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SEC 40/40: Landers Blazes Trail At Georgia

1628 days ago
Sean Cartell | SEC Digital Network
Photo: SEC Digital Network

ATHENS, Ga. -- Andy Landers knew that in order to produce exceptional results, he was going to have to bring a unique approach to his new job as the head women's basketball coach at the University of Georgia.

Landers was the head women's basketball coach at Roane State College in Harriman, Tenn., when on April 24, 1979, he was named Georgia's head coach at the age of 26.

"I tell people that I got the Georgia job when women's basketball wasn't cool and I think that's true with a lot of jobs in the mid to late 70s, and even the early 80s," Landers said. "They had the opening and I applied. Out of 150 applicants, they interviewed 10 and, at the end of the day, I was the last one standing.

"I was always very appreciative of Coach [Vince] Dooley, who was the interim athletic director that year, and Hugh Durham, who was on that committee and was our men's basketball coach at the time," Landers continued. "I was only 26 years old and had only been coaching for four years. Certainly things happened a different way in 1977 than they do in 2012."

The landscape of the sport looked much different than it does today, where national television exposure and highly attended championships dominate the game.

"In the 1970s, there wasn't any recruiting going on," Landers said. "People sent out letters announcing that they would have a tryout and that they would give a scholarship, or maybe three scholarships on Saturday at the end of the tryout. That's what was taking place when I took the Georgia job. Actually going out and evaluating talent and visiting with coaches and trying to uncover those diamonds in the rough wasn't taking place."

Landers was determined to change that. Because of that fact, his program got a jump start on an overwhelming majority of the country. In 1981, he led his team to the National Women's Invitation Tournament Championship.

The Lady Bulldogs then won three Southeastern Conference Championships in a four-year span, taking home the crown in 1983, 1984, 1986 and 1991. They were the first of seven league titles that Georgia has won, to complement its five NCAA Final Four appearances, the first of which came in 1983.

"We recruited nationally," Landers said. "I think us and Tennessee were probably the two teams to jump out there - perhaps UCLA - and recruit on a national level first. I don't know who the first one out of the gate was, but I know Georgia and Tennessee were in the front of that pack."

In the early 1980s, Landers reeled in the nation's No. 1 recruit, Janet Harris from Chicago. The results of his recruiting prowess paid off as she became Georgia's only four-time basketball All-American.

Landers was equally successful at plucking the top talent from within the Peach State, inking standout Teresa Edwards from Cairo. Edwards won her first Olympic gold medal in 1984 following her sophomore season with the Lady Bulldogs. Her international career spanned far and wide, as she captured her fourth Gold Medal in 2000 as captain of the U.S. Olympic Team.

And the impressive list of talented players goes on and on. Numerous All-Americans, including six Kodak All-Americans headline the hallowed Georgia tradition.

But just why was Landers able to jump ahead of the curve early in the history of the sport?

"Georgia cared about women's sports when it wasn't cool and they care about it now that it is cool," Landers said. "They've always been very fair. They've always wanted their women's basketball teams to be competitive and, as an administration, they've always been willing to provide the pieces or the things that you need to be competitive, not just within the conference, but on a national level. It takes everybody to be supportive and have the kind of athletic department that we, at the University of Georgia have had for a long time."

When it came to a vision for on-the-court success, Landers knew exactly what he wanted the Georgia program to become. The Lady Bulldogs had posted just one winning season prior to his hire and, even though Georgia recorded its first win on Jan. 17, 1974, it took nearly six years for them to reach the program's 50-win milestone during Landers' first season.

But the wins kept coming. In less than a decade, the Lady Bulldogs had accumulated 250 more victories by the time the program's 300th win came around on Jan. 6, 1990.

Landers' plan had come to fruition. It was a simple plan, but it was also an ambitious one.

"When I took the job at the University of Georgia, Georgia had never beaten Mercer, they had never beaten Berry, they'd never beaten Shorter, Georgia Southern or Valdosta State," Landers said. "When I accepted the job at Georgia, Mercer and Valdosta State were both ranked in the top-20. So, the No. 1 objective was to win the state; to be the best team in the state. No. 2 was to be in the top 20 and No. 3 was to be a top-10 program. If you're a top-10 program, then there's going to be years when you're in the top five and if you're in the top five, you've got a chance to win a national championship."

Despite all the impressive numbers, records and accolades, Landers' program hasn't been just about winning on the court, but rather winning in life.

A number of Landers' former basketball players have gone on to success in all walks of life, a number of them in coaching and even Carla [Green] Williams, who serves as Georgia's Executive Associate Athletics Director and Senior Woman Administrator.

The idea that a student-athlete will become a well-rounded person is not just encouraged in Landers' program; it's expected.

"We're determined that the experience that a young person, a student-athlete has at the University of Georgia goes well past what happens on the court," Landers said. "We want them to be a more accountable person, we want them to be a more mature person, we want them to be a person that's capable of making good decisions and we want them to graduate. We've been very fortunate that every player that has played four years for us has graduated."

Now in his fourth decade at the helm of the program he built from the ground up, Landers has watched the sport change dramatically - for the better - during that time.

"Everything has changed - it's amazing," Landers said. "Thirty-three years ago, you had a head coach and you were lucky if you had a trainer. You look up 33 years later and you have three assistant coaches, a director of operations, a video guy, an administrative assistant, a couple of trainers and a strength coach, so the support of the program and people being in place to help the student-athletes and help the program grow has obviously changed dramatically. The number of fans and spectators has grown drastically."

One critical component to that change has been the sharp increase in the television coverage that the sport receives, both during the regular season and the postseason.

"If you'd had gold coins in 1979, you couldn't have bought TV time," Landers said. "Now it's TV, it's radio, it's the Internet, it's everywhere. That piece has probably changed the most and, at the same time, has helped to improve women's basketball the most."

Landers knows that television has allowed the sport of women's basketball to extend its reach nationally and has drawn in new fans who otherwise may not have encountered the sport.

"It has exposed us," Landers said. "Whether you mean to or not, often times when you're watching television, you'll watch a few minutes of something out of curiosity. I think we've captured the attention of a lot of people through that piece of curiosity. We have University of Georgia fans all across the country. Every time I travel somewhere, someone walks up to me and tells me how much they enjoy watching us play on television and that they've become a Georgia women's basketball fan. It has allowed us to be exposed to the American population in a way that we could not have been exposed otherwise."

As Landers looks back on the program he has built and looks ahead to a bright future among the elite programs in the sport of women's basketball, he can be proud of the core principles of his program and the quality women it has produced.

"It's the real deal," Landers said. "It's not a place where you go hang out, play a little basketball and do whatever you want. There's a standard of excellence. I think we have expectations of young people that most parents would be extremely proud of. I think the players have embraced the culture - that 'being the best I can be' attitude, not settling for anything else and working outside of their comfort zones to accomplish great things. I think that's what's happened. They're a product of a special place."