ORIGINALLY WRITTEN TOM STOPPEL
When former Tabor College football coach Tim McCarty moved on to greener pastures at NCAA Division II East Central Oklahoma last week, most folks barely had time to feel sorry for themselves before Tabor pulled a gem from the rock pile by naming Mike Gardner as McCarty’s successor.
Gardner was the logical choice, having served as McCarty’s right-hand man and defensive coordinator for the past three years.
“This opportunity as head coach at Tabor College is one of the best I’ve ever had in my career,” Gardner said. “It’s a little different when you’re in a position to make decisions rather than suggestions because there’s going to be a lot more responsibility that goes with being head coach.
“So far though, the transition period has been very smooth.”
Gardner said he, along with everyone else involved with Tabor athletics, had mixed emotions about McCarty’s departure.
“I was happy for Coach McCarty but I was also sad,” he said. “I felt like he and I were a very good team together.
“We complemented each other very well but at the same time I’m happy for him,” he added. “I think the opportunity for him to be a head coach in a conference like that (Lone Star) is something that doesn’t come along very often. I think he’s going to do a great job.”
Gardner said his biggest challenge thus far has been to “make sure I’m overseeing the overall well-being of the program.”
But he said he has absolutely no doubt he’s more than up to the task.
“I am confident in my abilities to organize and run a program,” he said. “I feel like I have a grasp on all the different aspects of what needs to be done to run a program.”
Being promoted from within the program, Gardner said his knowledge and familiarity of the returning players has eased the transition from assistant to head coach.
“The players have been very positive about this,” he said. “I think these returning guys want to establish themselves as a new team, and I think they’re going to do a great job of that.
“I’m very pleased with how they’ve all responded to the situation,” he added. “In fact, when I was contemplating what to do, the kids inspired me to stay.”
Having the support of the current administration was vital in Gardner’s decision to continue at Tabor.
“I’m pleased with the manner in which the administration has handled the situation and I credit (athletic director) Don Brubacher (academic dean) Howard Keim, (department head) Karol Hunt, and all the faculty for their support in everything that’s gone on and transpired,” Gardner said.
“I’m really excited about moving on and continuing the process and trying to stay competitive with the rest of the conference.”
Gardner said he hopes to have a complete staff “in the next couple of weeks,” but said the program isn’t sitting still in the meantime.
“Ricky Ishida (quarterback) and Jake Schenk (linebacker) are two guys who have really stepped up and taken leadership roles of this team, and I just want to be an extension of that team,” Gardner said. “They’ve done a great job. So far we’ve had 100 percent participation in our off-season program with the lifting and running.”
Gardner said many people have helped him in the transition process.
“Shelby Wehrman has done a great job of doing the morning conditioning,” he said.
Gardner said former players for contributed, too.
“Joel Odom, Preston Neufeld, Jarod Johnson and Richard Chandler have all done a great job in helping with the transition in terms of recruiting and helping with weights.”
Recruits have also been receptive to the coaching change thus far.
“We’ve had several kids up from Texas, and we’ll be having many more visits to our campus over the next couple of weeks,” Gardner said.
Securing those recruits is the first stone in the foundation of the program Gardner hopes to build upon.
“We need to have two solid recruiting classes back to back to help stabilize what we already have,” he said. “Hopefully, everything is going to work out for the betterment of the entire team and we can keep pushing forward.”
Gardner said the bar has been set a little higher since the success of the past several seasons, but he doesn’t view that as a negative consequence.
“That’s one of the things that makes this job so tough-the expectations are so much higher than they used to be, but that’s good,” he said. “It’s just a matter of continuing the process of trying to get qualified people in here. That’s the biggest challenge.”
While Gardner isn’t settled on his new staff, he does know what his responsibility will be as head coach.
“I’ll have input on both sides of the ball,” he said. “But everything we do on both sides of the ball will be dictated by our personnel.”
Gardner said one difference in next year’s will be evident to all involved.
“We won’t have 26 seniors,” he said with a laugh. “We’ll probably only have about five seniors next fall.
“It’s going to be a young team and we’ll have some holes to fill, but overall things have been very positive.”
Knowing he was the “people’s choice” to take over the reigns of the Bluejay program means a lot to Gardner as he delves into his new responsibilities.
“It’s flattering people wanted me to have an opportunity at this job,” Gardner said.
“It makes me feel good to know we have so many people who are supporting what we’re trying to do.”
Gardner will be one of four new head coaches in the KCAC next fall, but said his main focus is right here in Hillsboro.
“I’m already familiar with the conference, and I’m trying to evaluate what we can do with the staff and just see exactly where we’re at,” he said.
“I want the direction this program is headed in to continue to climb and be competitive every year within the KCAC.
“That’s what I want to do and let the chips fall where they may.”