COLLEGE STATION, Texas — When reflecting on her legacy as a coach, Joni Taylor makes a point to focus on the big picture.
"I am fortunate that I have figured out that this is my life's purpose," she said. "The end game at the end of the day is to make sure that we are having a positive impact on the young women that we touch in the community that we live in."
After her hire as Texas A&M's women's basketball head coach less than a year ago, Taylor earned a notable distinction on campus.
"Do I wake up every day thinking I'm the only African-American or minority head coach at Texas A&M? No I don't," she states candidly.
Taylor is the fourth African-American head coach in school history at Texas A&M. Kevin Sumlin (football) was the most recent Black head coach for an Aggie program.
Joni Taylor (formerly Crenshaw) grew up in Meridan, Mississippi where she blossomed into a homecoming queen and a dominant basketball player in high school. After graduating in 1997, she moved on to the University of Alabama where she eventually became a two-year starter for the Crimson Tide.
Taylor explained that while her identity is not always top of mind, her experiences growing up in the South have put her in plenty of positions as "the only one in the room".
"You are subconsciously aware of it at all times," she said. "Now, it's just a part of who I am. I'm very intentional about making sure that I speak to everyone that I see. I make sure that our other minority student-athletes that are not in basketball know that I'm available to them."
As Taylor realized her calling as a coach, several trailblazers were knocking down some of those doors. Melvin Watkins and Peggie Gillom took over the Texas A&M basketball programs together in 1998. They became the first African-American head coaches in school history.
At the time, Taylor was entering her sophomore season as a player at Alabama. During that phase, she says she was uncertain if head coaching would be a viable path for her later in life.
"I can think back to when I was being recruited in high school and C. Vivian Stringer was at Iowa at the time. I remember she was the only black female coach I saw on TV," she recalls.
"It started to increase. Still didn't know if that was something that was going to be possible for me and then as I became an assistant coach, that was something that was going to be possible for me. As I became an assistant coach and got into coaching, you could see it start to change."
As a conference, the SEC has come a long way as well. 30 years ago, no Black woman had ever been a head coach in the league for women's basketball. Slowly, that started to change.
Taylor points to Bernadette Locke (Kentucky), Carolyn Peck (Florida), and Pokey Chatman (LSU) as some of the early African-American women who pioneered their way as head coaches in the SEC. As other Black women began to have opportunities, their success was a major turning point.
"It's been sprinkled and then Dawn Staley comes along," said Taylor, who offered praise for the two-time national champion head coach. "We all know what she's done at South Carolina. She's a winner, she won and then it became, 'OK, this is something that's possible.'"
Taylor acknowledged her position takes on an added meaning for the next generation of coaches.
"I think was goes along with sitting in this seat is the understanding that we have a responsibility to win, to do things the right way," she explained. "Call it pressure. Call it an obligation. Call it whatever you want - me winning opens the door for another Black female coach, (Black) male coach, or another female coach - period - to have another opportunity."
Texas A&M's coaching staff also includes three full-time African-American assistants. Taylor didn't plan it that way. While Taylor was the head coach at Georgia, she says simply wanted to find the best people for the job.
Associate head coach Chelsea Newton was a former standout player at Rutgers. She was later picked in the second round of the WNBA Draft by the Sacramento Monarchs in 2005. That same season, she became a WNBA champion.
Assistants Robert Mosley and Katherine Graham have each spent significant time on other Power Five coaching staffs.
Each of them followed Joni Taylor from Athens to College Station when she accepted the job at Texas A&M. Before earning her first head coaching job at Georgia, Taylor herself spent numerous years there as an assistant. She hopes any of her current players interested in a similar career get the confidence to pursue those dreams.
"You can't dream it if you can't see it, right?" said Taylor. "The first time I saw a Black lawyer was when I watched Clair Huxtable on TV," she later joked.
"For them to be able to look across and see the person talking to them every day - and not just me - even if it's an assistant coach, even if it's the director of operations. Whatever spot it is, it's the possibility that that is an option. That doesn't mean that's what they have to do, but they just need to know that that's an option for them."
Taylor believes athletics have a unique ability to bring together those of different backgrounds. For her players, she hopes that experience - along with education - can help them as they move on.
"I want to make sure that our players get outside of their comfort zone, get outside of the box that is Texas A&M athletics or women's basketball," she said.
Among some of the team activities to further their overall education, the Aggies visited the George Bush Library this season. They also discussed the impact and history of Title IX, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in June.
"I want them to be changed and different in a positive way after they leave us," Taylor said of her players. "I want them to feel like we have helped enhance and get them on or continue on the path of life for whatever their journey is."