Susie Gardner enters her tenth season at Mercer’s head coach coming off of two consecutive Southern Conference Tournament titles. The Bears have amassed 20 wins in five of the last six seasons, including a program-best 30 wins in 2017-2018. Her 144 wins make her the most winning coach in program history, and have turned Mercer into a mid-major powerhouse.
A standout at Georgia from 1982-1986, Gardner was the graduate assistant for the team before becoming an assistant coach at San Diego State University. She earned her first head coaching job at Austin Peay State in 1995, and went on to be the head coach at Arkansas for three seasons. Gardner was an assistant coach at Florida from 2007-2010.
On her current staff is former Bear standout Sydni Means, and Drew Landers – the son of Gardner’s former college coach, Andy Landers.
When you came to Mercer, you knew you had a task in rebuilding the program. How did you approach that, and what steps did you take and follow in your first two years?
I didn’t realize it was going to be that big of a rebuild when I took the job, honestly. I came back to Mercer in the state of Georgia, where I had been a player, and knowing the high school coaches in the area. Mercer had huge success in the 70’s; there was a tradition, but it was far back. I knew our senior women’s administrator, and even though we knew it would be a rebuilding time, we felt like it was something we could get accomplished. I had great support from our administration. I didn’t expect to win only two games (the first year) and then six (the second). It was difficult to recruit at first, but then we had a couple of great recruiting years.
To what do you attribute in turning the program around?
I had really good assistant coaches who were young and believed in me, and believed in what we were doing. We won 20 games my third year, but it didn’t really get turned until my fourth year. We had recruited Sydni Means and Khalia Lawrence; that was a talented class. The following year we signed Amanda Thompson and Keke Calloway. When that crew came in, they brought the culture with them. We had no seniors and no juniors – only freshmen and sophomores – and we were picked fifth of eight in the Southern Conference. But we tried to win the conference with that young team. Honestly, those two classes got this thing turned to where we are now. Those won four So Con regular-season championships and took us to the NCAA Tourney for the first time in school history.
What kept you going through the grind, and through all the losses the team experienced?
I’ve tried to block those days out, honestly. It was bad, awful, really bad basketball to the point where I didn’t care if anyone came to our games or not. I didn’t want them to have that be their first impression of Mercer women’s basketball. I have had several players of the year. We’ve also been able to schedule very well. They bring good teams to Mercer and that brings the fans. Early on we brought too good of teams. Like in my third year we brought Notre Dame, and we weren’t ready for that.
What are the three most important tenants of a successful program?
Culture is one. We’re real big on culture and creating that. What happens when you’ve been there long enough is that it gets handed down from year to year, so you don’t necessarily have to preach it so much after a while. Players say, “that’s not what we do here.”
Then there’s hard work, which means everything from recruiters watching film to players working. It’s a work ethic that you feel like you are outworking everyone, because you’re grinding.
Third, respect for your teammates, respect for your coaches, respect for the game, and respect for those who came before you.
How did coach Andy Landers lay the foundation for your coaching career? What did you learn from him?
I was with him early on in his coaching career, and at that point he was not the most complimentary guy. He had a high level of expectations: he wanted to win the SEC, and we won it three out of my four years there. He wanted to be the best team in the country, and he always had great players. He had a strong work ethic and he was very demanding,
Being his GA taught me so much. I had no idea what went on behind the scenes, what coaches did in preparing for practice and recruiting, and all the other things that you don’t see. There wasn’t a better coach to work for.
You had a few stops on your coaching journey before arriving at Mercer. Was there any one place where you learned a lot, or did a culmination of experiences foster your growth as a coach?
I think each place was unique and gave me a unique understanding. When I was a head coach at 23 it was just me – no trainer or assistant coach. I had to drive the van and tape the ankles and all those things you hear about. I have an appreciation for all the jobs that the support staff does for us. Then at San Diego State I learned how to scout, as (then-coach) Beth Burns is in family tree of Tara (VanDerveer). We also got a program turned around in a mid-major to become a national power that got ranked in the top 25.
Arkansas got me to finally reach my dream of being a had coach in the SEC, but I also learned the value of hiring the right people, and being in a state where you know people. I didn’t know anyone there, and realized it’s important to be in a place where you know people. Working for Amanda Butler at Florida made me remember what it’s like to be an assistant. As a head coach, you never get a chance to stop. Working there gave me a chance to slow down.
If you could tell your younger self anything, what would it be?
For sure it would be to don’t dive into my job 24/7, and to take time to enjoy life and your friends and your family. To take a little bit more time to do things that you love outside of coaching. Amanda Butler – one thing I learned from her – she kind of pointed out that I didn’t have a lot of balance.
What is one thing coaching has taught you that you didn’t count on?
Coaching has taught me that even though I am very set in my ways, that changing and evolving creates and helps longevity in this profession.
What is the best thing about coaching?
I know everyone talks about the relationships and all that, but truly, the best thing is the relationships that you form. Even deeper than that is seeing a player come in as a freshman who doesn’t know what they want or what they want to study, and seeing them leave as confident. I try to be a strong and confident woman in this world, and I try to be a good role model for them in that respect. I do see now the important of being that female role model. If I have to stand up for something on campus, I will.
Is Mercer going to stay home for you?
I reached that goal of being a head coach in the SEC. There’s value at every level. There are positives to being at a BCS school and positives to being at a mid-major. I’m at peace here, and I’m happy with what we’ve build here. But I never close the door on anything.
If you had a chance to have the perfect day off, what would you do?
Play 36 holes of golf, then probably try to go fishing at dusk when it’s getting a little bit darker.