Susie Gardner’s memory of Mercer wasn’t all that positive, and it certainly was not an enticing one.
“My last impression was 1980-something,” Gardner said. “That was my last impression. So when Mercer called, I’m like, ‘I’m not sure I’d be interested.’ ”
She remembered a visit to Mercer’s old Porter Gym, the tiny facility with roof leaks, wooden bleachers and minimal air conditioning.
That was when Gardner was a player at Georgia, and the Lady Bulldogs were hosted by Mercer.
Things have very much changed, enough that a few phone calls and visits to the Internet later, Gardner was introduced Thursday at Mercer’s head women’s basketball coach.
“She’s a winner,” Mercer athletics director Bobby Pope said about his final hire as the school’s AD. “She’s been at the pinnacle in college basketball, playing and coaching at Georgia. She knows the state of Georgia; she knows the state of Florida.
“She just stands out to you.”
Gardner, wearing a fittingly orange blouse, was presented in the building that made her give the job a second look, on the concourse of the University Center, with some boosters, school officials and players looking on.
Nodding toward the half-dozen Bears to her left, Gardner hinted at her immediate priority.
“All this mingling around and having a good lunch, my most exciting moment is going to be at 5 o’clock (Thursday) afternoon when I get to sit down with those guys,” she said. “That’s why I’m here, is for them.”
Every player on the Mercer roster was recruited by former head coach Janell Jones, who resigned after being offered a one-year contract despite clear progress in the program.
Kendra Grant, a forward from Rutland, was one of those who have spent the past two weeks wondering about what they signed up for.
“We had been pretty anxious,” Grant said. “But we wanted to meet the new coach, see how it went. She came over to us, and she was warm and was very friendly.”
Guard Neicey Lewis said the team was depressed for a week after Jones’ announcement but adopted a wait-and-see attitude.
“(Gardner) seems like a very smart and knowledgeable woman about basketball,” Lewis said after the news conference. “She seems like a people person. That’s all I can ask for.”
Pope said one player, Oklahoman Lorin Hammer, has been granted a release, but that’s a technicality because she wasn’t on an athletic scholarship. Thus, it’s likely that signee Lindsey Hammer, Lorin’s sister, will also see about being released from her national letter-of-intent.
Pope said about three or four others had asked for or inquired about a release.
The hiring was engineered by Pope and senior women’s administrator and senior associate athletics director Sybil Blalock, a former Mercer player and assistant coach.
Jim Cole, who succeeds Pope as athletics director in six days, flew from Gainesville, Fla., to Macon with Gardner on Thursday morning and doesn’t believe converting the Bears will be a huge task.
“(Thursday) morning, getting to talk with her, it was like I’d known her all my life,” Cole said. “We were laughing and talking about sports. It was neat, the first time you meet somebody like that, to have that warm feeling.”
Cole has been focusing on Mercer Athletic Foundation work in the final days before he succeeds Pope, so the flight was his first meeting with Gardner.
“Sybil and Bobby have been in this business for a long time,” Cole said. “Sybil had known her for a long time. My hat’s off to Bobby and Sybil.”
Gardner plans to stay in town through the weekend to meet with incoming freshmen who are taking early summer-school classes.
Jones resigned on Jan. 9, and Pope was in Florida for A-Sun meetings at the time. Georgia State head coach Sharon Baldwin-Tener, Mercer’s head coach in 2001-02, called Gardner before Pope did.
“I was probably playing golf,” Gardner said. “Sharon called and said the job was open, and I said, ‘OK.’ And that’s about it.”
In Gardner’s mind, Mercer meant Porter Gym.
“I kinda blew it off, then I went online,” she said. “I had no idea that they’d built a new facility. This is amazing.”
Pope then called her on June. 15, and after initially giving it little thought, Gardner’s interest was piqued after a number of phone calls, including more to Baldwin-Tener and one with Mercer president Bill Underwood, as well as her own research.
The offer came Friday, was accepted Monday, and before she knew it, Gardner was flying to her new job, sight unseen.
Gardner has been part of three SEC championships and two Final Fours as a player at Georgia, a junior college region title at Anderson (S.C), three Western Athletic Conference crowns as an assistant at San Diego State and three Ohio Valley Conference championships at Austin Peay.
She was the OVC coach of the year in 2003, when the Lady Governors swept the regular-season and tournament championships.
Austin Peay is about 40 miles northwest of Nashville, Tenn., in Clarksville and has a traditional undergraduate enrollment of about 9,000. It competes in the Ohio Valley Conference with former A-Sun member Jacksonville State.
Gardner, who was 64-54 in four seasons as the head coach at Arkansas, was in charge of the team’s academic program at Florida and brings similar expectations to Mercer. She said she called a colleague — and possible future assistant — about the job and asked her what the first thing was she thought of about Mercer.
“Smart kids,” she said was the reply.
Gardner said she was happy to return to Georgia, because three years in Gainesville can be tough for anybody who has worn the red and black.
“It was really difficult,” she said. “Florida fans would call me ‘Gator bait,’ and Coach Landers, he was abusing me because I was a Gator. I was really excited about coming back to Georgia.
“I’m back, you know? It’s going to be awesome.”
The Susie Gardner file
Born: Nashville, Tenn., June 29, 1964
Family: Father Jim Gardner, mother Mary Jane McKuhen, stepfather Roy McKuhen, sister Carolyn Duggan High School: Mt. Juliet (Tenn.)
College: Georgia (bachelor’s, 1986; Master’s,1988) Playing career: 1982-86 - Georgia, four-year letter winner; 1983 - Sports Festival South Team, won gold medal; USA Select team, competed in Canada
1986-88 - Graduate assistant, Georgia
1988-92 - Head coach, Anderson (S.C.) College (60-46)
1992-95 - Assistant coach, San Diego State
1995-03 - Head coach, Austin Peay (112-92)
2003-07 - Head coach, Arkansas
2007-10 - Assistant coach, Florida
1983-86 - NCAA tournament, Georgia, player 1983, 1985 - Final Four, Georgia, player
1987-89 - NCAA tournament, Georgia, grad assistant
1993-95 - NCAA tournament, San Diego State, assistant
2005 - Women’s National Invitation Tournament, Arkansas, head coach
2008 - WNIT, Florida, assistant
2009 - NCAA tournament, Florida, assistant 2010 - WNIT, Florida, assistant