Susie Gardner: Head Coach at Mercer University

Susie Gardner

Mercer University Head Coach

Mercer University Head Coach Susie Gardner has had her heart set on coaching since junior high. When she began her successful playing career at the University of Georgia she confirmed her desire to coach at the college level. Upon graduation she stayed with the Bulldogs under Head Coach Andy Landers as a Graduate Assistant, a position that served as a turning point in her career. There she was introduced to the coaching perspective of the game and learning all about the behind the scenes work that goes into running a successful program.

From there she landed her first head coaching job at a junior college at age 23, ventured to San Diego State as an assistant, and then was the head coach at Arkansas for four years. She also has experience as an Assistant at Florida and as the Head Coach at Austin Peay, where she was dubbed the 2003 “OVC Coach of the Year” and solidified three OVC tournament championships (2001, 2002 & 2003), an OVC regular season title (2003) and three NCAA post-season berths (2001, 2002 & 2003). Throughout her coaching career she has been responsible for developing players who have continued on to play professionally as well as multiple conference and freshmen players of the year.

Capitalize Your GA Experience

To this day, Coach Gardner reflects upon her graduate assistantship as one of her most valuable experiences. By being a GA, she was able to learn the nitty gritty behind the scenes work that goes on in nearly every aspect of coaching. Although graduate assistants often do not have coaching responsibilities, GA’s are in a tremendous place to volunteer with every coach on staff, constantly asking “What can I do to help?” Coach Gardner suggests reaching out beyond the walls of your staff, learning from other coaches in the departments. Find out how they run their program, what they emphasize, and what makes them successful; talk to anyone who you think can make you better. Lastly, be ready to help others when they ask or ask them how you can help them!

Changing Culture

Throughout her time as a coach, Coach Gardner has helped transform numerous programs. When we asked her about her success in coming into programs and changing the culture, she stated, “Never say ‘we’re going to change the culture.'” From the outside, no one else typically realizes how bad the culture may actually be and you don’t want the program to appear that it is in dire straits. Additionally, never talk negatively about the previous coach. When it comes to changing the culture, talk to the coaches about it and have a game plan, but don’t proclaim it. She suggests letting it happen more organically.

Recruiting is a long-term solution to changing culture, but in the interim it is critical to make the players you currently have feel valued and to let them know that you genuinely care. By giving the players a quality locker room, new gear, motivational words on the walls, you’re showing them that they are important to you and that you value them. The subtle visuals that they see every day can play a large part in impacting the culture. When you spot players who are really buying in, develop them as leaders who can bring others along.

“If this was my program, what would I do as the head coach?”

Often times assistant coaches can compartmentalize themselves into certain aspects of the coaching profession, such as recruiting. As an assistant or recruiting coordinator this is a crucial skill however it isn’t an essential quality for a head coach or aspiring head coach.   One of the essential skills that a head coach must hone in on is the x’s and o’s of the game. To develop your arsenal in this area of the job, Coach Gardner suggests finding a program’s system that you like and directly reach out to that coach to learn from them. Being a member of Georgia’s program for six years heavily influenced her coaching style, but she makes it a point to learn from other coaches and see different perspectives as well.

When it comes to systems you like, go watch a practice, speak one on one with the coach, call them, anything that will help you better understand the system and how to effectively teach it. With so many resources available and videos online, Coach Gardner will find herself seeking out the coaches of successful men’s programs or will study film, such as Homer Drew’s time and score situations, and then will call him to ask follow up questions about it. Don’t be afraid to reach out to people you want to learn from.

When you have the opportunity as an assistant coach to coach a team in a drill, “that’s your chance to coach it like your team.” When you begin to think about how you would run things as a head coach, share some of these suggestions with your head coach. Head Coaches want to hear that you’re engaged and thinking about the big picture. As an assistant you have so much more time to grow and sit in on other team’s practices. While at Florida, Coach Gardner had the opportunity to watch Billy Donovan’s practices and learn from them. She’d write down anything and everything from his practices whether it was drills she liked or small adjustments such as putting the opponent’s correct numbers on the scout team’s practice jerseys.

Zero Hour Suggestions

One of our initiatives at The Coaching Assist is to learn something new every day and to develop our coaching skillset. To do this, we began “zero hour” where we get to the office an hour before our day typically starts and we work on a new skill. Before speaking with Coach Gardner our original goals were still unrefined and she was able to provide us with suggestions for making the most of the hour we spend every morning investing in our skills. Here were some of her tips:

  1. Create “on paper” philosophies. Know what your coaching, recruiting, academic, social life, etc. philosophies are.
  2. Be able to verbalize what those philosophies are and why you want to coach.
  3. Make a list of absolutely everything you want to learn and prioritize the top 20. “Don’t be a jack of all trades, have more tunnel vision in developing specific skills. Some may take a couple days, some may take a week. Adjust accordingly.
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