A reunion for the debut: Mercer's Bryce Dillard molded by five years on Lady Bulldogs' staff

Bryce Dillard, the director of player personnel at Mercer, assumed the full-time position this summer. He spent five years on Georgia's staff.

Bryce Dillard, in his final season as graduate assistant at Georgia, works at the 2020 SEC Women’s Basketball Tournament in Greenville, S.C. (Courtesy of Ryan Leonard — Georgia Basketball)

Bryce Dillard might’ve sped down the GA-10 loop in Athens. He did everything possible to get from his apartment to Stegeman Coliseum.

He got a call from his boss, Joni Taylor. She didn’t have much to say.

“I need you in my office,” Taylor said. “ASAP.”

A few minutes later, Dillard made it up to the second floor of the training facilities.

“OK, coach. What’s wrong?” Dillard said.

Taylor pulled Dillard and another staffer into her office to break the news that director of basketball operations Meredith Mitchell came down with a significant illness. Taylor said she wouldn’t be able to travel, but there was a lot that had to be done with travel as Georgia came off of a bye week. Mitchell is the backbone of the Lady Bulldogs’ program and makes day-to-day operations function from a logistics standpoint.

Dillard had to assume those duties as a graduate assistant. There wasn’t an option.

“OK,” Dillard said. “Let’s go.”

Here’s the kicker: It’s all a prank. Mitchell had recovered fine from sickness and could travel. The other person in the room with Dillard was brought in to play the part. He acted frantic. Taylor wanted to see how Dillard would react. Everyone else in the office fully expected him to freak out. Mitchell has travel planned out weeks in advance, but Taylor said nothing had been done.

An hour later, Dillard knocked on Taylor’s office door and sat down.

“Can I sit down and show you this itinerary?” Dillard asked.

He finished it. All of the needed work was complete. He passed the test. Dillard crossed paths with Mitchell a few moments later and realized the prank. Taylor used it to evaluate, too, and she agreed with Mitchell to allow Dillard to take full operations duties for the trip.

A few months later, Dillard is Mercer’s director of player personnel. He’s performing these types of duties on a daily basis. He departed Georgia after five years — rising from manager, to head manager and eventually two seasons as a graduate assistant. His body of work brought him to Mercer, but ties between the two programs and a history within women’s basketball helped find Macon as his new home.

Dillard made his Mercer debut Wednesday night. His experiences paid off and resulted in his first full-time basketball position. Against who? Georgia, the program that molded him.

“He’s up for the challenge,” Mercer head coach Susie Gardner said.

How ties helped Dillard find Mercer

Former Georgia graduate assistant and former manager (now current GA) Elizabeth Metress inside Bon Secours Wellness Arena in March 2020. (Courtesy of Ryan Leonard — Georgia Basketball)

Dillard didn’t get the chance to work with legendary Georgia coach Andy Landers on the basketball court. He started college after Landers retired and Taylor took over. That’s not to say the two didn’t have a rather unique connection.

He worked on Landers’ farm a summer ago. He has personal farmland near Bishop, Ga. Landers has a tradition of sending graduate assistants to “cut their teeth,” as Dillard put it, with these tasks to see if they could handle it. He made it through. Dillard learned Gardner, his new boss, did too by digging post holes for a fence back in the day.

“I did everything from raking hay to vaccinating cows,” Dillard said.

Mercer and Georgia play each other each year. They have a strong connection with each other, mainly from Gardner’s playing days in Athens. Dillard got the job based on his own qualification, and Taylor made that clear. But the hire came during the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic when uncertainty within the job market — especially within college athletics with cancellations and budget cuts — soared.

Dillard went to Taylor for advice as most of the Lady Bulldogs’ team members do. She advised Dillard “to wait it out and trust something will come up.” He applied for a few jobs, none materialized. Suddenly, he saw Drew Landers, Andy Landers’ son and former director of player personnel at Mercer, took an assistant coaching position at USC Upstate.

There it was. The opportunity seemed golden. Dillard immediately went to Taylor to ask about Mercer. Taylor wanted her staff members to land with the right people, not at the right location.

“I've known Susie for years,” Taylor said. “You're not going to find better people to work for. You better get on it.”

On that same night, Dillard built his resume and sent it to Gardner. Around the same time, Taylor called to recommend her sidekick who had been around the program for five years. Almost instantly, Gardner got blown away. She talked to Mitchell, associate head coach Karen Lange, and director of player personnel and player administration Katherine Graham.

Gardner trusted those people. She knew they would be honest. She even asked to hear something Dillard didn’t do well. They might not have given much in that regard.

“I got amazing references on him,” Gardner said. “Possibly the best I've ever gotten on anybody.”

There were a lot of qualities that drew Gardner to Dillard. She was a former graduate assistant at Georgia herself after playing alongside program greats Teresa Edwards and Janet Harris. She knew Dillard was the first male graduate assistant hired at Georgia, so Gardner realized his candidate’s ability to relate to the student-athletes.

