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New Tabor Head Football Coach Mike Gardner
Football - Tue, Dec. 1, 2009

HILLSBORO, Kan. - Mike Gardner, who earned KCAC Coach of the Year honors while leading the Tabor College football team to back-to-back conference titles in 2004 and 2005, is returning to coach the Bluejays.

After serving as the head coach at Malone University (Canton, Ohio) for the past four seasons, Gardner said accepting the offer to return to his native Kansas and to Hillsboro, "felt like the right thing to do."

"When I first came to Tabor College, I was at a point in my life when I needed a place like Tabor," Gardner said. "Now I feel like it's time for me to go back and try to help the school and help that team try to be competitive again.

"I think in the great scheme of things that Tabor College is a very, very good educational product," Gardner added. "Tabor is every bit as good, if not better, than most larger schools at teaching people what it takes to be a Godly person and what it takes to be a Christian witness, and how to use your education to influence others."

Gardner replaces Mike Gottsch, who resigned after completing his third season as head football coach. The Bluejays finished the season 0-10 and were 3-27 during Gottsch's tenure.

The search for a new coach was led by a search committee comprised of Tabor President Dr. Jules Glanzer, Vice President for Athletics Rusty Allen, and Professor of Business Administration and Faculty Athletic Representative Dr. Norman Hope.

While over three dozen applicants applied for the head coaching position, Gardner, who holds a Bachelor's Degree in Physical Education from Baker University and a Master of Arts in Teaching from Hastings (Neb.) College, was the top choice from Day One.

"Coach Gardner has proven ability as a recruiter, a motivator, a teacher and a mentor," Allen said. "He is eager to bring a combination of excellence and ministry together. He brings a passion for seeing young men earn a degree and leave Tabor College as leaders.

"Giving leadership to our football program in keeping with our mission and vision is not easy and requires what I believe are a unique combination of skills and gifts," Allen added. "I am convinced Mike Gardner is the right man to be our next head football coach. I believe God has called him to return to Tabor, and I am extremely thankful."

Gardner, 42, his wife, Julie, and their two sons, Ben (16), and Brooks (7), are scheduled to arrive in Hillsboro on Friday and will spend part of the weekend looking for a new house. Coach Gardner also will meet with his new team on Friday and Saturday. His first day on the job will be December 16.

Gardner says Julie and the boys are eager to return to Hillsboro.

"There have been times since we've been up here when she'd look at me and say, ‘You know, things would be a lot different if we were back in Kansas,' and I couldn't argue with her about that," Gardner said. "Our boys are really excited about coming back to Hillsboro. Especially Ben, who is looking forward to playing football and baseball and being able to graduate with his former buddies there at Hillsboro High School."

The public is invited to welcome the Gardners on Saturday, Dec. 5, in the Tabor College cafeteria at a reception following the men's basketball game against Bethel College. Light refreshments will be provided.

"I know Mike and Julie are excited not only for the new challenge, but to reconnect with the community they came to love," Allen said. "On behalf of the Gardner family, we invite everyone to the reception.

"Having Coach Gardner on campus this weekend is great timing," Allen added. "We have spent the last couple of weeks asking our current players to be patient with us, and assuring them we were working toward hiring the best possible coach as quickly as possible.Being able to introduce Mike to the team before the semester ends, we believe, will generate a great deal of enthusiasm and motivate our players to remain loyal to Tabor and the football team."

If they weren't aware of his coaching legacy before, current Tabor players will quickly learn to appreciate how Gardner led the 2005 Bluejays to an 11-1 record with an NAIA national playoff victory and a No. 6 ranking in the final NAIA poll. And, how he led his 2004 squad to the NAIA playoffs and finished the season with a 9-2 record and a No. 14 final ranking.

Prior to becoming Tabor's head coach, Gardner had been Defensive Coordinator under Coach Tim McCarty from 2001 to 2003. He helped the Bluejays earn their first-ever NAIA national playoff appearance in 2003 and a No. 15national ranking.That same year, Gardner was named the AFCA NAIA Assistant Coach of the Year and the AFLAC Assistant Coach of the Year.The Tabor defense was ranked 11th in the final NAIA statistics in 2003, and was ranked second in 2002.

Prior to his first stint at Tabor, Gardner spent five years at Lindenwood (Mo.) University, where he served as Special Teams Coordinator, from 1996-1999, and Defensive Coordinator, in 2000. Gardner also was quarterbacks and receivers coach at Bethel College, from 1993-1996, and the Special Teams and Recruiting Coordinator at Hastings (Neb.) College from 1990-1993.

Gardner was born on March 9, 1967, in Roeland Park, Kan. He played high school football at Olathe South High School and college football at Baker University, where he was a three-time NAIA All-American and a four-time All-Conference selection.

At Malone University, Gardner wasted little time in instituting a drastic turnaround, developing a winning attitude for a Pioneer football program that had struggled prior to his arrival. In four years as head coach at Malone, which plays in the rugged Mid-States Football Association (NAIA), Gardner directed the Pioneers to a 7-4 record in '06, an 8-4 tally in '07, a 6-4 finish in '08, and a 4-6 record in '09.

