The admiration between Joni Taylor and Rick Moody that spans two-plus decades

Taylor played under Moody in Tuscaloosa from 1997-2001.

Former Alabama head coach Rick Moody embraced Georgia head coach Joni Taylor before a game on Feb. 22, 2018 at Coleman Coliseum. (Photo courtesy of Ryan Leonard — Georgia Basketball)

ATHENS, Ga. — Rick Moody picked up the phone on a Wednesday afternoon as he sat outside of a gymnasium somewhere in central Alabama. He came off of the golf course, a go-to hobby for the former Alabama coach, and readied to mentor a 10-year-old boy in a basketball player development session.

Moody has a strong foundation in his faith. He gave the young aspiring player a Bible verse that he wanted to share as parting words while ending the call.

“Trust the Lord with all of your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to Him, and He will make your paths straight.” — Proverbs 3:5-6.

Moody saw those words as true for anyone — the 10-year-old or any student-athlete he coached at Alabama over a 26-year, 301-win coaching career. After all, those were his main objectives as a leader, coach and mentor.

“I wanted to bring glory to God,” Moody said. “I knew that if I did that, then I would be OK.”

Plenty of players walked away from Tuscaloosa by taking Moody’s words to heart. For Joni Taylor (Crenshaw at the time of her playing days) the veteran coach and his plethora of qualities to offer meant everything.

Over 20 years have passed since Taylor last wore an Alabama uniform. She still believes that her path wouldn’t have unfolded as it did without Moody’s support, teaching and the bond they’ve built at the center of their core values. Last Thursday, Georgia traveled to Coleman Coliseum for another reunion. Taylor is used to it by now after coaching for 12 seasons, but a return will forever hold its significance.

Her Alabama teammates made the trip and watched from the stands. Taylor had an opportunity to reflect on her time with the Crimson Tide and reunite with those who shaped her. Moody has been one of those biggest influences due to his coaching style, faith and refusal to let a relationship die.

“A lot of my coaching style comes from him,” Taylor said. “He knew I was going to — in one form or another — be able to use those (qualities).” 

‘If I could walk…’

Taylor thrived in Moody’s environment. He didn’t yell. He didn’t swear. But that didn’t mean the veteran coach went through his tenure at Alabama in a relaxed manner. He demanded a lot.

Over four years, Taylor (a young Crenshaw at the time) ranked fourth in the school’s career leaders in blocks. She started for two years and became a frontcourt presence for the Crimson Tide. Her overall stat line of 716 points, 555 rebounds and 103 blocked shots told that story.

There were times when Taylor made a great play. At least she thought so. She’d look over to Moody for approval.

“That’s all you got?” Moody said, as Taylor recalled. “Why didn’t you do this, this or this?”

She got a bit disappointed in those moments, but Taylor worked tirelessly to elevate her game to the next level.

The element of tough coaching from Moody came from knowing Taylor’s potential. He went to Meridian High School, where Taylor starred as a two-sport athlete (basketball and track-and-field). Moody made detailed observations beyond the 67-7 record she led her team to over two seasons or winning Gatorade Player of the Year honors in 1997.

Moody became the most-critical judge of character. He wanted to see how Taylor reacted to poor calls or a mistake. Moody watched his interactions with Taylor’s parents. He checked how his prospect respected those around her. Taylor checked all of those boxes.

Once Taylor got to college, Moody tried to find a weakness by being tough and testing her will. He had no luck.

“Her mental toughness was such that you couldn’t break her,” Moody said.

Taylor had a willingness to give her all to Moody. She made it a mandate. She played through injuries, kept working through any rough patch and wanted to become the best version of herself on the basketball court.

In turn, Moody made Taylor the proverbial spokesperson for Alabama’s program. He put her in positions to shine in leadership by asking Taylor to speak at engagements or represent the school at SEC events.

Moody tested Taylor in ways to help her grow. She wouldn’t have changed one bit of her playing chapter in Tuscaloosa.

“There's nothing you wouldn't do for your coach,” Taylor said. “If I could walk, I was going to play for him.”

‘More to life’

Each Sunday morning, Alabama women’s basketball had shootaround before its games. The players went on for 15-to-20 minutes without their head coach. All of a sudden, Moody would stroll in with his suit on and ready to coach his team to another victory.

He had his priorities, and the first one didn’t occur on the basketball court. Moody spent his coaching days as a deacon and Sunday School teacher at a local church around Tuscaloosa. That’s where you’d find him, regardless of tip time before a game at Coleman Coliseum.

“There’s more to life than just basketball,” Moody said. “I believe that there's another life and I don't care how many games I won. It would have nothing to do with anything when that day comes.”

Taylor could’ve been overwhelmed as an 18-year-old kid who tried to have an immediate impact on the basketball squad while pursuing an education degree. Moody gave Taylor and the rest of his players every option to build their faith while balancing the many facets as a student-athlete.

Moody’s persistence in putting his role in the church first opened Taylor’s eyes. She hadn’t seen it from a coach before, and likely didn’t expect Moody’s faith to be displayed at such magnitude.

Moody held team-wide Bible studies for those who chose to attend. A player could miss a pregame meal ahead of a home game to attend a church service. Anything Taylor needed in her faith came ahead of basketball.

“He taught me what was important,” Taylor said. “God was always first for him. Family second. Then it became basketball. He helped me continue my faith walk and strengthen my faith.”

Two decades later, Moody’s presence exists at Georgia. Taylor is at the helm of another SEC program, but some hints of Alabama philosophy linger. Senior Maya Caldwell said that Taylor’s promise to put life qualities and Christian faith ahead of the game is what led her to play for the Lady Bulldogs.

Before basketball, Taylor wants to help her players grow in life. Faith is one of those main facets.

“I try to do the same thing (he did) with our ladies,” Taylor said. “He’s an incredible man.”

‘A star … a luminary’

Last Thursday night, Moody had a tough time. He’s an Alabama lifer. His name is etched in program lore, and he wants to see the Crimson Tide program succeed in every facet.

But when Georgia comes to town, one of his favorites stands on the other sideline. He might’ve cheered for the Crimson Tide, but did a silent fist bump when Georgia went on a run.

He checks Georgia’s box scores each night. They exchange text messages frequently, and Taylor said they rarely go more than a week without checking up on each other.

“We love each other. It's a different kind of love,” Moody said. “A binding love where we'll never forget our opportunities to have a relationship.”

Two decades have passed, and Moody still enjoys every second of watching Taylor’s journey unfold from afar. He knows the sixth-year head coach is positively influencing people around her in every facet — players, coaching staff, fans and even media members who cover the program.

Moody is proud that Taylor “is a momma,” too. He had no doubt in how she will raise her two young children, Jacie and Drew, alongside her husband, Darius Taylor. His voice becomes fragmented when talking about his former player. At times, it seems like Moody is on the verge of crying.

Before getting on the phone, he texted in all caps: “JONI IS A STAR.”

“I’m talking about a luminary for her basketball program,” Moody said. “She’s in a good place in her life.”

The adoration is certainly reciprocated, too. Taylor jumped at the chance to have Moody speak to her team before he called a contest between the two teams in 2018. There are a lot of similarities between the two coaches, because Taylor said Moody “taught me so much without saying a word.”

They’ve built a bond that starts at their core beliefs. It’s one that’ll never fade.

“He is absolutely wonderful,” Taylor said. “I’m so very blessed to be extremely close (with him).”

This story is the second part of a series diving into Joni Taylor and her Alabama ties. Part 1 of the series focused on how the program helped her find passions in coaching.