ORIGINALLY WRITTEN TOM STOPPEL
Making the move from assistant coach to head coach is a matter of respect for Tabor College’s new football boss, Mike Gardner.
And for Gardner, respect is a two-way street.
“If you show that you respect people and that you genuinely care about them as a person, things work out fine,” Gardner said. “I’ve never wanted to have people work for me-I’ve wanted to work with them and have them work with me.”
Gardner inherits a program that is coming off the school’s first trip to the national playoffs and a best-ever 9-2 record. But he brings with him an impressive resumé as the successor for Tim McCarty, who moved on to East Central University in Oklahoma.
Gardner previously was named an AFLAC “National Assistant Coach of the Year” and received the prestigious American Football Coaches Association’s “Assistant of the Year” for the NAIA in 2003.
Even though it’s Gardner’s first head coaching job in college football, it won’t be his first time at the helm of a program.
“Not if you count the fact that I was a head volleyball coach and head tennis coach,” he said. “I know those are two completely different situations, but I started both of those programs from scratch.
“In some ways, that was even more difficult.”
No surprises yet
Gardner said leading a college program takes time, but it hasn’t posed any surprises yet.
“I just have more responsibility as far as financial issues-ordering equipment and things like that,” he said.
“I have to understand that I have to delegate more authority to my assistants. I’m one of those people that tries to do everything myself.
“Nothing has surprised me as a head coach, though,” he added. “The most difficult thing is the fact that everyone wants a piece of my time.
“But if you’re a high-level offensive or defensive coordinator, the transition to head coach isn’t that big of a deal.”
Realizing the onus is squarely on his shoulders now, Gardner said he relishes the challenge.
“I think coaches get too much credit or too much blame, but that’s the way it is and I accept that,” he said. “You definitely have to have all of your ducks in a row.”
The people’s choice
When McCarty left last spring, Gardner was the people’s choice to take over the reigns of an improving program.
“The kids’ reaction (to being named head coach) has been very positive,” he said. “But in a lot of ways, I feel that puts even more pressure on me than if I was a completely new guy.
“Then the alumni wouldn’t know me, the town wouldn’t know me, the newspapers wouldn’t know me, and the barber wouldn’t know me,” he added.
“I feel more pressure knowing the heightened expectations as opposed to someone who was an unknown.”
But that’s not all bad, according to Gardner, even though pre-season polls pegged the Bluejays at fifth and seventh in the Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference.
“It’s good to have high expectations, but I really don’t pay attention to polls,” he said. “Apparently, people don’t think we’ll be as good as I think we’ll be.
“With the returning players we have, the recruiting class we’ve brought in, and the fact we’ve got great team chemistry, we’ll surprise some people outside of our program,” Gardner said. “We have guys in our program who are leaders and want to be leaders-and they’ll have the chance to prove they are leaders.”
Gardner said no one thing convinced him to take the next step in his coaching career.
“Do you ever know when you’re ready to be a dad?” he asked. “You never know, but you know you have a desire in your heart to see what you can do and how you’re going to manage people.
“The key is really managing people-coaches, players, administrators,” he added. “But I admit I haven’t really had to deal with discipline issues yet.”
Gardner said this past summer “absolutely flew by,” but the time was spent strategically.
“We had every practice planned out by the first week of August and all of our implementation schedules done,” he said. “We were about a month ahead of what we usually were.”
Coming off the 9-2 season, Gardner said expectations around the area are high.
“Of course, there are expectations that come with the Tabor job-more than anyone could ever imagine,” he said. “A lot of it might be self-imposed, but I can remember coming here and hearing they hoped we’d win three games. But now if we win just three games, we don’t know what would happen.”
Recruiting for Tabor
Recruiting student-athletes to Tabor is a challenge, Gardner said, but this college also offers things others don’t.
“It’s a combination of the quality of education, the faculty and the students,” he said about Tabor’s selling points. “Tabor is really built around a family atmosphere.
“We want kids to leave Tabor with a good education and a good experience and having Christ as the focal point in their lives.”
Surrounding oneself with quality people makes it easier to produce a quality product, and Gardner has managed to surround himself with a top staff.
“I have an offensive coordinator (Dustin Miller) and defensive coordinator (LaVon Smith) who are making my job easier,” he said.
“I don’t feel like I have pressure, like I’m the only one coming up with a plan.”
Whether Gardner can keep the Bluejays in their recent ascent will be known when the season kicks off Sept. 11 in Hillsboro against Southwest Assemblies of God University.
But Gardner will never be one to shy away from a challenge.
“I don’t think it’s unrealistic to think Tabor College can compete for the conference title every year,” he said.
“If that doesn’t happen, we’ll take a step back and see why we didn’t win, go out and recruit better, and see what happens the next year.”