A tale of two coaches
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ATLANTA – It’s always a busy time for Joni and Darius Taylor, but July especially so.
On Sunday, Joni, head coach of University of Georgia women’s basketball, began an 11-day trip to Italy with her team while Darius, Atlanta Dream assistant coach, prepared to return to practice following the WNBA All-Star break.
The Taylors have been married since 2015 and balance demanding, prominent roles in women’s basketball with their relationship and role as parents to two young girls.
“Our life is hectic all the time I feel like, in terms of what we do,” Joni told High Post Hoops last month. “But we figure it out and support each other. And take it day by day.”
Following the Atlanta Dream’s June matchup with the Washington Mystics, Darius walked the corridors of State Farm Arena, attempting to coax their four-month-old daughter Drew to sleep.
Eventually, he made his way back to the area outside the family room, where he and Joni told the story of how their relationship began.
Darius says it’s a funny story.
“The first time we met, she was actually a little mean to me,” he says. “Because I was at the time at Temple University and she was (at Louisiana Tech). And we were recruiting the same player. She just gave me this funny look when I showed up at the gym. Like, ‘Why are you here? She’s not coming to Temple.’”
Joni interrupts, “I did not say that.”
“I mean,” Darius amends, “That’s the look she gave me.”
That player ended up at Clemson, but Darius and Joni would cross paths again when he landed at the University of South Carolina and she joined the staff at UGA. They became friends and saw each other frequently while working in the Southeastern Conference and recruiting the same players.
“Occasionally I would just ask her how’s everything going,” Daris said, recalling the beginning stages of their relationship. “I remembered her birthday, I would ask prying questions like, ‘What’s your significant other going to do for you?’ And one of the times she was like ‘I don’t have a significant other,’ and I was like, ‘Oh really?’”
That was in 2014. In 2015, the two married. But just before they got married, longtime UGA head coach Andy Landers announced his retirement. And Joni was named the second full-time head coach in program history.
“It is a huge responsibility that I take very seriously,” Joni said. “I am honored to be have taken over the reigns after him. He’s been one of my mentors and my dear friends, and he supports me and supports our program, so what drives us is just making the alumni proud and continuing the legacy that is Georgia’s women’s basketball and doing everything I can to enhance it.”
Just before their wedding, they were considering getting a house in Augusta, Georgia, which they considered a decent halfway point between the Lady Bulldogs in Athens, Georgia and the Gamecocks in Columbia, South Carolina. Joni was thriving in Athens, being promoted to associate head coach after only one year working as an assistant and Darius just helped coach South Carolina to its first Final Four.
But after Joni got the head coaching job, Darius stepped down from his position with the Gamecocks, saying it was a conflict of interest and that he didn’t want to start their marriage apart.
“I had to make a decision for my family,” Darius said. “Once she became the head coach I just knew how important it was for me to be around and help and having to understand what it takes to do the job. You need people. Your family is important to support you and take care of the other stuff. Because the basketball is the smallest part of being a head coach.”
Darius took a hiatus from coaching basketball, working in real estate and for a company that helped professional athletes transition to the next phases of their lives before getting his job with the Dream in 2017.
Joni’s coached UGA to a 81-44 record over the last four seasons. She received national attention earlier this year when she gave birth to Drew hours after coaching the team to a blowout win over Ole Miss and returning to the bench two days later vs. Arkansas. The return to her team wasn’t planned, and Joni said the national reaction was unexpected.
“I wasn’t going,” she says before turning to Darius, “And what was it, Tuesday night in the hospital, some of the players were like, ‘Are you going to be at the game Thursday?’ and you were like, ‘No.’
“Honestly it was all about Drew. I breastfed both (Drew and Jacie) and it depended on if my milk could come in. Because I felt fine. If my milk did not come in, I wasn’t gonna be at the game. And it just so happened I was able to pump and leave a bottle for her that day. I’ve just been fortunate to have two really smooth deliveries.”
January is also a busy time for the Taylors. That’s when UGA begins its games against SEC teams and the Dream’s free agency discussions begin. So, Joni’s traveling across the South to take on conference opponents and Darius is handling conference calls and meetings with Atlanta’s staff, preparing for the new season.
The Taylors live in Athens, where Joni’s parents join them for most of the college season, and sometimes during the summer. Darius also has an apartment in Atlanta, but on his days off from the Dream, he travels to Athens to be with his family.
“It’s really, really cool to be able to watch him in his element, especially knowing what he gave up, initially,” Joni said. “For him to be patient and come back around in this way, I’m happy for him, I’m happy for us. To me, it shows you what God does. There’s not a better situation where we can support each other and our seasons don’t but heads with each other.”
They try not to talk about basketball all the time. During his hiatus from coaching, Darius said he had to learn how to offer his support in different ways other than additional coaching or feedback. But Joni still bounces ideas off of Darius sometimes, and will shoot him a text along the lines of, “Hey I need some help. I need some drills. What do you see?”
“It’s been fun to watch her grow as a head coach,” Darius said. “I always knew she was ready to be a head coach, from the things she had to handle and do as the associate head at Georgia. I learn a lot from her. I just take a step back and let her do her job, which she does really well.”
By the time Joni and Darius finish telling the story of their journey, they realized they’d talked Baby Drew to sleep.
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