Gardner made basketball players, coaches and the game better
BY DAVE SHEA
He made me better.
That thought was shared by players and coaches who considered themselves very fortunate to have been associated with Robert G. Gardner who passed away at his home surrounded by loved ones on June 23.
In developing championship teams at Morristown and Hammond Central from 1973 to 1987 Gardner extended the horizons of Section 10 small school girls basketball. He also coached softball at both schools and was an avid bowler, a fan of all sports and had a great love for hiking and mountain climbing. Throughout his life he lead family treks on all 46 peaks of the Adirondacks.
As Morristown's Superintendent of Schools Gardner began his coaching career guiding MCS Elementary School teams and throughout his career he guided the elementary, modified, junior varsity and varsity levels at Morristown and Hammond. His team were among those that changed the landscape of girls basketball ushering in an era of packed gyms for big games.
He was also one of the first coaches to stress involvement in summer camps and for many years took Morristown players to the Golden Valley Camp and used his coaching salary to help pay for camp fees. One of his favorite memories was going undefeated at the varsity and JV level at Morristown one season and suffering his only loss at the modified level to Hammond which was coached by his wife Irene.
"The biggest trait I learned from Coach Gardner was the elementary program. Running it yourself. He told me these are the kids that one day you will be coaching and in order for them to play the way you want the Varsity Coach needs to do it. That never left me. And over my career I did it", said Shawn Dack who followed Gardner to the helm of the Hammond program after serving as an assistant coach.
"The last few years I’ve handed it over to Alyssa Crosby in hopes she understands that very same thing. They are your foundation. And if they do not play correctly it will never work out in the long run. I’ve been very fortunate at Hammond to be surrounded by such high character coaches in Bob Gardner. Chet Truskowski and Tom Chapman and my high school coaches Shawn Baker and Greg Golding
Dack has followed Gardner's principles into an epic 32-year career which was highlighted by back-to-back New York State Class D Championships.
"Bob Gardner belongs in the highest circle of coaches with people like Mike Nicholas and Jerry Welsh. He put so much into his coaching and produced such great teams," said retired Lisbon Central Coach Pat McGuire who developed an outstanding rivalry between his Golden Knights and Hammond in the 1980s.
"He made me a better coach just competing against him. We had some great games had some big wins against Hammond. And associating with Bob made me a better person. Bob Gardner was just an outstanding person."
In 1973 Gardner elevated Mary Ann Evans to the varsity as an eighth grader and she never forgot the day she was called to the high school office.
"R.G., I always called him R.G, called me to the office and said he needed me to move up the varsity. He was a great motivator and I loved playing for him because I prided myself to work as I possible could in every practice," recalls Evans who has applied the Gardner principles in her career as an instructor of pottery at Mare's Wares in Morristown.
"Fundamentals, fundementals and more fundamentals and he always preached that basketball was team game and that assists, rebounds and steals were just as important as scoring. We made the New York State Final Four one year and I think we would have won the state title if Laurie Beggs hadn't sprained her ankle in warmups."
Evelyn Gardner counts thousands of outstanding memories playing for her father, Bob Gardner, from the elementary to the varsity level and then following her dad into the coaching ranks as the varsity girls basketball coach at Gouverneur Central.
"In sixth grade my dad made sure that everyone learned the fundamentals. He was very big on lefthanded layups and he would stop practice if he had to do to make sure every girl could make lefthanded layups," said Evelyn Gardner.
"And he was so organized. Every practice was planned right down to the second."
Bob Gardner was never happier than spending six hours a day, from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m., in the gym in practice.
"He once remarked to a local sportswriter that "basketball would be much more fun if it wasn't for all these games."
Mike Tooley shared in so many of those Morristown Central practices as Gardner's assistant coach in the 1970s. He succeeded his mentor at the Morristown helm when Gardner retired as MCS's Superintdent of Schools. After being asked to serve as an MCS assistant he went on to a 20-year career at Morristown Central, Mater Dei College and SUNY Canton.
He referred to Gardner as "a giant".
"My experiences working with Bob as administrator and as a coach were likely significant factors in my encouraging my daughters to play sports, especially basketball. I owe so much to him and I am happy I had the opportunity to tell him when he was inducted into the Morristown Central Hall of Fame" said Tooley who continues to support young athletes as a member of the Ogdensburg City School District Board of Education and 30-second shot clock operator at OFA home games.
"He devoted so much time to teaching basketball with the same effort whether it was an elementary student or a varsity senior. At the Golden Valley Camps he was the first coach on the floor in the morning and often the last one to bed after joining the other coaches in the camaraderie at the end of the day."
Gardner's life will be celebrated in a get-together with family and friends on Sunday at the Gouverneur Elks Club beginning at 4 p.m.
"Everyone is invited to come and it should continue well into the evening. People who knew dad are invited to come and share stories, drinks and his favorite Limburger cheese," said Evelyn Gardner.
Shawn Dack feels that Gardner's legacy will continue indefinitely at Hammond.
"You take pieces of knowledge and experiences from all to form what you want to be as a coach and put it in place with our teams we have had. Bob Gardner was more than a basketball coach. He also loved softball and I can still hear him telling the kids to watch the game on TV and learn it," said Coach Dack.
"He would tell them to play it in the summer. He’d look at me. Shake his head. And smile. His other assistant Mr John Rupert was also an amazing assistant coach. Ed Carvill also helped with those teams back then. Things that we did to gain edges over opponents: traveling and scouting. He showed us how important that was. And we continued it and we carried his success forward. And we still do today," said Dack.
"It is a connection through coaching that bonds people together. And keeps them connected. Camelot took a blow by his passing. But his legacy lives on through us. And forever will." concluded Dack who feels that Gardner deserves a place in the New York State Basketball Hall of Fame for his success and role as a pioneer of modern coaching methods.
Mary Ann Evans feels that he belongs in the hall because he accomplished the greatest goal of any coach. He made it fun to not only play but also to learn the game.
"The last time I saw RG was back in April and I am not even sure that he knew who I was," said Evans.
"But he looked at me and said "we really had a lot of good times."
Good times that will never be forgotten.