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Tabor head coach Mike Gardner has to climb from 0-10 to contention -- one recruit at a time.

Tabor head coach Mike Gardner has to climb from 0-10 to contention — one recruit at a time.

Staff writer

Recently hired Tabor head football coach Mike Gardner is already thinking about and working on recruiting.

“It all starts with recruiting,” Gardner said, “recruiting and restoring relationships.”

Gardner realizes that recruiting is the first step to rebuilding a Tabor program that is in disrepair. The Bluejays went winless last year, finishing with a 0-10 record.

Gardner is also in an interesting position. Sometimes when coaches take jobs they have to live up to the expectations provided by their predecessors — Brian Kelly at Notre Dame will have to live up to Lou Holtz, Frank Leahy, and Knute Rockne. Gardner will have to live up to the reputation of Mike Gardner.

This will be Gardner’s second stint as Tabor’s head football coach. He was the head coach at Tabor in 2004 and 2005, bringing Tabor to two consecutive playoff appearances with 9-2 and 11-1 records respectively. He was named KCAC coach of the year both years. In 2006, the Bluejays had an undefeated regular season, won a playoff game against Graceland University, and lost to the eventual NAIA national champions Sioux Falls in the playoffs.

Gardner inherits a program that is much different today from when he departed four years ago. In the past three years, Tabor has a combined record of 3-27. The 0-10 season is just the icing on the cake of exponential Bluejay decline.

“There is no magic wand,” Tabor vice president Rusty Allen, who was in charge of the coaching search, said. “It’s going to take time. He’s got to take it one step at a time.”

The first step, again, is recruiting. Gardner is looking for talented players to fill his offensive line — in his opinion the most important unit on the field. “Without an offensive line it doesn’t matter what you do,” he said — and defensive back field: corners and safeties that can defend the pass.

The first priority for Gardner is to try to get the best talent possible out of Kansas.

“I’ve recruited from where I’ve been,” Gardner said. “When I was in St. Louis, I recruited Missouri kids. When I was in Nebraska, I recruited Nebraska kids. When I was in Ohio, I recruited Ohio kids.”

But, Gardner has no problem reaching out of state for talent. Allen said that during Gardner’s first tenure as Tabor head coach, he recruited key players from football hot spots such as California and the Dallas-Fort Worth Metro area. Ricky Ishida, who quarterbacked the team in 2005 and 2004, is from California.

“The positions where you need extra help, it doesn’t matter where they are from,” Gardner said.

Recruiting players to a place like Tabor is a little bit more complicated than a bigger school. Gardner will have to factor in where the player is from and whether he can handle living in a small town.

“It’s important to recruit kids from places where it’s a similar situation to Hillsboro,” he said. “If you get guys from a major metro area, it’s going to be a little bit of a culture shock.”

While Tabor is an accepting environment, open to all types of theological beliefs, Gardner also has to be cognizant of the fact that Tabor is a Christian college and gauges a player’s comfort level with religion.

“In my time here (a year and a half) we’ve focused on four aspirations,” Allen said of his work with all Tabor students. “One: Prayer — we build in prayer, Two: Service — serving other people is the best thing people can do, Three: Devotion — scripture is important to us, Four: Be a Christian witness.”

Gardner also looks for certain qualities in players. He wants to get as many players from winning high school programs as possible because those players understand the sacrifices needed to win games. He likes players who were captains on their teams because that shows an inclination to leadership. He also tries to have his star players be modest.

“The best players I’ve ever had have been my most humble guys,” Gardner said. “I’ve never had a trash-talking Michael Irving. If they want to get a law degree, Tabor is a great place to do it, but I don’t want any lawyers in my locker room. Those are the types of players who divide locker rooms.”

Gardner also searches for players that have overcome some type of adversity. He said that adversity could come in many different forms. The adversity can be football related: a player is told he isn’t talented enough to play and then works hard and make himself into a great player. A player can spur a furious comeback in a game. Gardner thinks that these types of players usually come from solid family structures and healthy social environments. But, there are also the players that overcome adversity off the field to become great football players.

“Think of a kid playing for an inner city high school. Your mom is strung out, your dad is not there, and you don’t know where your next hot meal is coming from,” Gardner said. “That’s adversity too. Rural kids go through that as well.

“If you can take the players from both situations,” he said, “you get those people to mesh and love each other, you have something.”

By taking the job at Tabor, Gardner is stepping into the unknown. While it is true that Gardner was able to turn around Malone — an NAIA school in Canton, Ohio, that, before he arrived in 2006, hadn’t had a winning season since 1998 — he knew that the players at Malone were ready to turn around the program.

“With Malone, I had a group of guys who were starving for something,” he said. “Starving for attention on campus, starving to win. Because of that those guys became tighter.”

The reason Gardner took the Malone job in the first place was that he understood the importance of football in Ohio.

“Ohio is a football culture. Players who come from Ohio understand their own level,” he said. “Division Three football here is the best in the nation, Division Two is outstanding, NAIA is outstanding.”

Gardner also knew that those football teams at Malone had an identity.

“When I came to Ohio, I knew that those kids were mentally tough, coached up by their high school coaches, and when practice started I knew they were physically tough,” he said.

Gardner doesn’t know what to expect from this Tabor squad. He doesn’t know if the losing has been painful and they are famished for victories. He doesn’t know if the team has grown together because of hard times. He doesn’t know if the team has been disrespected on campus like those Malone teams.

“What’s their identity?” he asked. “Are they tough? Are they fast? Are they smart?”

Although Gardner is unsure of what situation he is stepping into, Allen and linebackers coach Jake Schenk know what to expect from Gardner.

Allen said that Gardner is a master at every phase of college football: recruiting, game planning, and motivation.

“He’s got a proven track record,” Allen said. “He’s proven himself as a recruiter, a tactician, and motivator. He is a master motivator; people gravitate toward him.”

Schenk, who was one of the stars of Gardner’s defenses at Tabor, said players can expect an attacking defense and a hardworking, enthusiastic coach.

“(The players) can expect a lot of passion,” he said.

Gardner still has to start rebuilding on the couches of homes throughout Kansas, one recruit at a time.

“It’s about people. You’re either in a people profession or a business profession,” Gardner said. “I’ve chosen to invest in people.”

Last modified Dec. 16, 2009

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