Although she played at Alabama and was an assistant coach there for three seasons, Georgia women’s basketball coach Joni Taylor is adamant about where her loyalty will lie when the No. 3 Bulldogs and No. 4 Crimson Tide meet for Monday’s College Football Playoff championship.
“I’m pulling for Georgia. There’s no hesitation about that at all,” said Taylor, now in her third year as the Lady Bulldogs head coach.
Taylor’s allegiance to the Bulldog Nation was echoed several times over last week by members of Georgia’s men’s and women’s basketball teams, all of whom have friends on the football team, and by Georgia swimming coach Jack Bauerle.
“Oh my gosh. I’m not sure I still have my head wrapped around it,” said senior basketball player Mackenzie Engram of Georgia’s 54-48 Rose Bowl victory over No. 2 Oklahoma on New Year’s Day. “It is so awesome and I’m so happy for them, especially the seniors who are friends of mine. The fact they all came back to do exactly what they’re doing – God is good. It’s so amazing and I’m so happy for them.”
“We fully support the football team in everything they do and they support us equally,” added junior basketball player Derek Ogebeide. “Much like all the programs here, we’re all one entity and one unit. We’re all happy about it and we’re very excited for them.”
‘The excitement of it all’
Bauerle is one of several Georgia coaches – including Manny Diaz (men’s tennis), Jeff Wallace (women’s tennis), Chris Haack (men’s golf) — who have led teams to national titles. He was also just starting his coaching career at Georgia when the Bulldogs last won the national crown in 1980.
“I was here when they got the last one. I got the women’s job in 1979,” said Bauerle, whose women’s swim teams have won seven NCAA titles. “I remember the excitement of it all and I also remember how remiss I was about not going because at that age you don’t think you can miss one minute of where you’re supposed to be, which was the reason I was at the Rose Bowl. I wasn’t going to miss that.”
Taylor says she’s pumped up for Monday’s historic battle because it reemphasizes what she’s been saying for a long time about the Southeastern Conference and its membership.
“I’m happy that just like the women’s national championship game, we’ve got two SEC teams playing for the national championship,” said Taylor, noting that South Carolina and Mississippi State grappled for the national women’s basketball title last April. “I think the SEC is the best conference in the country and they continue to prove me right when I say that. It’s going to be a great game. I’m excited for Kirby (Smart) and I’m excited for the guys, so it’s great they can represent us.”
Inspiration and influence
Those interviewed also agreed that the football team’s success can provide inspiration in their pursuits this winter.
“I think anybody going that far in any collegiate sport is going to help the university, so it’s definitely helping everyone get more amped up and fired up around campus,” said senior basketball player Yante Maten. “Their success is definitely influencing a lot of different teams.”
“It’s something we can definitely feed off of, especially considering the first half they had (against Oklahoma), being down and being able to fight back and win in double overtime,” said senior Haley Clark. “That’s something everyone can feed off of, no matter what sport.”
Bauerle says a national football championship is beneficial for every athletic program at Georgia.
“It’s good for everybody,” he said. “It’s obviously great for business – especially if you’re selling shirts. But it’s good for all the sports. We have recruits that are excited about it. We all reap the benefits, but more importantly it’s so neat we’re in this game.”
Making a commitment
Taylor also pointed to the decision a number of rising seniors made at the conclusion of the 2016 football season to come back to the team as a topic of motivational discussion.
“We talk about it all the time,” said Taylor, who pointed out that Alabama won no football titles while she was a student-athlete in Tuscaloosa. “There are times when we steal their highlight videos and show our girls before practice and before games. The biggest conversation I have with our young ladies about the football team is their seniors – with Sony Michel, with Nick Chubb, with Lorenzo Carter, and what they chose to do in terms of coming back for their senior year. They made the unselfish decision and it paid off.”
As a senior who opted to return for his final season, Maten appreciates the commitment seniors like Carter, Chubb and Michel made to their team and teammates.
“I want Georgia to be the best and they’re making it happen now,” he said. “Every senior that decides to come back has that dream of being the best, and it’s good to see that.”
Bauerle says he’s hopeful the football team will have the opportunity to experience the highest accomplishment in the collegiate sports realm. He adds that many of his former swimmers who are Olympic medal winners have just as much regard for their national titles “because it’s something you won with teammates you’re with every day.”
“I’m dying for these football players to feel what many of our swimmers have felt,” he said. “With the exception of your children being born, it’s the best feeling in the world.”