Gardner's focus during his years at Malone was to bring his team together as a unit, playing with "One Heartbeat." Playing as a team instead of striving for individual accomplishments brought about a resurgence on the gridiron.The Pioneers posted a 25-18 record in the past four seasons and were ranked in the top 25 in each of the past four years.Gardner's teams were invited to play in the Victory Bowl three times, winning in 2007. Malone players also excelled in the community and in the classroom, earning numerous scholar-athlete awards and participating in character-building initiatives.

"When I came here to Malone, they were starving to win," Gardner said. "They really wanted change. They hadn't had a winning season for years. They really wanted to see results and they were really good football players, but they were young. We were able to get that going pretty quick and got some really big wins against some top ranked teams.

"I'm leaving a situation here in Canton where we've been nationally ranked in the top 25 in the four seasons I've been here," Gardner added. "I feel very proud of the accomplishments we've done here. Next year's Malone team should be able to compete for a playoff spot, but Tabor needs help and I felt like it was time for me to move on."

Gardner credits his coaching success to his wife, Julie.

"The real reason why I've been able to do what I have done is because I've got an incredible wife," Gardner said. "Without Julie this thing will never ever work. She's the reason why I've done OK at Malone and my other jobs as well. She is willing to do what needs to be done to allow me to work."

Although he has never inherited a winless team, Gardner plans to apply his same time-tested and successful coaching philosophy at Tabor College.

"The situation I'm going into now at Tabor is a little bit foreign to me," Gardner said. "It's not one that that I've ever quite experienced. I'm not saying it's all bad, because I think brokenness can be a blessing. But we're not going to do a lot of talking about what's gone on in the past because you can't look backward.

"I'm not going to talk about winning and losing," he added. "I'm not going to worry about winning anything. Realistically, there may be winning seasons down the road, but there may not be. I have been fortunate in the past to be part of some very successful programs and feel as though you're only as successful as the people you surround yourself with."

Preparing the Tabor football program to compete for a conference championship will not be an easy task because the quality of football played in the KCAC has improved dramatically in the past few years, Gardner said.

"I know the guys who are coaching in the KCAC and there is a greater commitment from these schools being put into their programs," he said. "This is a great NAIA league that I'm leaving, but there are a lot of good football coaches in the KCAC."

The Tabor football facilities received a much-needed face lift this past year with the completion of the beautiful new Joel H. Wiens Stadium, making it second to none in the conference. Allen says the new football coach will be expected to produce a program worthy of the new stadium, which is designed to expand the Christian influence of the college.

"The public tends to focus on the wins and losses, the championships and the national rankings, but the mission of the Tabor Athletic Department is about learning, excellence and Christian growth," Allen said. "Our coaches also have goals for our teams in the classroom, for team GPA, Academic All-Conference awards, NAIA Academic All-American awards and NAIA scholar team awards.

"While we are eager to see our teams compete for championships on the field, it is important to realize that it will take some time for the football program to build back up to that standard."

After speaking with current Tabor football players this weekend, Gardner plans to hit the recruiting trail immediately, looking for a variety of talent to play in the new stadium.

"We are going to look for players nationally, but there are a lot of good players in Kansas in the smaller classifications who have played well for us in the past," Gardner said. "We will look for a mixture of different personalities, different backgrounds, and different walks of life.

"When you bring someone to Tabor College as a prospective student athlete, they are going to be embraced for who they are and not necessarily for what they do," he added. "After people get to know them for who they are, that's when life for some of these kids starts to change."

Even though Gardner has a reputation as a tireless worker, he says he won't be trying to rebuild the football program all by himself.

"A lot of people miss the boat when they go into a job because they think it's all about them and it's not," Gardner said. "This football team and this football program are not going to be about me. It has got to be about the players and it has got to be about Tabor.

"I think it's important for the faculty to be involved and for the administration to be involved," he added. "I don't see any successful college football team anywhere that isn't a collective group effort from a lot of different areas. One of the things I missed about Tabor was the sense of community and the sense of family. I like the fact that Tabor is wired in a way to where each department is a part of the other. It goes back to being part of a smaller school and being in a smaller area. I think there's something special about that."

Knowing just how special it would be to have Gardner return to Tabor College, Allen and Glanzer traveled to Canton on Nov. 19 to interview him.

The visit lasted more than six hours.

"Our time with Coach Gardner and his wife, Julie, solidified what I already believed," Allen said. "We are getting an outstanding football coach and we are getting a wonderful family. I have deep respect for Mike, Julie and their sons."

Glanzer, who met Gardner for the first time during the interview, was impressed by his desire for his players to experience life-transformation and become followers of Christ.

"Mike loves Christ, loves his players and loves football," Glanzer said. "He has a passion for developing his players into fine young men with excellent character.He is a perfect fit for Tabor and the institutional goals we have.We are doing more than hiring an excellent football coach,we are adding someone to the Tabor family who is in all respects one of us."