Tide Ties, Part 1: How Alabama flipped Joni Taylor from aspiring counselor to coach
Joni Taylor's five-plus seasons as Georgia's head coach wouldn't have happened without a unique encounter as a fifth-year student teacher.
ATHENS, Ga. | After four years on the Alabama hardwood, a spry Joni Crenshaw had her future planned out — and none of it involved basketball.
Crenshaw, now Joni Taylor after a 2015 marriage, wanted to be a high school counselor. She would finish her undergraduate degree, get her master's in secondary education, teach the prerequisite two years and launch her dream career. Weekends would involve sharing her faith as a Christian counselor.
The kid from small-town Meridian, Miss., never pictured another path.
“I had no idea about coaching,” Taylor said. “It never crossed my mind. This (counseling) was what I wanted to do.”
After starting for two years at Alabama under legendary coach Rick Moody, Taylor continued with her plan in 2001. She had a fifth year of student teaching in Tuscaloosa, plus a 20-hour athletic department service requirement via a rule passed by former athletic director Mal Moore.
Alabama assigned Taylor to the men’s basketball program under Mark Gottfried and she worked under the director of basketball operations, Darron Boatright (now athletic director at Wichita State). Taylor had the duties as Boatright’s student assistant. Suddenly, her perspective on the profession changed.
“As much as I appreciated my coaches, I thought they showed up to practice, went to games and wore cool Nike gear,” Taylor said. “I didn't have a full understanding of what goes on.”
Without that eye-opening moment, Taylor’s five-plus years as Georgia’s head coach wouldn’t have happened. Nor would the four previous stops, a return to coaching in Tuscaloosa as an assistant for the Crimson Tide or the chance for Taylor to work under Andy Landers in Athens before getting her big break. A unique career change and stumbling upon a job offer kick-started Taylor’s career in an unthinkable manner.
Last Thursday, Taylor left Tuscaloosa with another win over her alma mater, an 83-76 overtime win at Coleman Coliseum. Each time she returned to her old stomping grounds over the past two decades, it allowed Taylor to reflect.
“It's great to see the people who helped shape you and are part of who you become,” Taylor said of stumbling across people she knew, like those who prepared pregame meals in the team hotel.
She also expresses gratitude for the wild journey to spending nearly 20 years on the sidelines. Nobody saw it coming.
“I never even dreamed she would be coaching one day,” Moody said. “I thought she would be the President of the United States.”
Taylor’s first glance behind the scenes under Boatright taught her more about the profession than she had ever seen as a player. She realized it’s deeper than the surface level of drawing up plays and directing 18-to-22 year old women on a basketball court. There are frequent meetings for the smaller nuances of coaching like designing graphics and sending mail-outs to prospects, fans, season ticket holders and more.
Taylor became intrigued with what coaching had to offer. She found her niche as a student assistant, and gained a heap of knowledge with each passing day. After getting a first-hand look at logistical meetings, Taylor got a glimpse at the actual coaching duties. She couldn’t immediately fathom the detail that went into recruiting trips, scouting or in-game adjustments.
Suddenly, Taylor had gotten a visit from her former position coach Michael Murphy.
“Hey, I need a favor,” Murphy asked, as Taylor recalled.
Taylor, much like a lot of student-athletes, had helped with recruiting and engaged in some sit-down conversations with prospects. She thought nothing of the request.
“If you haven't heard, I'm a pretty good recruiter,” Taylor said. “I thought that's what they wanted.”
She had the right idea, but …
“On a permanent basis,” Murphy said, as Taylor recalled. “I just got the head job at Troy and I need you to be my recruiting coordinator.”
Taylor, reflecting on her emotions as a 22-year-old, couldn’t fathom being asked about a full-time coaching role as the “young buck.” She didn’t know Murphy had gotten the Troy job. She didn’t know her former coach even had thoughts of pursuing it.
A man with 16 years of experience in men’s and women’s basketball wanted Taylor for a full-time position. Her dreams of three-ring binders and teaching classrooms full of grade-school children needed reevaluation.
“Whoa,” Taylor thought in the moment. “I started to know coaching was a pretty cool thing. But this is a huge deal.”
As history shows, Taylor couldn’t decline it and wanted to be “thrown in the fire.” She stuck alongside Murphy from 2002-05 before taking roles at Louisiana Tech, Alabama, LSU and Georgia. She has been immersed in the profession ever since. Taylor even married within the coaching profession after finding a soulmate in Atlanta Dream assistant Darius Taylor when he worked at South Carolina. Her two children, Jacie and Drew, are growing up with basketball in their blood and frequent trips to Stegeman Coliseum.
The happenstance moment from Murphy has led Taylor to Georgia, where she has compiled a 111-61 coaching record and two NCAA tournament berths with a potential third appearance looming in her sixth season.
“When you get it right, you feel really good,” Landers said of Taylor’s hire before Georgia’s tournament run in 2018. “They got it right. I feel really, really good.”
The thought of Taylor’s coaching success makes Moody laugh. The former Alabama leader has plenty of adoration for Taylor — to the point where his voice cracks in excitement upon mentioning her. But the idea of Taylor coaching never crossed his mind, either.
Moody challenged Taylor to be an ambassador during her playing days, not only for the Alabama women’s basketball team, but for the university as a whole. She would take the lead on any speaking engagements. Taylor represented Alabama when leadership events happened at the league office in Birmingham, Ala. Moody always saw Taylor as a star, from the moment they crossed paths at her high school game in Mississippi.
Aside from being chosen for events, she carried a quiet demeanor. She rarely became a vocal voice for the Crimson Tide, but instead led by example.
One of the first times Moody saw Taylor in a coaching role, however, was at an Alabama summer camp. She directed a group of young kids. Moody said Taylor engaged like a veteran leader, she instructed with depth and carried plenty of enthusiasm. That gave a first glimpse that coaching could be a possibility for Taylor.
“She’s a natural,” Moody said, recalling the moment.
So, when Murphy had the idea, Moody didn’t hesitate. He knew Taylor would have the qualities of working her way through the Division I coaching ranks.
“She's that kind of person where her light is continually shining,” Moody said. “If you know Joni Crenshaw, you know somebody who influences in a positive way. I knew that Joni would be a home run in whatever she decided to do. There's no doubt about that.”
Taylor thinks back to her Alabama days frequently while leading Georgia’s program. She credits Moody with teaching a lot of the qualities the Lady Bulldogs use today. Taylor puts the livelihood of the player ahead of the sport, just as Moody did.
She tries to coach without using foul language. Moody showed Taylor how it could be successful while still being a demanding presence. Taylor has open dialogue with her Christian faith and shares it with her players. Moody had it as his top priority.
Taylor’s connections to Alabama are invaluable. She still roots for the program when it isn’t playing Georgia. She donates to the alumni association. Taylor is “blessed,” she said, to be affiliated with the Crimson Tide.
Her wildest connection, however, led her to two decades as a basketball coach. A dream that began with the plans of becoming a counselor.
“I still say I do that everyday,” Taylor said.
Part 2, which will release on Wednesday, Feb. 10, will dive into the relationship between Joni Taylor and her former head coach at Alabama, Rick Moody. Two decades after then-Joni Crenshaw finished playing, her bond holds strong with Moody.