21 Dec Garry Tanner to Retire From HINU
After 37 years with Haskell Indian Nations University Athletics, Interim Athletic Director and Coach Gary Tanner retires December 31, 2021. Haskell Foundation sat down with Tanner at his office in Coffin Sports Complex a week before the holiday break. Tanner talked about his career, the effects of COVID 19 on athletic programs in the last year and a half, and his hopes for the future of his beloved Alma Mater.
Gary Tanner was born and raised in Jay, Oklahoma where he and his family lived on trust land. Tanner said that “we were so poor that I couldn’t pay attention” but added that most of his friends and neighbors were living in similar socio-economic conditions, so, he did not notice that he was poor until much later in his adult life. Leaving Oklahoma in 1985, Tanner came to Haskell Junior College where he “experienced three meals a day, a place to live,” and, he said, positive role models. Among those role models were Haskell Alums, Phil Homeratha, who hired Tanner, and Jerry Tuckwin, who was his mentor. He went on to describe Haskell as a place where he found a wider community, a community that became his extended family. According to Tanner, that close-nit, “everyone-knew-everyone” atmosphere was the direct result of students attending Haskell and then becoming employees, teachers, and coaches at the University. In a brief moment of nostalgia, Tanner said that these close relationships had suffered somewhat over the years as Haskell expanded into a four-year university. Tanner said “we have good people now, but it’s not the same.” He went on to say that the expansion of programs was a positive trend and marked needed progression for Haskell; a progression he hopes will continue.
In his multi-decade career, Gary Tanner has served as Assistant Football Coach, Football Coach, Golf Coach, Women’s Softball Coach, and has served multiple times as Interim Athletic Director, as he is doing in his last weeks at the University. His long and varied career has given Tanner a uniquely qualified perspective on the athletic programs at Haskell.
Most recently, Tanner and his fellow administrators have had to face the reality of a school without students on campus. Tanner spoke about how suddenly the changes occurred when the Athletic Department received directives regarding the University’s response to the advent of COVID19. Tanner was coaching Haskell’s softball team at the time, and said he and his team were playing a tournament in Myrtle Beach, FL, when he got the call. The team returned home the next day, and Tanner said he instructed his players to grab their belongings and go home. The coach said, he “didn’t really even get to say good-bye – it was just that sudden.”
Tanner talked about how this past year and a half has been hard on athletes and non-athlete students alike. For athletes, the absence of events and fans diminished enthusiasm, somewhat, because most competitors “like to play with people watching,” with their friends “hollering for them.” He said for the non-athlete students COVID19 meant no sports events to attend, and no chance to support their school teams; a loss of a very important part of the college experience, because, as Tanner said, “they want to hoot and holler for their buddies.”
Tanner said the pandemic also forced coaches and staff to be creative in finding ways to support their athletes away from campus. Staff checked in regularly with the athletes, directed training remotely, helped students with workout programs, and suggested ways for them to access equipment near their homes. In addition, Tanner said coaches, administrators, and staff “did some things we needed to do to hit the ground running,” planning ahead for the eventual return of the student body.
One of the most important tasks left to Interim Athletic Director Tanner in planning for the days after COVID19 and the future of Haskell Athletics was the recruitment of two new coaches; one for Assistant Track & Field and Cross Country, and one for Women’s Basketball. Tanner and administrators carefully vetted candidates during the long days without students, and managed to recruit two outstanding coaches. New to Haskell Indian Nations University Athletics are Coach Adam Strom and Coach Clay Mays.
Two New Coaches
Tanner recruited Coach Adam Strom after finally receiving Strom’s entire resume. As the story goes, Tanner initially only received one page of the resume, and then asked an administrator about it. He then received a very large file, and was immediately excited to interview the new coach. According to Tanner, Strom is a “spark plug” and a “go-getter.” Currently, the new coach has twenty-nine women on the team with a full Junior Varsity program that bodes well for the continued strength and success of the program. Tanner said he is excited for the future of women’s basketball at Haskell, “I think they are going to be really tough.”