It’s also another branch in the coaching tree. Andy Landers’ tree, that is. Taylor predicted you could draft a list of 25-to-50 coaches or full-time staffers who have been influenced by Landers and his philosophies and it runs deep. That’s the root of the trust between the programs, and Gardner said it’s “a big deal” as she handled Dillard’s hiring process like recruiting.

“I know she bleeds orange and black too, but Susie is a Bulldog and always will be,” Taylor said. “There's a tie there. It speaks to the rapport, tradition and level of knowing what you'll get from Georgia.”

That’s all it took. Gardner took a chance on a recently-graduated basketball staffer and threw him into a pivotal role. But she never saw it as much of a risk.

“Georgia gave me the confidence I could do this,” Dillard said.

A love for women’s basketball

The Dillards were North Carolina basketball fans. Bryce, at the age of five, would be locked into the games. His mother, DeeDee, recalled Bryce knowing different things from watching. His admiration for the sport grew from there as he played from the age of 5 in recreational leagues and suited up through high school.

DeeDee is a longtime girl’s basketball head coach at Rabun County. Bryce would always sit behind his mom’s bench and watch her coach. At the age of 10, he got rewarded. One of Rabun County’s assistant coaches was out tending to a sick child, so DeeDee coached during a Christmas tournament without a full staff.

Bryce got the coach’s seat.

“He’s the only assistant I’ve had that I went undefeated with,” DeeDee said.

DeeDee’s fondest memories come with her son being a student of the game. They’d always talk about the strategic side of basketball. They’d either be watching a college game together or talking about Rabun County basketball. As a matter of fact, Bryce drew up quick-hitters on inbounds plays for his mother recently and they worked to help Rabun County add another wrinkle to its game.

He’s had aspirations of being a coach one day, although Bryce isn’t sure at which level. But some of his best qualities were evident while a graduate assistant at Georgia. DeeDee knew how Bryce prioritized being an influence in the student-athlete’s lives and being a mentor to young women.

Everyone around him at Georgia’s offices saw it, too.

“Bryce and I got really close last year when I was on scout team,” said Georgia guard Mikayla Coombs, who was ineligible last season as an undergraduate transfer from UConn. “He's somebody I always felt really close to. We'll still text and check on each other. He instilled it in me to go hard on every play.”

He watched scout team each day. He helped in whichever capacity he needed. Georgia let Bryce learn, too, as he had an open invitation to every meeting. He wanted to help Georgia, and the Lady Bulldogs wanted to watch him grow. Taylor used her open-door policy to prepare him for his current role.

Bryce became an assistant, right-hand man and a friend. Coombs said Bryce gave the scout team a nickname due to its tenacity. He called those players the “Moose Gang.” As a parting gift, the scout team players received custom t-shirts.

“He is excellent. He is really good at what he does and the best of the best,” Taylor said. “He's just a pure heart and good spirit. He has tremendous character and work ethic. I'm super proud of him, but it's not any of us who got him there. He is going to do an excellent job for Susie at Mercer.”

Bryce continues to live out his basketball dreams. They’ve transitioned between three areas of the state — Rabun County, Athens and now Macon. But his objective has always been the same, and the fondness for the sport placed the experienced behind-the-scenes staffer in his current spot.

“He's not here because it's a job, but because he loves women's basketball,” Gardner said.

Reuniting with his old team

Mercer’s Bryce Dillard (far left) poses for a photo with three Georgia staffers on Wednesday night — (L to R): creative services coordinator Ryan Leonard, manager Caleb West and director of basketball operations Meredith Mitchell. (Courtesy of Bryce Dillard — Mercer Athletics)

Wednesday night inside Hawkins Arena had special significance to Dillard. Not only was it his Bears’ debut, in which he sat at the opposite side of the scorer’s table and wore an orange tie. But the longtime Georgia staff member got to formally meet with his old friends for the first time since March.

He never got to say goodbye.

Dillard’s last in-person moment with Georgia came when returning from the SEC tournament in Greenville. The team returned and the university was on spring break. Taylor texted her team and said ‘Be back Friday.’ That turned to Sunday. Which then turned to two weeks later. Ultimately, as we all know, Covid-19 shut down the sports world and Dillard’s career at Georgia ended.

He made his transition virtually, met with his former colleagues over Zoom to discuss the Mercer job, but his debut against his former team lined up perfectly. The reunion didn’t have to wait.

Dillard made clear his desires to beat Georgia for bragging rights. Unfortunately, for him, the Lady Bulldogs beat Mercer, 83-64.

“It was really sad to me (to leave abruptly), because those were five years of making great relationships,” Dillard said. “It's so good to see them again.”

Dillard ends up at Mercer because of his experience in women’s basketball, and Georgia played a large part in that. Once Dillard applied, Gardner immediately favored him due to his managerial days. That’s who she wanted to hire, because she knows of the tireless work they put in behind the scenes. Each hire of a former manager that Gardner has made turned out to benefit Mercer’s program. She calls them her “all-stars.”

Dillard’s final test before becoming the director of player personnel at Mercer was meeting Gardner face-to-face. They joked and laughed immediately.

He passed that one too.

“That closed the deal right there,” Gardner said. “I thought he would be a great fit. He has been.”