Three large banners greet Georgia athletes as they walk into the Stegeman Coliseum Practice Facility. They remember successful athletes in the program’s past: former men’s basketball star Gerald Robinson is on the far left while former Olympic gymnast and now-head coach Courtney Kupets is flanked to the right. In the middle is Meredith Mitchell, a former Lady Bulldog who lays eyes on herself as she walks up the staircase each day.
After the glimpse of her past, Mitchell enters a role that isn’t seen through the public eye. As fans walk into the arena or flip on their televisions, they’re unaware as to how the Lady Bulldogs made it there. Mitchell is the master of that and sits behind a cluttered desk with plans extended for ventures as expansive as the team’s summer trip to Italy.
Her role is prioritized more-than-ever at this stage of the season — especially given the circumstances. Georgia is in Greenville, South Carolina as it prepares to start SEC tournament play, and Mitchell’s responsibilities involved pre-planning a hotel stay that could run up to Sunday’s finale, planning meals, transportation to practice and other miscellaneous tasks. Those are strenuous demands, but even more so as Georgia head coach Joni Taylor is easing back into her full-time role after giving birth on Feb. 19.
“I want to make sure she doesn’t have to worry about anything,” Mitchell said.
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Mitchell is in her sixth season as the director of basketball operations. She was one of the few staffers retained by Taylor when she took the job in 2015. Andy Landers retired after a 36-year tenure with the program, and with a new coach came new practices.
Her biggest adjustment when working with two coaching staffs sits inches away from her right palm. A online order receipt from Chipotle lay in the center of her desk, and those requests come often for Georgia’s director of basketball operations.
She once dealt with the financially-responsible Andy Landers through the latter years of his 36-year career as an iconic Lady Bulldogs’ head coach. Mitchell had to re-evaluate with the rejuvenated approach of a young Joni Taylor in 2015.
“Joni likes to spend more money,” Mitchell said. “I might have to say, ‘All right, we have a budget. We need to stay in the confines of that.’”
Mitchell’s behind-the-scenes role includes ordering lunch and tasks of a much-greater importance. She is what keeps Georgia’s operation tucked in the second floor of Stegeman Coliseum going, and Mitchell saw what sustained prosperity looked like as a former player and staffer of Landers. Now, she tries to play a part in Taylor rebuilding the program to match that legacy.
“There’s a huge expectation for everyone in this program, whether they’re a manager, player, coach, DOBO or whatever it is,” Taylor said. “She takes great pride in doing that by being here prior. All of that plays a factor.”
Some of Mitchell’s duties include planning travel, directing team camps, ordering the oh-so-coveted team apparel and arranging the preseason budget.
“I don’t think Meredith gets enough credit,” sophomore forward Jenna Staiti said. “She means the world to us. She is such a great person and does the dirty work that doesn’t get seen.”
Mitchell doesn’t look far for a reminder of her playing days. Nine basketballs emblazoned with the Lady Bulldog insignia rest on a shelf. Framed images from her playing days perch on the office walls. It brings her back to her favorite moments of beating Tennessee at home as a junior or topping Florida State in the NCAA tournament.
Through a career that featured 880 points and a mention to the Southeastern Conference’s All-Defense Team in 2011, her colleague’s favorite memory came when Mitchell was sidelined. Taylor, who coached Mitchell as a senior, recalled Georgia’s trip to Coleman Coliseum and Alabama. Mitchell had 25 to 50 people in attendance as a Midfield, Ala. native, and only lasted about five minutes.
“She gets kneed in the eye. It’s closed up,” Taylor said. I’m like ‘oh gosh, this is so bad for her with Tuscaloosa being so close to her family.’ She wasn’t going back in the game, because you might’ve thought she was in a boxing match.”
Mitchell’s mother, Bonita Wilkes, was late the game because she had to park her car.
“I thought something was terribly wrong,” Wilkes said.
For Mitchell’s sake, the injury was cosmetic and the only harm was a trip to the sideline. She had to cheer on the Lady Bulldogs through one eye, and moments like those gave Mitchell perspective of her desire for the program.
“There’s a bigger sense of pride that I have being a Bulldog,” Mitchell said. “You always want to build a program, but I expect that success from the team.”
A knee-to-the-eye served as the latest chapter in a lengthy tenure for Mitchell. After finishing graduate school at Georgia, she received a call from Landers with a job offer. Lakeisha Frett, now an assistant coach at Virginia, left a vacancy after returning to coaching. Mitchell applied for a position at a local high school, but that opportunity was denied the same day that Landers extended his offer.
Mitchell saw it as a sign and took the job, and her first learning experience came rather quickly. Georgia was headed to Nashville, Tenn. to play Vanderbilt on New Year’s Day. As the Lady Bulldogs arrived at the hotel, half of the rooms were booked due to guests oversleeping after a night on the town. Mitchell had to react.
“Coach Landers was freaking out and upset,” she said. “I had to go set-up pregame meal and stuff I normally do it well in advance. This was on the fly.”
Six years later and a change in coaching staff later, Mitchell has a firm grasp on how to run things with a goal toward success. Taylor’s philosophies are slightly altered, but mostly mirror Landers’. Mitchell, at the beginning of Taylor’s tenure, would meet with the head coach before each trip and give advice as to how things were run.
Now, the rapport is strong enough to where the two rarely meet and tasks are completed before Taylor asks. But for more-important responsibilities than securing a steak burrito bowl.
“Meredith is very bright, and I appreciate how she stays three to four steps ahead of me,” Taylor said. “I trust her tremendously.”