December 11, 2023 

‘Blind trust’ drives Joni Taylor’s powerful coaching philosophy

Taylor draws talent to College Station through transparency

Joni Taylor and Janiah Barker first spoke when Barker was just 13 years old. A seventh grader at Mowat Middle School outside of Panama City, Fla., Taylor pitched Barker on the idea of heading back to her home state to represent the Georgia Bulldogs. And the pitch worked — but it didn’t pan out exactly as planned.

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Cut to seven years later, Barker still leaders a Taylor team, but instead, she’s across the SEC at Texas A&M. And it’s all because of “blind trust.”

In 2022, after five years at the helm in Georgia, Taylor caught college basketball by surprise and announced her new role as the head coach at Texas A&M. According to SEC and NCAA rules, Taylor was permitted just a single phone call to each incoming player to announce her news.

“When we decided to leave Georgia to come to College Station, I didn’t know what [Barker] would do. … Texas A&M wasn’t even a school she talked to. She had no background on them at all,” Taylor told The Next. “She called one time when the news broke. She called, and she said, ‘I’m coming,’ and that was the end of it. It wasn’t a conversation.”

As Taylor put it at the end of last season, “I can tell Janiah to go stand on top of a building and jump and she’d say, ‘Tell me what time.’”

But Barker isn’t the only one who followed her blind trust to the other side of the SEC, as incoming freshman Sydney Bowles and Tineya Hilton followed. And that’s because when you ask most players why they’re at Texas A&M, they have a simple two-word answer: “Joni Taylor.”

Building trust early

The core of Taylor’s philosophy is her intentional approach to recruiting. She and her team start the process early and choose players based on their values and community involvement. They begin approaching players years before they’ve even started high school. Taylor uses the phrase “sweat equity” to describe the process: her recruits see she’s working just as hard as they are.

And the early bonds Taylor builds build familiarity when players finally arrive on campus up to six years later. But it’s more than familiarity; it’s honesty. Taylor’s commitment to honesty and transparency has been a guiding principle throughout her coaching career.

“There’s a trust that has been established, and it’s because it starts with honesty,” Taylor said. “It’s hard for me to lie. You ask me a question, I’m sorry, good, bad, or indifferent, you’re gonna get the answer. And you may not want it, but you’re gonna get it. But players want the truth.”

Taylor calls her recruiting approach “blue-collar.” There isn’t any flashy celebration or social media pompous; it’s all about painting an accurate picture of what the player will get. Taylor explained that the environment she cultivates on visits is exactly what her players will get.

The honesty Taylor emanates is not just about basketball, but also her own identity.

Finding her way

Taylor, who calls herself a ‘product of the SEC,’ was a power forward at the University of Alabama from 1997 to 2001. In college, she studied Secondary Education with the intention of following in the footsteps of her parents and brother to become an educator. She planned to get her counseling graduate degree and be a high school counselor during the week and a church counselor on the weekends.

Instead, during her final year in Tuscaloosa, she worked as a student assistant with the men’s basketball program under Mark Gottfried. After seeing Gottfried and his team’s passion for recruitment and impacting young people’s lives, she immediately “caught the coaching bug.”

After she graduated, she joined her college position coach, Mike Murphy, at Troy University. After Troy, she coached at Louisiana Tech and bounced around the SEC, going from Alabama to LSU to Georgia. She worked under a slew of legendary coaches, including Hall of Famer Andy Landers, who “handed her the keys” from the moment she arrived in Athens. In 2015, at just 37 years old, Taylor took over the head coaching job at UGA.

Taylor credits the people in her life as important teachers who shaped her path to knowing herself. One of these influencers was a man named Darius Taylor. Darius, who is now the GM of the Connecticut Sun, met Joni when she was an assistant at Georgia and he was an assistant coach at South Carolina under Dawn Staley.

The rival assistants began dating, but Taylor explained their relationship to basketball and one another was very intentional, just like her recruiting. The two were enemies on the court and kept everything from recruiting to day-to-day operations out of their conversations.’

“One day, I said, ‘Hey, I’m going recruiting today. I’ll be back tomorrow. He goes, ‘I’m going recruiting too. Be safe.’ And then we showed up at the same place,” Taylor recounted jokingly. “Just knowing that you have somebody in the trenches with you who gets it and who sometimes you don’t have to say a thing to and they just know how to move and navigate is a really special thing.”

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Joni and Darius later got married and had two daughters, Jacie Elise and Drew Simone. Now, basketball conversation is still kept to certain boundaries, even if games are on all the time. According to Taylor, her daughters know almost every college player by name.

“It starts with knowing who you are. In order to lead others, you have to lead yourself well,” Taylor told reporters at SEC Media Day. “I’m fortunate to have people around me who modeled that behavior, have spent a ton of time knowing not only who I am, but who I can coach and who we want to coach as a staff.”

And Taylor’s journey to the top illustrates why she’s dynamic: a deep knowledge of herself and an intentional, grounded philosophy. And like Taylor hopes, this has rubbed off on players.

“She’s amazing. Words can’t describe how I feel about her. She’s a role model to me, and I look up to her a lot,” senior transfer Aicha Coulibaly told The Next. “The discipline she brings to the team and I feel like I’ve grown a lot being around her. Not just on the court, but off the court as well.”

And even Taylor’s former players still carry love for her.

“[Taylor]’s just even keeled; she’s a great person,” current Georgia fifth-year Javyn Nicholson explained. “Her decision to leave was one that I was very happy that she made, [because] it was one that was gonna make her happy, and I’m glad that she’s seeing success at Texas A&M.”

And this high buy-in means that when the going gets tough, her team stays intact. Perhaps the greatest endorsement of Taylor’s coaching is the attitude around her team after last season. Last year’s Aggies won just two conference games, and despite being at the bottom of the SEC barrel, the world remained positive.

Taylor retained star freshmen Barker and Bowles while bringing in one of the nation’s best transfer classes. In an era where the transfer portal is everything, at the end of last season, most of Taylor’s players remained locked and loaded for new heights. The Aggies lost just two players to the portal.

As of December, this season’s success at Texas A&M is on display. The Aggies are 9-1, already tying their overall wins from the 2022-23 season. And with Taylor at the helm and the blind trust of her squad, the Aggies are bound for new heights.

Written by Gabriella Lewis

Gabriella is The Next's Atlanta Dream and SEC beat reporter. She is a Bay Area native currently studying at Emory University.

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