COMMENTARY- For the love of Tabor football, compensate Coach Gardner

The clock struck midnight on Tabor College’s Cinderella season last Saturday, but not before the season produced a lifetime of memories for all involved.

Eleven straight victories resulted in the school’s second consecutive Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference title and a top-10 national ranking.

Its 17-14 win over Graceland University the previous week earned Tabor its first post-season playoff victory and the first post-season win by a KCAC school in seven years.

In regard to personal accolades, 22 Bluejays garnered All-KCAC recognition, head coach Mike Gardner was named co-coach-of-the-year and Dustin Miller was tabbed assistant coach-of-the-year.

Not bad for a school with less than 500 full-time students on its Hillsboro campus.

There’s never been a better time in the school’s 39-year history to be a Bluejay football fan.

So, why do I have a bad feeling in my stomach? The answer is simple: I’m a selfish creature of habit.

I like things just the way they are and I don’t want Coach Gardner to leave Tabor College.

It’s ridiculous to credit one man with the Miracle in Marion County because the roster includes nearly 100 student-athletes, about a dozen coaches and a great support staff.

All indicators, though, point to Gardner as the architect of football’s most amazing reconstruction projects since Bill Snyder turned Futility U. into a Big 12 title contender.

So how does Tabor College keep a coach of his obvious intelligence, a man who has the respect of not only every man on the roster but of the entire Hillsboro community?

Simple. Make him an offer he just can’t refuse, if there is such a thing. Give Gardner more money and better facilities.

Heading into this football season, Gardner was the second lowest paid football coach in the KCAC. Only Saint Mary’s Scott Frear was paid less and he quit two days before the season began.

All Gardner has done is compile a 20-3 record in two seasons after taking over for former coach Tim McCarty.

Gardner has been mentioned by American Football Monthly as a “Hot Coach of 2005,” selected as an AFLAC National Coach of the Year and recognized by the American Football Coaches Association as Assistant Coach-of-the-Year.

All this as Tabor plays its games in a facility that would make most high school programs cringe.

I know. The problem is money, or lack thereof. But when more than 20 percent of your student body is on the football team, what choice do you have?

Sure, the education and Christ-centered atmosphere at Tabor is unique not only in Kansas, but nationally.

Granted, professors do a fantastic job and are also underpaid.

But generally speaking, high school graduates don’t come to a college because they want to be in a class taught by Prof. Whomever.

They do, however, want to be part of a program under the guidance of Coach Gardner who has instilled a family-first atmosphere.

And don’t think the student-athletes Gardner and his staff recruit to Tabor are cast-offs and trouble makers, either.

Community-minded, family-oriented men dominate the roster and they have led by example, both on and off the field.

How then do we guarantee Gardner return? Truthfully, we probably can’t. He’s a hot commodity on the coaching scene and most, if not all, schools have many more dollars in the athletic budget than Tabor.

But it’s unthinkable not to at least try to do whatever can be done-double or even triple his salary, purchase some nice bleachers and build a press box larger than a pigeon cage.

Borrow the money, if necessary. As in “Field of Dreams,” if you build it they will come.

By investing in the athletic future of Tabor College, you’re also investing in the future of the college as a whole.

By improving facilities at Tabor, more bonafide student-athletes will want to come to Hillsboro for the Tabor experience.

And that isn’t limited to only football facilities. I know the student-housing project along Adams Street is scheduled for next summer. But if the football program goes down hill, those extra rooms may not be necessary.

Keep the successful coaches around and the students will stay around, necessitating those new buildings and generating more immediate income as well as alumni donors.

While we’re at it, let’s increase the wages of all the coaches at Tabor. Championships in women’s and men’s basketball last year and five straight in volleyball surely deserve compensation.

Plus the baseball, softball, tennis, track-and-field and cross-country programs represent Tabor each year with quality while bringing in precious students.

The ordinary fan can do his or her part, too. I’m sure anyone who wants to support Tabor’s athletic programs with an end-of-the-year tax deduction would be greeted with open arms. But let’s not allow the football program to revert back to the former days of futility.

Maybe no amount of money will keep Gardner here and we can’t blame him if his career aspirations are higher than small-college NAIA football.

But it appears that Gardner loves Tabor, his student-athletes and the Hillsboro lifestyle.

It took almost 40 years for Tabor to win its first two conference football titles. It’s a good bet that by retaining Gardner, it won’t take that long for the next two.

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