Landers back in the Sweet 16
Georgia coach Andy Landers stood just outside his team's locker room at the SEC tournament earlier this month, grinning broadly.
"Listen to them in there," he said of his players after their quarterfinal victory. "They're in there high-fiving, chirping, laughing. I still enjoy that so much."
Landers is the dean of the SEC women's hoops coaches now that Tennessee's Pat Summitt has moved into an emeritus role. And he's one of the longest-tenured, most experienced college basketball mentors, men's or women's, in the country.
Yet there's still that sparkle in his eyes when talking about his team's success, still the excitement and enjoyment from watching the growth of kids who weren't even born when he coached Georgia in its first NCAA Women's Final Four in 1983. In fact, he has freshmen now who weren't born for more than a decade after that.
Landers and Georgia are back in the Sweet 16, the 20th time he has taken the program at least that far in the NCAA tournament. His No. 4 seed Lady Bulldogs take on No. 1 seed Stanford on Saturday (ESPN, 9 p.m. ET) in a Spokane Regional matchup of two coaches who define their schools' women's basketball programs.
We still have coaches like them who are essentially walking museums of modern-day women's basketball history; Landers and Stanford's Tara VanDerveer are among the most prominent and productive.
In Landers' case, the life journey started in rural Tennessee, where he grew up and began his coaching career. He has told the story of how he was inspired by an uncle who coached; Landers made up his mind as a sixth-grader that he would one day do the same thing.
Right out of Tennessee Tech, just 22 years old, he took over as women's hoops coach at Roane State. He was at that community college in Tennessee for four seasons, going 82-21, when the Georgia women's job opened after the 1979 season. At 26, he was sure he was ready to take that on.
And he has been in Athens, Ga., ever since: through five Final Four appearances, seven SEC regular-season titles, four league tournament championships, 31 seasons of 20 victories or more. He has coached legends of the game like Teresa Edwards and Katrina McClain, plus players such as Deanna Nolan, and Kelly and Coco Miller, who've had significant success in the WNBA.
"He understands every individual and how to talk to them, and it makes the team better as a whole," said Jasmine James, a senior guard who is Georgia's assists leader and No. 2 scorer this season. "He's just driven; when you're as good a coach as he is, you just have that faith in yourself that no matter who your team is that year, you're going to coach them to be the best players that they can be."
This season, Landers crossed the 900-victory threshold as a college coach. It hasn't been recognized as such "officially" yet by the NCAA, because 82 of those wins were at a two-year college. He enters the Sweet 16 with 822 Division I career wins.
"Do you remember being a little kid and going to the fair? And they had the quarter rides, the 50-cent rides, and the dollar rides?" Landers said. "I'm at a place where people want to take the dollar ride. The [administration] has been very supportive. They've made it all possible. They want women's basketball at Georgia to be outstanding.
"I'm at a great place and have had terrific people working with me. Which means we've gotten a lot of good players. Great players. You put that all together, you're going to win a lot of games."
Every season, you just expect Georgia will be in the mix of the top teams of the SEC, and will make the NCAA tournament. This year, the Lady Bulldogs finished third in the league and are in the NCAA field for the 30th time. But it shouldn't be taken for granted, even though Landers' consistency lends itself to those expectations.
"You have to want to find out how good you can be, because we're going to push you to that end," Landers said of his players. "I tell that to everybody we recruit. If you don't want to find that out, don't come here. Because we're going to frustrate each other."
Keeping up standards is a big part Georgia's success, but so is Landers' precious gift of never losing his enthusiasm.
James said that she and her fellow seniors, including leading scorer Jasmine Hassell, saw a different side of Landers this season.
"I think he's more laid-back, more relaxed," James said. "He allows us to make more decisions. He trusts us more."
Here's the thing, though: It's not that Landers has "changed." It's that the Georgia seniors have grown up, and so their relationship with their coach has evolved. They've earned the trust.
"The players get older and they say, 'Oh, he's gotten soft, right?'" Landers said with his trademark chuckle. "We all used to have it harder, didn't we? When we walked to school and back, it was uphill both ways, remember?
"I'm the same as always. But these guys this season, they've worked. They've absolutely invested to be as good as they've become. And they continue to do that."
Georgia beat Montana by 20 in the NCAA opening round, then survived a frenzied Iowa State rally to win 65-60 in the second round. It gave Landers a chance, for at least one more time this season, to witness one of his favorite sights.
"I love walking in the locker room after a game and looking at 12-13 kids' faces," he said of big victories. "The great thing about it is, they know it didn't just 'happen.' They know they had to prepare, that they were disciplined in their preparation and their execution.
"They know if they exercise those habits the rest of their life -- I mean, wow. They get it. Maybe not as freshmen, but by the time they're sophomores for sure. They get it."