Tanner went on to talk about the recruitment of the new Assistant Track & Field and Cross Country Coach, Clay Mays. He said he was excited about the addition of Mays to the coaching staff at Haskell, characterizing Mays as someone who is “networked up in the running areas” around the nation, saying that “people have confidence in him.” This combination of a great reputation in the sport and the ability to capitalize on that reputation for recruiting portends a great future for Track & Field and Cross Country at Haskell.
Interim Athletic Director and Coach Gary Tanner said he believes the spring semester holds real promise for Haskell Indian Nations University Athletics. He said that he is “looking forward to everything; promising athletes, coaches pushing them hard,” “looking for excellence,” and coaches, teams and fans that “want to win.”
Tanner believes that Haskell Foundation can do a lot to support that winning future. When asked what the Foundation could do, Tanner outlined a short list of important projects that he believes should be the next steps for the growth of sports at the University.
- A continuous fund earmarked for coaches to use for recruiting purposes.
Tanner repeatedly pointed to recruitment as an essential element to any successful sports program. Tanner simply stated that the “Department needs a fund to recruit on.” He said, “if coaches go recruiting they pay for themselves” and while there is some money set aside, there is not nearly enough.
- The University needs more facilities to house athletic programs.
Tanner said that “every sport is cramped up in one building,” and that if more buildings, like Tinker Hall (South Haskell Stadium) were outfitted for teams to have as a home base, training could be enhanced, morale would be lifted, and programs would be able to expand. Tanner was grateful for the contribution of Haskell Foundation and its securing architectural schematics that depict a locker room and training room renovation project in Tinker Hall. He noted that support for this project could be the catalyst for outfitting more areas around campus for sports.
- Do whatever it takes to bring the Haskell football program back online.
This last project was at the heart of Tanner’s wish list for Haskell. He knows that there is much to be done, but Tanner believes the long term goal could be reached through a series of short term projects that could be completed in stages. With that Tanner said, “Its gonna take big money,” but that once achieved it would “never be a problem” to find ‘kids to play football at Haskell.” Tanner cautioned that in order for the program to be successful, there would have to be real commitment to “pay good coaches to come and coach” which would mean top level salaries. But, Tanner said, “everybody would love to have football back” so the outcome would be well worth the time, effort and resources. Tanner said immediate projects could focus on the need for infrastructure/bleachers and equipment, and reiterated that all of this could be done ‘in phases.”
Interim Athletic Director, Coach, and former Haskell student, Gary Tanner communicated his great love for his Alma Mater when he stated emphatically, “I went to school here, I love it here, it’s been good to me, it’s given me a life; I’ve been here over half my life.” Tanner will retire to his home in Lawrence, Kansas with his lovely wife Janie, who Tanner reverently describes, “Janie has always been supportive. I could not have done half of this stuff without her support, and I don’t know how many wives could have gone through it.” Tanner plans to help Janie with their two and three-year-old grandchildren.
Tanner said that during his career at Haskell, his son, Brady, had been his greatest ally. He said that Brady had been an inspiration to many Haskell athletes in the training room. As a Special Olympian, Brady won his place in history at the International Special Olympics, being named the strongest Special Olympian in the world. His positive never-give-up attitude strengthened Tanner and his teams when times were tough; and his enthusiasm for Haskell sports encouraged everyone to excel, to do their very best, and to try and try again.
In closing, Tanner spoke candidly about why he never really wanted to be the Athletic Director on a permanent basis. He said his “passion has always been the athletes” and the one-on-one contact with the young hearts and minds that were in his charge. He went on to say that, just as it had been in his life, Haskell can be an instrument of change for any student who comes here looking for a better life. Tanner said, Haskell was “a new life for me, and it was better, and that’s what I’ve been trying to do for these kids. All this time, just a change agent.” To the future students, Tanner leaves this message: “You can change where you come from. If you don’t like how you did or where you’ve been, change it here. There are good people here who will help you.”
Thank you, Gary Tanner, for your time, your talent, your commitment, and your love for Haskell Indian Nations University, its students, its coaches, and its mission.
In honor of Gary Tanner’s countless contributions to Haskell Athletics, please consider making a donation to the Haskell Foundation in support of Haskell Athletics, either for a specific athletic program, or for the Foundation’s General Haskell Athletics Fund.