Susie Gardner’s building a legacy at Mercer. How she took team from 2 wins to 2 championships

Mercer head coach celebrates by cutting down net

Mercer Bears women's basketball head coach Susie Gardner finishes cutting down a net after her team beat East Tennessee State on Saturday to end the regular season with a 14-0 conference record and the SoCon regular-season title.
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Mercer Bears women's basketball head coach Susie Gardner finishes cutting down a net after her team beat East Tennessee State on Saturday to end the regular season with a 14-0 conference record and the SoCon regular-season title.

The Mercer women’s basketball team has won two straight conference titles.

On Friday, they get the chance to play in two straight NCAA tournaments.

The number two also has another connection to the Bears. It was the number of total wins they tallied in head coach Susie Gardner’s first season in 2010. The squad finished 2-28 that season.

“Certainly if one allows themselves to look back on those early days you realize what we’ve accomplished here is pretty incredible,” Gardner said recently. “I don’t go back to those early days a lot and think about it though.”

In her second season, the team won seven games. Since those first two years, the Bears have won more than half their games every year, winning at least 17 times in Gardner’s last seven seasons.

Gardner said a lot has changed in her nine years at the helm. At one point it was hard to get fans to come. There were times when visiting teams brought more vocal supporters. Now they have a true home-court advantage.

“It brings tears to my eyes to know that back in the day we didn’t want to promote,” she said. “We didn’t want to promote our program ‘cause we didn’t want people to see the product that we had.”

She said the team has fed off fans’ enthusiasm the last few seasons.

“I think the now product is what is bringing people here. The curiosity of the success,” she said. “I am so humbled by the fact that so many people do come… they are a big part of the reason that we are winning.”

Before arriving at Mercer, Gardner was no stranger to the college basketball postseason. As a player, she was a member of a pair of NCAA Final Four teams at the University of Georgia in the 1980s. She then spent two seasons at Georgia as a graduate assistant under her head coach Andy Landers.

“I always knew I wanted to coach even in high school,” she said.

At UGA, she earned her masters in education. Gardner also learned more about coaching: time management, being more organized and learning to manage others. Such elements were invaluable in her maturation as a coach.

“I really got my masters not in the classroom but behind the scenes with coach Landers,” Gardner said. “I got to see what things really are. It’s not just showing up at practice. It’s not just showing up at games.”

After a few seasons as an assistant at San Diego State University, she took over as the head coach of the Austin Peay Governors where she made the NCAA tournament three straight times from 2001-2003.

She eventually took a job with the Arkansas Razorbacks as their head coach before stepping down and later becoming an assistant at Florida. Gardner said the move gave her time to refocus, but in her heart knew she wanted to be a head coach again.

“Then this job (at Mercer) came open,” Gardner said. “Little did I know we were going to struggle so badly in the first two years. But it ended up being a great, great decision.”

On the same day Gardner took over at Mercer, the school hired athletic director Jim Cole. Cole said that while Gardner’s squads rarely won early on, he knew she was in the process of building a winner. He also knew she had an eye for talent.

“You could just kind of see that wave building. I’ll never forget in the hall one day she talked about Kahlia Lawrence,” Cole said. “She said, ‘I’ve got this recruit in Columbus and she’s a program changer.’ She goes, ‘I’ve got to get her.’”

Lawrence would eventually commit to play for the Bears alongside highly-touted point guard Sydni Means.

Gardner then added another class, including KeKe Calloway, Amanda Thompson, Rachel Selph, Linnea Rosendal and Ally Welch.

Lawrence and Means would be at the forefront of three consecutive regular-season titles and the first NCAA tournament appearance in school history.

Gardner said before this season, many wondered if the team could repeat its success without Lawrence and Means, who had graduated.

“Finally Ally (Welch) said, ‘We were part of the team last year, too,’” Gardner said. “I think that was the moment I realized, without us talking about it, how important it was to these guys to make their own legacy.”

The team responded by going undefeated in the conference for the second straight season and clinching another NCAA tournament berth despite the loss of two of the program’s greats.

This season also gave Gardner a chance to go full circle in the mentor role of a young coach. She hired Means as an assistant to fill a role similar to one that Gardner held under Landers at Georgia.

“This experience has been almost indescribable because I played for her,” Means said. “I just have a new appreciation for the game. ... She was just, like, ‘Come be my coach and I’ll show you how to do it.’”

While the days of two-win seasons are in the rear-view mirror, Gardner said the last two seasons ending in titles have been a bit sweeter.

“Would I want to live those two years again? No. Never would I ever want to go through those two years again,” she said. “Sometimes the struggle makes you appreciate it more than just walking into a scenario where you’re just trying to maintain.”

She also credits the players who didn’t get a chance to enjoy all the wins and titles that have come over the last four years.

“These guys inherited this success,” she said. “It’s (players) who came here when we weren’t any good, they helped lay the foundation for this. A lot of credit goes to them.”

Through all the success, Gardner has remained humble. People around her are recognizing that she’s building a legacy at Mercer unlike any coach in the past. She already holds the program record for wins and has led the team to its only two NCAA tournaments.

But Cole, Mercer’s athletic director, said despite the accolades, it is Gardner’s constant push to be better that makes her so special.

“Susie is the type of person that is going to walk off that court whenever they finish playing this year and she will be right back at it the next day. That’s what makes her so successful,” he said. “She has solidified her legacy here.”