UGA Basketball

How Joni Taylor balances basketball, outreach and family: 'You can have it all. The sky’s the limit'

Georgia head coach Joni Taylor.
Georgia head coach Joni Taylor. AP

There are 24 hours in a day. Joni Taylor will get all she can out of each second of the 18 hours she’s awake.

During basketball season, her day begins at 4 a.m. That’s when she gets up to prepare for a 5 a.m. workout at one of the local Orangetheory Fitness locations in Athens.

The early-morning exercise helps set her tone for the day. When it’s not a game day, Taylor will then drive to work to lead her team through a 7:30 a.m. practice. When that’s done, she continues her game preparation until 3 or 4 p.m. When her day at the office is done, she heads home – to work some more.

She breaks down film to make sure all her bases are covered for the upcoming opponent. Then she’s in bed by 10 p.m.

Taylor, who won her first NCAA Tournament game as Georgia’s head coach Friday in a 68-63 win over Mercer, is one of the athletics department’s more fascinating employees. In three years, she has turned Georgia back into a top-25 program. She has also gone out of her way to connect women in Athens through a community outreach group she started shortly after taking the job.

Taylor embodies what it means to be career and family driven. She is aware of the example she sets, too. She is a rising star in college basketball. She is a happily-married wife and mother to a 1-year-old daughter.

“I think more than anything, it shows our young ladies that anything is possible,” Taylor said. “You can have a great career, you can be married if that’s what you choose to do. You can have a family. You can have it all. The sky’s the limit.”

Having it all

Early in her coaching career, the then-Joni Crenshaw was in her hometown of Meridian, Mississippi recruiting a player as an assistant coach for Louisiana Tech. It just so happened another college basketball assistant was stopping by too.

Darius Taylor, a former college basketball player at Michigan, was working for Temple. The two briefly met and had their first interaction. But that was that and nothing more.

A few years later in 2010, Joni was on LSU’s staff and Darius was with South Carolina. The two crossed paths again on the recruiting trail. Being in the SEC, the two were going after the same prospects and saw each other more often.

“Just over time, we became friends,” Darius said.

In 2013, Joni was in Athens working on former head coach Andy Landers’ staff. Right around that season’s SEC Tournament, she and Darius started dating.

The couple was in a good place, even if they had to make it work through long distance. With Joni in Athens and Darius in Columbia, the two would often meet in Augusta. Or if they had the opportunity, one would make the full trip to the other’s city of residence. After Darius proposed, they discussed living in Augusta, with each coach driving to their program. But to their surprise, Landers retired after the 2014-15 season. Joni wanted the job, naturally, but was unsure if she would get it.

“If I didn’t get the Georgia job, I was moving to South Carolina and I was going to have to find another job,” Joni said. “He was an assistant there. Us living apart wasn’t an option.”

As fate would hold, athletics director Greg McGarity picked Joni to be the program’s second-ever full-time head basketball coach. Given the fact Joni and Darius were recruiting against each other – a topic they never spoke about during their down time together – Darius suddenly had a decision to make.

He was already recruiting against his soon-to-be wife as an assistant. Doing so as a head coach would be akin to “hurting his better half.” And Darius had a hard time reconciling the fact that if he stayed at South Carolina he wouldn’t be able to support Joni in her first year as a head coach.

Even though South Carolina was coming off of a Final Four season, Darius made the hard decision to resign.

“I wanted to be around my wife as a first-time head coach, and be there for support and everything that comes with moving one seat over,” Darius said. “I knew that was more important than me continuing help South Carolina’s success and being at the top of my coaching career. Being here to support her and support the (Georgia) program was the most important thing.”

Giving up his post at South Carolina didn’t mean giving up basketball, though. Since he couldn’t join Joni’s coaching staff due to nepotism laws in the state of Georgia, Darius started his own business training basketball athletes. He also continued working as a career adviser for AthLife, a company that helps place former athletes into the business world.

But in late December, Darius was able to get back into coaching as an assistant with the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream.

“I’m so happy for him because he did make a sacrifice for us,” Joni said. “So for him to now have this opportunity, it gets him back in coaching. I’m happy about that because I think he’s one of the best in the business and he needs to be doing that to help make change in whatever area he can on the basketball floor, and off the floor.”

