ORIGINALLY WRITTEN TOM STOPPEL
Mike Gardner has resigned as head football coach at Tabor College to assume similar duties at Malone College in Canton, Ohio.
“We regret his decision to leave,” said Tabor athletic director Don Brubacher said, “but wish he and his family God’s best as he moves on to new opportunities.”
Gardner said his decision to leave Tabor is filled with mixed emotions.
“It’s both difficult and easy to leave,” Gardner said. “I feel like the time is there to go and give somebody else an opportunity to carry the torch at Tabor College.
“Hopefully they’ll find somebody else quickly.”
The team was informed of Gardner’s decision Thursday.
Dustin Miller, offensive coordinator, will join Gardner’s new staff.
“Northeast Ohio is football country,” Gardner said of his decision to go to Malone College. “People here don’t realize that quite as much.
“That area has the Massilon-McKinley high school game every year and it draws over 30,000 people-and it’s not unusual for a high school games to have 25,000 people in attendance,” he added. “It’s like (the movie) ‘Friday Night Lights’ up there.”
Since Gardner took over as head coach of the Bluejays in 2004, Tabor has won back-to-back KCAC titles and appeared in the NAIA playoffs both seasons. This year, the Bluejays were undefeated in the KCAC at 9-0 while compiling a 10-0 overall record. They finished the season 11-1 and were ranked as high as sixth in the nation.
A 17-14 win over Graceland University in the first round of the NAIA national playoffs at Cessna Stadium, Wichita, was the first playoff victory in school history.
The season ended with a 48-13 loss to the University of Sioux Falls in the national quarter-finals.
Despite his on field success, Gardner said it was the student-athletes who made his stay at Tabor College most memorable.
“I’m most proud of the relationships I made with my players and the relationships they made with each other,” Gardner said. “We were able to take a group of guys who were from such a varied background-spiritually and geographically-and we put them together. They became a band of brothers.”
Before taking over Tabor’s program, Gardner was assistant head coach and defensive coordinator under Tim McCarty, now on the coaching staff of Kansas State University.
“We are very pleased with the leadership Coach Gardner has provided as both defensive coordinator and head coach,” Brubacher said.
Gardner was honored as both an AFLAC National Assistant Coach of the Year and American Football Coaches Association Assistant Coach of the Year during the 2003 season, and KCAC Co-Coach of the Year in 2004 and 2005.
Tabor College President Larry Nikkel said Gardner was nothing but an attribute for Tabor College.
“I have nothing but appreciation for what Mike brought to Tabor College and what he, along with his coaches and the athletic department, were able to accomplish here.
“Hiring the right people is among the greatest responsibilities of leadership,” Nikkel added. “But hiring the right people also carries risk; that is, when they do their jobs well, their good work comes to the attention of others who covet them.”
Realizing Gardner would be pursued, and realizing the importance of a good partnership between athletics and academics, Nikkel said “the administration made salary, personnel and facility commitments which would demonstrate the organization’s commitment to the program.
“In spite of those commitments, the opportunity presented to Mike was too good for him to pass up.”
The search for Gardner’s successor has already begun.
Gardner said although it’s sometimes difficult to accept a new position, it’s part of his profession.
“Moving is just a part of coaching,” Gardner said. “My career aspirations are to make it big time wherever I am and I feel like I’ve done that (at Tabor College).”
The Malone Pioneers finished the 2005 season with a 3-7 record. They claimed the Mid-State Football Association championship titles in 1995, 1996 and 1998.
“At Malone, we’ll have a chance to win a national title, but so will every other member of that conference,” Gardner said. “It’s a good situation but a tough situation at the same time.”
Malone is a member of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics and National Christian College Athletic Association.
“The mission at Malone is very similar to Tabor, spiritually and academically,” Gardner said. “(But) they haven’t had a winning season in about eight years.”
Gardner’s contract at Malone begins Feb. 1.