ATHENS — Mackenzie Engram twisted her face at the mention of last season. The distaste and dissatisfaction was evident as she recalled the events that led to a 6-10 SEC record (19-12 overall).
But at the mention of starting fresh under Joni Taylor, Engram’s expression quickly changed to one of joy and excitement.
“She pushes us in a different way,” Engram said. “Different is what we need this year.”
On October 6, Taylor led her first official practice as head coach of the Lady Bulldogs. It marked not only a new phase in her life but a new era and new identity for Georgia women’s basketball.
Taylor’s “no-nonsense style,” in life and in basketball, offers a fresh start about which this team repeatedly has expressed enthusiasm. The first-year head coach preaches an up-tempo style of play, which senior Shacobia Barbee said has been comfortable for everyone.
“The biggest thing is it’s a fresh start for everyone, and I think that brings a fresh feeling, positive energy to the court,” senior Marjorie Butler said.
Where legendary coach Andy Landers created tradition and a brand, Taylor is putting a new spin on the job. She emphasizes fan engagement and expresses a truepassion for recruiting.
A big item on Taylor’s to-do list has been in-game promotions to encourage more people to fill Stegeman Coliseum.
What does that involve? Taylor was the Grand Marshall for the UGA homecoming parade last weekend. The Lady Bulldogs are planning an event where they gave out 500 free Chick-Fil-A biscuits to draw attention to the start of the season. There are rumors of a new scoreboard video.
“I can’t tell you too much,” Barbee said. “We’ve done several things behind this scenes this year. Hopefully the fans like it and enjoy it.”
Taylor had been an assistant at Georgia since 2011, so her move to head coach already had a strong foundation in the program. Especially in recruiting.
As she was with many of the current players, Taylor was one of Engram’s recruiting coaches and big part of the reason why the member of the 2015 SEC All-Freshman team inked with the Bulldogs.
“You have to be genuine,” Taylor said. “You have to believe in what it is you’re talking about, because people see through it otherwise. Especially for females, they’ve got to believe in you. And that’s across the board. If women and females believe in you, they’ll run across the board for you. … You’ve got to make it so hard for them to say no.”
Taylor recalls being recruited as an elite athlete. She began her journey in college basketball in 1998 at Alabama, where she was with the Crimson Tide for two NIT and two NCAA tournament berths. Taylor was a post player and coached Georgia’s post players as Landers’ assistant.
Engram said it is reassuring having a coach who “knows the struggle.”
“It’s definitely different [with her as the head coach], but she’s still the same awesome lady,” Engram said. “You just know she’s more in power now. The environment with her around is just a lot different.”
For Taylor, the biggest adjustment has come outside of basketball.
“You just have so many different hats you have to wear and it pulls you away from your team and it pulls you away from basketball and the recruiting piece,” Taylor said. “That’s where you have to have a staff that’s experienced and on fire for you. … They’re the ones who are there every day and are in the trenches.”
“Head coach” isn’t the only title that has changed for Taylor in the past year. When introduced as Landers’ successor in April she was Joni Crenshaw. That changed on August 1.
“My wedding was actually planned and done by November,” Taylor said. “So I just had to show up. I can’t take credit for that. My mom was on me, on me, on me.”
Taylor married Darius Taylor, who previously worked as an assistant for the South Carolina women’s basketball team. He left his position with the Gamecocks and has since moved to Athens and started his own business.
That has been a refreshing change for both husband and wife. After two years of the topic being on the no-no list, the couple can finally talk basketball.
“It’s been funny because he’s so excited about the program and about what we are doing,” Taylor said. “For the first couple weeks, when I walked through the door he wanted a run-down of the day and I was like, ‘Woah, give me a minute.’”
It has been less than four months since Taylor was announced as the new coach, and time has ticked at lightning speed for Crenshaw. But the start of practice and the season gives her a welcomed routine.
“Now my head is still spinning, with all that being said,” Taylor said. “And it will probably be spinning for a couple of years. But a lot more settled because the year kind of drives your schedule more.”
This will be Taylor’s 14th year as a basketball coach. She said was ready to take the reins of her own team a few years ago, but she waited for the right chance to say ‘yes.’
“As long as I was under Coach Landers, why would I go anywhere else?” Taylor said. “Because of the responsibility that he gave me, because of the things I was able to learn and the way I was able to grow under him, it definitely prepared me for this opportunity.”
Taylor’s first test will come when Georgia opens the season at home against Stetson on November 15. It will be a season of firsts for Taylor and the Lady Bulldogs.
It will also be a season of redemption.
“I don’t want to be on the wrong side of history and we were last year, in terms of not making it (to the NCAA tournament),” Taylor said. “I think about it every day.”