Joni and Darius married in August of 2015, just a few months before her first season at Georgia. And just before the start of the 2016-17 season, Joni gave birth to their daughter Jacie. Their family is complete with their dog, a vizsla named Jordan. They also routinely host each of their parents, who visit often during the season to help care for Jacie.

For Joni, having Darius put his coaching career on hold serves as a good example to her players. More than just teaching basketball, one of the messages she tries to drive home is that as a woman, you have options. Joni has chosen to be a wife, mother, coach and community organizer.

She doesn’t want her players to feel there should be any limits to what they want to pursue after college.

“I could’ve easily been the one making that sacrifice,” Joni said. “I think it boiled down to two people to do whatever to make it work for their family. That’s the message I would first and foremost like to relate to our girls that I do talk to. It’s about finding the right partner.”

Beyond Basketball

Shortly after Taylor was hired to lead the Georgia women’s basketball program, she wanted to put together a local women’s group dedicated to community outreach and support.

This is how her initiative Beyond Basketball was born. Once a month, women from all walks of life come together for breakfast and to catch up and share local announcements from the businesses or programs they represent. Each time, Taylor brings in a guest speaker for a presentation. In February it was new Georgia assistant athletics director Darrice Griffin. Taylor said it is a way for Athens women to connect and communicate what is happening with one another.

“I’ve always wanted to have a space where women can network and recharge their batteries,” Taylor said. “I feel we do so much for so many. We are mothers, we are wives, we work. Or we stay home and take care of the house. What’s being fed into us, to keep us doing all the things we do, I’ve always wanted that space. I was just waiting for the opportunity to have a platform to do it.”

Patricia Barron, an Athens-Clarke County chief magistrate judge, has lived in Athens for nearly 30 years. Prior to Taylor’s hiring, she never had an interest in the Georgia women’s basketball team. When Taylor started Beyond Basketball, a friend recommended it asked her to attend. After doing so, Barron was hooked.

In three years, she has missed only one game and one Beyond Basketball meeting. And when she did, Taylor was concerned that something was wrong. So she called Barron to make sure everything was OK.

“It was like Oprah Winfrey calling me,” Barron said. “She’s calling and checking on me?”

Taylor also brings her players to Beyond Basketball meetings. And when Beyond Basketball convenes, that means practice starts earlier at 6 a.m. Senior Haley Clark introduced Griffin at the February Beyond Basketball meeting and feels like the organization serves an important role among women in Athens.

“It’s very inspirational to be able to come out and see women of all walks of life, and interact with them and talk them,” Clark said. “You learn from them and see where you could potentially be five, 10, 15 years from now.”

Barron said Taylor’s energy is infectious, which is why attendees keep coming back.

As a local public figure, Taylor knows the importance her image can give to young girls in the community. Growing up, Taylor had role models she aspired to be. She hopes she can reciprocate that for the younger generation.

“There are a lot of young kids, a lot of college kids playing, that look up to Coach Joni, who look up to women coaches and want to be in their shoes one day,” sophomore guard Taja Cole said. “I think she’s just leading the way and I know she’ll continue to do what she does.”

Bringing Georgia basketball back

The Lady Bulldogs have a deep history that includes 20 Sweet 16s, 11 Elite Eights and five Final Fours.

Taylor’s top priority as a head coach, she said, is to make Landers and the former players who built the program proud of Georgia basketball.

In her first season, Taylor guided Georgia to an NCAA Tournament appearance. The second season served as a rebuilding year. This third season, however, has been the first sign that Georgia is on its way to being the prominent program it once was.

The Lady Bulldogs earned a No. 4 seed and hosted an NCAA Tournament game for the first time since 2013. After defeating Mercer in the first round of the tournament Saturday, Georgia is set for a second-round matchup against No. 5 seed Duke Monday night.

Taylor’s plan is to have her program competing at an elite level once again.

“We came with the goal of getting Georgia back to national prominence and obviously winning a national championship,” Taylor said. “That is what our ultimate goal is.”