Joni Taylor first impressed Georgia Lady Bulldog forward Merritt Hempe in some of her first official moments as UGA's new head coach.
"I think actually the first moment for me was at the press conference after she got the job," the senior Hempe said before practice last Friday. "Just seeing her up there and seeing her talk about her vision for the program was kind of the moment for me."
It was April 13, during Georgia's news conference introducing Taylor (actually, she was still Joni Crenshaw at the time, months before her wedding to Darius Taylor) as the program's new coach, replacing a Hall of Famer. Andy Landers had retired in March after 36 seasons and 862 wins as the one and only full-time coach the Georgia women's program had ever known.
Taylor, who had been on Landers' staff the past four seasons, the last three as the associate head coach, spoke with confidence and authority. "Coach Joni" had clearly become "Head Coach Joni," Hempe said.
"I think I was kind of expecting it because I know she's so knowledgeable about the game and she has such a passion for it, and I think you can really see that when she talks about it," said Hempe, who started 24 games last season, when Georgia finished an up-and-down season at 19-12. "I know she's been ready to be a head coach for years ... and she's just been waiting for the right opportunity."
Watching Taylor and the Lady Bulldogs during last Friday's practice, two things were obvious: Taylor and her staff have the players' full attention and those players better be ready to run. Speed and aggression may be the two buzz words you hear most this season.
"The speed, that's really been impressive -- how fast we're playing and how we're getting up and down," said sophomore guard Haley Clark. "It feels kind of like pick-up, the way we get up and down."
The new fast-paced offense will play to the Lady Bulldogs' athleticism and it's a style that defenses will be forced to adjust to, rather than a more traditional offense in which the point guard walks the ball up the court and the team settles in to run a set play.
"I'm excited about the offense," Taylor said. "We are blessed to have some seniors that are smart and have high basketball IQs, kind of like little floor generals themselves that can help the young kids. I think it's going to make it hard to scout, really, and it's going to allow us to do what we do best, which is create driving angles and get to the rim, and isolate people for one-on-one matchups."
During last Friday's two-hour practice, Taylor spent stretches quietly and intensely watching as her assistants worked with the players. There also were stretches when she was front and center directing how she wanted a play to be run. She was clearly comfortable doing both.
One thing that stood out during the practice was that neither she nor her coaches ever raised their voices. On this day, at least, there was no yelling. That's not always the case, Taylor said.
"I'm very no-nonsense and I feel like I'm pretty even-keeled," she said. "I think I can get what I want out of them without yelling at them. Now if you ask them, they will tell you that I do yell at them, but when I yell at them they know, `oh, boy.' It's not an everyday thing. I'm fortunate to have been with these girls, some of them for four years and some for three years, so I'm very familiar with them and they're familiar with me.
"Today was more of a teaching day and I think if you come back two weeks from now and we're doing these same things, and they're screwing it up, you might hear a different voice."
Taylor said the basketball part of being a head coach has been about what she expected, it's the job she's been working toward for many years, but the off-the-court part has been a learning experience.
"Coach Landers was great to me, so I'm extremely comfortable out here. I think it's been good for the girls, too, because they're excited about everything. It's new, it's different and I think it's going to showcase what they do," she said. "Where it's been different for me is in the non-coaching things. There are a lot of different things that take me in different directions and take me away from the basketball piece. Even from the recruiting piece some, and that's where it's important to have assistant coaches who are experienced and passionate and on the same page."