As an undersized defensive end playing for the Sacramento Sirens of the Independent Women’s Football League, Jeny Gardner was used to overcoming obstacles to get where she needed to go — specifically to opposing ball carriers.
“My nickname was ‘Itty Bitty’ as a player,” Gardner said, laughing. “It took a while to find my position, but when I did I knew it was where I belonged.”
That tenacity to succeed in the face of adversity would serve Gardner well in the years that followed, as she transitioned from making plays on the field to calling the shots off it. A California transplant who now lives in the Powell area, Gardner recently made history, hired as the state’s first-ever female head football coach, taking over the reins of the Class 2A Lovell Bulldogs. An assistant for three seasons under former coach Doug Hazen, Gardner applied for the position following Hazen’s resignation last May.
“I’ve coached there [Lovell High School] for three years, so I know the kids,” she said. “I’m pretty excited, we have a good group of kids up there.”
It’s been a quick few months since Big Horn County School District No. 2 selected Gardner to run Lovell’s program, and with the start of practice just days away, the new coach said the reality of the situation is finally beginning to hit.
“Sometimes I do feel like it’s sunk in, but then I learn there’s something else the head coach is in charge of,” she chuckled. “The football side of it I’m excited for. There are some ideas on offense I want to try out; I’m switching up our defense a little bit. It’s all the paperwork stuff that I didn’t realize I’d be in charge of now.”
Gardner has had help in the transition from Lovell Activities Director Joe Koritnik and Hazen.
“[Hazen] said anything I need in the off-season or during the season, he’d be there to help. That’s made everything a lot easier,” Gardner said.
For his part, Koritnik said Gardner has done a great job coaching the line the last few seasons, and the fact that she played the game at a high level gives her a unique skill set.
“She [Gardner] has a good background in football. She has a good knowledge of the game,” Koritnik said. “But the other thing she brings to the table is she’s very confident. She presents herself very well in how she interacts with students and players.”
Gardner has earned the respect of her players and students alike — an important asset for any teacher or coach, according to Koritnik.
“Having seen her coach and watched some of her classes, she’s very engaging and confident,” he said. “She has a lot of good qualities that will help her be successful.”
From player to coach, a life in football
Like most kids raised in a football family, Gardner grew up loving the game, playing backyard ball with her dad and the other boys from the neighborhood.
“I was older than the neighbor boys, which meant I was bigger, and of course that made backyard ball just so much more fun,” she said. “I just grew up playing, and I loved it.”
Gardner attended an all-girls high school, so playing prep football wasn’t an option. But after a little digging, she discovered the existence of all-girl professional teams, and decided to give it a shot.
“I ended up trying out for one of the pro teams, and I played on a team [the Sacramento Sirens] for six seasons, and I loved it,” she said.
Gardner played most of her career as a defensive lineman, minus a season-long stint at linebacker. By her own admission, linebacker wasn’t a good fit.
“I like to tell my players that I was terrible as a linebacker, just awful,” she said. “I was the ‘ass-back’ player, as in ‘Get your ass back!’ That was me. Then I was moved to offensive line, and I was pretty good there, despite my size.”
Topping out at 5 feet, 2 inches, Gardner struggled to get up to 150 pounds, far from your prototypical offensive lineman.
“I was small even for a women’s football line,” she said. “The third year, they moved me to a defensive end spot, and that was just home. That was a good spot for me, and I loved it.”
Her playing days cut short by concussion issues, it was during a stint on the injured list that Gardner discovered a way to stay involved in the game she loved.
“The concussions were bad enough that my doctor said I couldn’t play anymore,” Gardner recalled. “I wasn’t ready to give it up, and I was going to school to be a teacher. My offensive coordinator and my head coach at the time talked me into becoming the assistant defensive line coach [of the Sirens].”
The Sirens’ line coach left the team the following season, opening the door for Gardner to become a full-time coach. The rest, as they say, is history.
“Since then, I just found that I loved coaching so much,” Gardner said. “Coaching I’ve found to be better than playing, because I get all of the joy without any of the running.”
On to the Cowboy State
After becoming disenchanted with teaching in the California school system, Gardner said she and her family were looking for something different. After finding a piece of property outside of Powell, the move became a family affair, with Gardner’s father — who wanted to become a farmer — and brother deciding to go in on the land together.
“We found this piece of property, and we all moved,” she said. “When we visited, we loved Powell and it was just one of those things that happened to work for us.”
Gardner applied for a math teacher job in Lovell, and was informed that almost all the teachers at the high school also coached. During a meeting with Koritnik to discuss coaching options, she expressed a desire to coach football. The AD later mentioned an open spot with the volleyball team.
“I was very unenthusiastic,” Gardner recalled. “... I said, ‘OK, I can apply for it, but I thought we were talking about the football coach spot?’ He goes, ‘Oh, that’s right! Forget the volleyball, I have enough girls that want to do volleyball. Let me line you up with an interview with the football coach!’”
Gardner believed at first that it was Koritnik’s way of telling her he didn’t want a female football coach — she’d heard that line before from an AD in California, who told her a female coach for a boys’ team just wasn’t worth the trouble. But that wasn’t the case in northwest Wyoming.
“He [Koritnik] just forgot, no big deal,” she said, laughing. “California is supposed to be progressive, you can be whatever you want — as long as it’s not a female football coach. I come to Lovell, and I get hired no questions asked. I’ve never had any issues with anybody I’ve worked with about me being a female coaching.”
A coaching life
Asked what she enjoys most about coaching, Gardner’s response is immediate: the players and the connections that coaches get to make.
“For me, football has always been family,” she said. “My players are like my kids, but they’re still my players.”
Gardner said she always tells the offensive line to spend time together to create that sense of family — that for the duration of the season, they need to be able to have each other’s backs.
“I tell them, ‘You have to get used to this is the guy on my left and this is the guy on my right, these are my friends during these three months,’” she said. “There’s a photo of the offensive line at a rally during football season last year, and I kid you not, they sat left tackle, left guard, center, right guard, right tackle. They didn’t have to, but there they are, and someone took a picture.”
“Those kind of moments, creating that with them, seeing the family that gets created off the field — showing them the sport is amazing and we love it — but it’s more about the relationships you build while you’re playing than the sport itself,” Gardner said.
As for whether she feared gender would be an issue when she applied for the head coach position, Gardner said the confidence she felt in her experience and ability helped to alleviate any lingering doubts.
“I knew [that] my AD and my principal both knew my background, not only on the field, but from the classroom. I had the support of the other coach that was staying on,” Gardner said. “I thought about it [the gender issue], but it wasn’t something that kept me up at night.”
While some may look at Gardner as a pioneer, for her, it’s more about proving she belongs as a head coach than making a statement.
“... I’m proud of being able to do it,” Gardner said of becoming the state’s first female head coach. “But for me, the bigger concern is doing it successfully, so that people don’t look at it and go, ‘Oh, well you hired a girl, but she didn’t know how to coach.’”
“If we lose a game under me, it can be applied to, ‘See? females can’t coach.’ If a guy loses a game, he’s just a bad coach. That is more my concern about it,” she said. “I hope when this is all said and done and people look back, they remember me as a good coach, not as a female coach.”