learning experience. I just try to learn whatever I can wherever I’ve been.”
What has Forte learned so far in his short coaching career?
“That’s there just so many different ways to do it and there’s no really right or wrong way,” he said. “The coaches I’ve worked for have a different way, a different style, a different system of getting their kids to buy in and believe what you are teaching and what you are telling them is the most important thing. It’s been good to see how the different coaches do it and a learning experience, being a sponge and learning everything I can.”
Besides his new job, the now 30-year-old Forte will have a new life partner as he’s set to marry former OSU soccer player Maddie Mercado next July. They live in Frisco.
“It’s been nice for me coming from player to coach pretty quick and seeing the difference because there is a big difference,” he said. “As a player you think you know everything, and I quickly realized I knew nothing. It’s been great learning from each coach who has been successful in their own way.”
Forte remembers well the magical time he and his teammates had at Marcus.
“It’s funny when I came back here (the UNT Super Pit) the first thing I thought of was our game against Lewisville our junior year. It was almost sold out,” he said.
“Looking back when you are in that moment you don’t realize exactly what’s being done. That was really something special. They were some of the best moments of my life. A lot of us still stay in touch to this day.”
While Forte doesn’t miss the daily grind of playing basketball, he does miss many of its intangibles.
“The games, the relationships, the moments, the crowds, the atmosphere, those are the things you miss,” he said. “You get some of that on the coaching side. You still have some of that team camaraderie.”
For now, Forte hopes that togetherness and previous success brings UNT back to the National Collegiate Athletic Association Tournament. Then some day in the future, he wants to lead his own program as a head coach. In the meantime, he’s just happy to be back home.