Coaches Corner: Joni Taylor
Joni Taylor served as a court coach at the 2018 USA Basketball Women’s U18 National Team trials, and she is entering her sixth year as the head women’s basketball coach at the University of Georgia, where she has compiled a 98-58 record (.628 winning percentage) through the 2019-20 season.
Earning 21 wins in her first season with the Bulldogs in 2015-16, Taylor earned the Spalding Maggie Dixon National Rookie Coach of the Year award. In 2017-18, Georgia finished 26-7 and Taylor was a semifinalist for the Werner Ladder Naismith National Coach of the Year award.
Overall, Taylor has a total of 19 seasons of Division I experience. She was an associate head coach at Georgia for three seasons (2012-13 to 2014-15) and an assistant coach there in 2011-12. Prior to Georgia, Taylor was an assistant coach at Louisiana State University in 2010-11, an associate head coach at Alabama from 2008-09 to 2009-10, an assistant coach and associate head coach at Louisiana Tech from 2005-06 to 2007-08 and an assistant at Troy from 2002-03 to 2004-05.
USA Basketball spoke with Taylor to gain her insight and perspective on coaching.
What things are important to accomplish in the preseason?
If this were three months ago, or another year, I’d have a whole lot of things to rattle off to accomplish in the preseason. I think with the dynamic we're in with COVID, what I have kind of settled on is, number one, the player’s health and wellness has to be what I want to make sure we have accomplished with the uncertainty of everything. And for us in the SEC, fall sports are getting pushed back to Sept. 1. It’s something that makes you wonder what's going to happen to winter sports and us in general. So, the first thing that I want to accomplish in the preseason is that everybody is healthy and safe. And, from a wellness standpoint, that they are mentally in a positive space.
I'm still excited about what they want to accomplish at Georgia as a student-athlete. I would include that with all the social unrest that we have going on as well. It's been a lot to digest and process for everybody. Then you take into consideration 18, 22- to 23-year-olds who are not in a normal environment in terms of being able to work out and be with their team in some cases or practice, or even know what the future looks like.
I think back to 9/11. We've been involved in crisis moments, but there was always a finish line. You always knew, ‘Okay, we have three weeks, and then this happens.’ And there's no finish line with COVID. We are used to being in a space where we can tell them exactly what the finish line looks like and having something to look forward to, and all that uncertainty just has everybody a bit unrestful.
I think it's being creative and how, when you're adding new pieces to your team, whether that's transfers, or freshmen, you normally would have done over the summer a whole lot of bonding and a lot of activities together that we cannot do right now. And so, you're doing it virtually over zoom, and if you do see them face to face, you're trying to maintain social distancing. So again, figuring out ways to be creative in making sure they can have that same camaraderie.
If we do have a season, we’re making sure that they're in the best shape from a basketball standpoint that they can be without injury, because they've been away from you since March. We just got our ladies back June 22, and we've been in a ramp-up phase of kind of getting them back to full speed. You want to make sure that you have them ready to go, but you don't push too hard or too fast and risk injury.
What is the most important characteristic you work to develop in your athletes?
Their mindset, mental toughness, character and who they are as people. When I think from an ambassador standpoint, there's a lot of things that we can we talk about, and if you've got the right character and you've got a toughness mentality, then that's going to get you through all those basketball things. It's also going to be something that is going to help you once you leave Georgia for the next 40 years. We’re not only preparing them for the four or five years they're with us, but what is the next 40 looks like and making sure that we are putting them in the right place to be successful once they leave here. That comes with your work ethic, your character and just the mental. I'm really big on, ‘Your mind tells your body what to do.’ So, if you can control your mind, then you can control your body. We want to feed them the right information to educate them and make them as mentally tough as possible.
We use the murder of George Floyd to talk about the mental toughness and your character and how it's going to be so important that we are in the forefront of handling this the right way and leading. There's going to be bad days but being able to not let one or two bad days turn into a week or a month and things like that.
I think for our returners, they've heard it enough that they can tap into that and we can use what we're going through right now as great teaching moments as to why it's so important to have the right type of mental toughness and character. I think for our freshmen and transfers who have not seen it modeled and we've not been in front of to really dial into it, it probably will be a different transition for them.
What is it a characteristic or trait that you would like others to associate or recognize in your teams?
Our never-give-up mentality, a toughness mentality. I would love for the people who watch us play to say that they love each other and that's evident on the court, that they play really hard and they're never going to quit. Those are the types of things I think about when I see really good teams. Talent sticks out, but beyond the talent, it's how do they engage with each other? How do they engage with their coaches, and that says a lot about their culture. Those things are what I identify when I watch other teams play – the mentality of how hard they work and a sense of relentless into how they approach the game
What made you pursue a career in coaching?
You know, it's funny. I got my degree in secondary education, and I wanted to be a high school counselor and a Christian counselor on the weekend. I was going to go to grad school to get my counseling degree, and that was what I was going to do. I had a fifth year at the University of Alabama, because they add your student teaching. It was really hard to be a student, teach and play basketball at the same time, because you just missed a lot of the bulk of the student teaching. So, I came back my fifth year to student teach, and in doing that I had the opportunity to work in the men's basketball office at the time. Mark Godfrey was the head coach at Alabama, and his director of basketball operations Darren Boatright asked me if I would work for him and his office. And I said sure. I had to put in 20 hours a week, and that is when I really caught the coaching bug. My responsibilities were making copies, creating graphics and stuffing envelopes and answering the phone initially, but then because of my basketball background I hosted prospects when they came on campus when I was a player and had been to the team dinners. So, they started involving me in the recruiting process of attending the dinners. And then when I was in school, it was back when you could actually go to the hotel and decorate the hotel and when you could put pictures up and things like that. I would decorate the hotel and get it ready. But just, honestly, being behind the scenes and seeing the whole picture of what a college coach does and how a college coach has the opportunity to change life in a positive way. Before on the outside looking in, and when I'm in the outside as a player, you think your coaches watch film, they show up, they coach you and they go home. To be in that office every day, to see the thought process behind recruiting and the thought process behind scouting and all the pieces of it and how you can touch lives. Since then I knew that this is what I want to do.
So, I stumbled upon it really, but once I saw it and was in it, it I knew that's what I wanted to do. And that's what I've been doing ever since.
I'll say this, too. The year that I was helping out with men's basketball was the year of 9/11. That was very impactful, because I remember where I was when it happened number one, but then we were student teaching, and I was actually in a trailer at a high school. We were in a trailer because part of the school was under construction, so we were detached from the rest of the school that had TVs in their room. So, when we came out of the trailer at the end of the day, we had no idea what had happened. And when we came out, we saw the look on everybody's faces, and we realized something really bad had happened. That's when they told us about the towers. I went up the office and I remember Mr. Godfrey, calling me from the Birmingham Airport, because that was also the same day that you could start going out for home visits in September, and he was driving home from Birmingham and I remember distinctly him saying, ‘I'm headed home, they've shut down all flights for two and a half week period. But I still got to go see these young men and their families. So, by the time I get back to campus, have an outline for me by train, by bus, by car, I'm still going to make all of these appointments that we have set up.’
And so again, it taught me a lot, because we are doing this, and we are in tears as we are watching what happened in New York and just how that impacted everybody. But you still had a job to do and, also, to see the dedication of those coaches of saying, ‘okay, let's put our big girl britches on, or let’s put our hard hats on and let's get to work. Even though we've got some challenging times, we've still got to figure something out.’ So, it is instilled in me to figure it out, and that is something that has really stuck with me throughout my career.