MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Gabe Giardina’s football life has taken him DuPont High School in Kanawha County to the University of Alabama and now southwest Georgia with a college program to call his own.
Giardina is entering his fourth season as the head coach at Albany State University, a Division II school in southwest Georgia. ASU is 20-12 under Giardina with three winning seasons. They narrowly missed out on the NCAA playoffs last season, finishing as runners-up in the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.
“Now is the time. We need to get ourselves in the playoffs. We have been really close the last two years. We have been to the (SIAC) conference championship game. We have been ranked in the proper position to be able to win that game and get in the playoffs and we haven’t gotten it done. There has been a lot of heartache and frustration, but there has also been a lot of hunger.”
As a southern school, ASU fared better than most teams by getting seven spring practices in prior to the pandemic shutting down offseason workouts across the country.
“We are breaking in a new junior college quarterback, so we were able to get at least seven good days with him. And we are really excited about him. I saw a lot of our players really grow. We probably had about five mid-year signees. So it was great to see them. Obviously I wish we had eight more practices with them. But it was good to at least get some of them.”
Albany and the surrounding communities in southwest Georgia became a hot spot for COVID-19 infections in the early stages of the pandemic.
“We had a little bit of an outbreak around some funerals here in Albany. There were a lot of folks in that specific demographic of being older and predisposed. Initially, we got hit pretty hard but things have settled down.”
Like most college coaches, Giardina has been working out of his home office and recruiting virtually.
“I have three sons and they think this is the greatest thing that has ever happened. I get to be home for dinner. We get to play in the pool. That part has been great.
“I miss the players. I miss seeing them everyday. I miss having them come by the office, the daily interaction and the life-on-life impact that we get to have. It is not a drug but it is close to it. But I miss it.”
The ‘State of Albany’
The bulk of the Albany State roster consists of players from southern Georgia. Giardina says some geographic challenges can actually be an advantage to keep the best players in the area at home.
“We take 28 counties down here in southwest Georgia and we call it ‘The State of Albany’.
“These kids understand what living in south Georgia is like. They like playing for their area. We have really tried to make us into southwest Georgia’s school. It is really hard to get to. There is no major airport within two and a half hours. You go to metro Atlanta and you might be able to hit eleven schools in one day. In southwest Georgia if you hit five or six, you are killing it.”
Giardina came to Albany State from Division I (FCS) school Charleston Southern. He was the offensive coordinator when CSU advanced to the FCS playoffs in 2015 and 2016. Giardina’s run-heavy offense has become a bit more diverse at Albany State.
“We have figured out that we really need to be able to complete the ball in the passing game at a higher percentage for us to get where we want to go. That’s how this offense works the best.
“We were No. 2 in the country last year in scoring defense. And we have nine starters coming back. We have high expectations to be good on defense again.”
Giardina graduated from the final senior class to attend DuPont High School in 1999. He became a placekicker for the Alabama Crimson Tide from 2000 to 2003 and played in nine games in his senior season.
“Playing there was the greatest experience of my life. I met my wife (Wimberly) there and have been married sixteen years to an Alabama girl. I count my blessings every day that I went there so I could meet her.”
Giardina would launch his coaching career as a graduate assistant coach for Mike Shula and Marion County native Nick Saban.
“Working for Mike was like going to grad school. Working for Nick was like getting your doctorate. No one sees the big picture better than Nick as far as every area of the program and how they knit together.”
When Saban was hired, the offensive graduate coaching staff swelled from two coaches to five, including current WVU assistant Travis Trickett.
“Travis is at West Virginia, (Rob Sale) is the offensive coordinator at Louisiana-Lafayette, and (Kevin Garver) is the receivers coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. And we were just the GA’s. I guess we had a good room.”
Marquee opener in Miami
Albany State will be tested in their 2020 season opener. The Golden Rams will face FCS school Florida A&M in the Orange Blossom Classic. The game will be played at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami, home of the Miami Dolphins. Giardina expects the ASU fan base to travel well.
“We are top five every single year in attendance. So our fans will travel really, really well. We can’t wait.”