Athens, GA -- I can say with 100 percent conviction that I have never seen someone look as polished and professional while wearing sweatpants and a warm-up shirt as Head Coach Joni Taylor did on Wednesday afternoon.
Sporting a smile from ear-to-ear, her humble confidence lit up the room as she welcomed me into her office with an outstretched hand. Her left hand hung close to her side, decorated with a beautiful, new wedding band - a subtle reminder of a wonderful summer celebration that has segued into exciting beginnings both in her personal and professional lives.
On April 12, 2015, Taylor was internally promoted to head coach for the University of Georgia Women's Basketball team after the retirement announcement of former head coach, Andy Landers. Prior to the new job acceptance, Taylor spent four seasons with the Lady Bulldogs as a member of the coaching staff, three of which she was appointed as associate head coach.
With a good feel for the program's history and its future expectations, Taylor is beyond excited about the opportunity to foster the team's personal growth and become a force to reckon with throughout the course of the season.
"I feel like I'm finally starting to get adjusted," Taylor commented, "With that being said, my head is still spinning, and I think it will be for the next couple of years, because there's just so many things that you want to do...But I have a great staff and the players have been absolutely great in doing what we ask, so it's made the transition really, really smooth."
Taylor explained that Georgia fans will continue to witness some of Landers' greatness exhibited on the court, for she does not want to stray from the successes and strengths that have been rooted in UGA women's basketball. "I learned so much from him...It's Georgia basketball, and Georgia basketball is Andy Landers.
"So I think you're going to see that same staple, especially defensively in terms of ‘we're going to get after you, we're going to play really hard, we're going to be exciting on the floor, and make it really tough for people.'"
With the new implementation of four-quarter games, returning star players and a strong upperclassmen presence, the women's basketball program is excited to tackle new changes with a fresh and experienced squad.
"We're all embarking on this new era of Georgia basketball together...We all felt the sting from last year and don't want to be on the wrong side of history again," Taylor commented, "And we all share the same passion and motivation and responsibility to make sure Georgia's back to the dominance and prominence it should be and it's always been."
In practice, the coaching staff has been pushing the players to work hard for longer stretches of time, in preparation for the adjustments on the court. Also, Taylor has been honing in on the importance of verbal communication and audible support of one another, stressing its benefits and correlation to teamwork and unity.
The staff has been sharing articles and videos with the girls that express positivity between teammates and the effects that positive communication can have on overall play. Taylor expressed that she has already seen a change in verbal communication between the girls and it is evident during practice, gradually translating into scrimmages as well.
Previously this season, when speaking with team leaders and strong players during post-game interviews, it was obvious that the continuous support is overwhelming, and they find joy in one another's accomplishments. The overall mood has changed for the better, and she expounded upon the fact that even during the toughest of times, positive chatter can lift up the team's mood and the surrounding atmosphere in the stands.
"They're gelling really well as a team right now, and it's fun to watch for them, and my challenge for them is when things get tough, when things get hard, that's when we'll know if what we feel now is real," Taylor explained. "It's real right now because we're winning and having fun, but when times get tough, where are we going to be?"
As of recent, while dealing with the bumps and bruises of the gauntlet of the SEC season, the young women have shown their mettle against top ranked SEC competitors such as Mississippi State, Florida while also taking some tough losses. It will be a test of time, motivation, and heart to get the Lady Dawgs back on track to qualify for the NCAA Tournament, currently 4-5 in conference play.
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From the moment Landers announced his retirement, the players voiced their support for Coach Taylor's possible promotion, visiting her in the office and expressing their confidence in her leadership abilities.
Both current and past players hold Coach Taylor in high esteem, for she has cultivated genuine and long-lasting relationships with the girls, all while focusing on developing each player into the best athlete she can become.
Taylor has a respected past with prospect recruitment and retention at Georgia and university programs where she had previously been employed. She has personally recruited a handful of current Lady Bulldogs, and they know how she runs, and reciprocally, she knows what makes her players tick.
"I think it's about the relationship, especially with females," Taylor said, touching upon the different interactions she has had over the years. "You need to make them know that you're invested in them, and you have to be able to tell them their tangible goals. If you can do that and show that it's genuine, and you have their best interest at heart, then the rest takes care of itself."
Over the Thanksgiving break, the Lady Dawgs traveled cross-country to participate in the Radisson Chatsworth Thanksgiving Classic in Northridge, California. After clinching two victories over BYU and Cal State Northridge, the UGA women made a name for themselves and took the west coast by storm. Not only did they exhibit success on the court, but they grew together as a team outside of the stadium as a family.
"The freshmen and sophomores are responsible for Thanksgiving - they have to do some type of team activity, and the juniors are responsible for Christmas, and the seniors have Valentine's Day," Taylor explained. "So for Thanksgiving, we went out there and our little team activity...was that everybody had a sheet of paper, and you drew a name out of a hat.
"And then, whoever's name you drew, you had to draw a turkey, trace it with your hand like you did in elementary school, and you had to guess who the turkey was based on the drawing.
"So, that was a lot of fun. I had Marjorie, so I gave her a lot of hair, and I gave her a stethoscope, and she loves music, so I put some musical notes on it...On the back of it we had to write three reasons why we were thankful for that person...It allowed us to really connect and to share and express some things that they may not always say to each other."
Even with new changes coming from all directions, the players have had Coach Taylor's back from the get-go. One supplemental element that Taylor has decided to revamp is the program's extensive community service in the surrounding counties.
During her enrollment and collegiate basketball career at the University of Alabama, Taylor was named to the SEC's Community Service team for women's basketball in 1999, 2000, and 2001 and received a post-graduate scholarship for her outstanding community involvement.
With such a powerful background, she is hoping to influence the girls as she takes them under her wing and infiltrate them throughout the community, something her husband had also exercised when he coached at the University of South Carolina, and practices in everyday life.
"It's just a big part of who were are as people, and I think that's a big reason for why we are attracted to each other - because we are very like-minded in terms of our spirituality and who we are as people, and just very character-driven people and wanting to give back," Taylor said. "I think it just gives you a deeper relationship and people will bend over backwards to help you and that's just how I was raised...It's worked for 36 years, so why stop?"
Since the start of pre-season, the Lady Bulldogs have participated in a variety of community events to connect with their current and future fans. One influential outing that the team partook in and will continue to revisit is the adoption of a 5th-grade class at Howard B. Stroud Elementary School.
The girls spent a morning reading to the children and passing out backpacks to help kick-off their school year. Another iconic event that they participated in was the annual Homecoming parade at UGA, where they tossed out candy and interacted with the attendees. This got the girls excited for the start of the season and exhibited a sense of humility and care, expressing their thankfulness for the loyalty of their fans.
"Community service is something that we've always done," Taylor explained, "but we're going to do a whole lot more... If we're going to ask people to come and support us then we have to do our part and be out in Athens and Oconee County as well. When they look back years from now, they're going to be so glad that they did. Because in the long run, it really benefits them even more than those kids. It's an overall experience."
The future of the UGA Women's Basketball program is a bright one, harboring new initiatives and supporting a unified drive to make sure that all of those involved have a fulfilled experience. Head Coach Taylor is beyond qualified to take over as the face of women's basketball at the University of Georgia.
She is gradually learning the ropes and putting the puzzle together, but she's adding a couple of her own jigsaw pieces to the picture to create a new perspective, and her family will have her back every step of the way.