BY Jim Fenton
Brockton Enterprise Staff Writer
He was almost 23 years old in the spring of 2009 with just one season of experience as an assistant college football coach.
Eli Gardner was looking to make a move after being on the staff at his alma mater, Western New England University, so he interviewed for an intern position coaching the linebackers at Stonehill College in May of that year.
"I was in the top three,'' said Gardner, "but I didn't get the job. So I had planned to go back to Western New England.''
Then, while on vacation back home in New Jersey in July, Gardner received a phone call from Stonehill head coach Robert Talley.
There was a last-minute opening on the Skyhawks' staff with the start of training camp fast approaching, and Talley wanted to hire Gardner full time as the special teams coordinator and linebackers coach
"He said, 'Would you be interested? But I need you to be here in four days,' '' said Gardner. "I talked it over real quick with my parents, talked to (WNE) coach (Keith) Emery, who said, 'You have to take this. This is a great opportunity.'
"I was up here four days later, and four days after that, the kids reported. It was kind of learning on the fly. It was kind of a whirlwind experience landing the job here.
"And the job he called me back with was actually a better job than the one I had interviewed for.''
Seven years later, Gardner is now in charge of the Stonehill football program after being named to replace Talley, who resigned in April to become the director of development for the athletics department at California State University-Chico.
Gardner was promoted to the job of head coach on June 9 and will conduct his first practice on Aug. 11 in preparation for the season opener Sept. 2 against Bloomsburg University.
After leaving Milford, N.J., to attend Western New England in Springfield in 2004 and playing four years and coaching one season there, Gardner has settled in at Stonehill.
He was the team's defensive coordinator for five seasons and Talley's assistant head coach the past two years before replacing him last month.
When Gardner left Western New England after one season on the football staff to join the Skyhawks, it wasn't easy for him to envision an extended stay, given the nature of coaching at a young age.
"Honestly, probably not,'' said Gardner, who recently turned 30. "I knew what the profession was. I knew as a young coach, you'd probably have to coach three or four different places before you get that first full-time job.
"It's a huge rarity in our profession for me to be 30 years old and have been at the same place for eight years now. I've been very lucky from that standpoint to be able to plant my roots.
"I was very fortunate to stay here. A lot of young coaches don't have that opportunity to stay in one place. You kind of have to stick and move a little bit. I was very fortunate to be promoted a couple of times and stay here.''
Gardner has helped mold the Stonehill defense into one of the top Division 2 units around.
He played linebacker and defensive end as a three-year starter at Western New England, making 147 tackles and serving as captain as a senior.
After Gardner's playing career ended in 2007, he helped coach the team during the following spring and was asked by Emery to join the staff for the 2008 season.
"He understood what was going on with the program and he was good,'' said Emery. "He was so familiar with our system and he could relate that to the kids very well. That's what makes a good coach.
"The players saw him as a captain and a leader and there was a respect factor.''
Serving as a captain was a natural fit for Gardner, a leader on and off the field, and it gave him the desire to move into the coaching ranks.
"Being named the captain was not going to change who I am or how I go about my business,'' said Gardner, who now resides in Bridgewater. "I'm still going to be me and do what I feel is best for our situation. That's where I first kind of got the itch a little bit.
"It was a pretty smooth transition. Going from a player to a coach at the same school, you obviously have to draw that line pretty quick with a lot of guys you were teammates with. It forced me to grow up and show a higher level of maturity than my age was. That was a cool experience to coach there.''
Gardner lived with his parents, Bill and Donna, in central New Jersey, his hometown of Milford being located on the Delaware River.
He played at Delaware Valley High School, the alma mater of Gardner's father, and wanted to enroll at a college where he could play football and major in sports management.
That brought Gardner to Western New England where he met his future wife, Stephanie, a Pelham, N.H., native and soccer player at the school.
The road from Springfield took him Stonehill and a climb up the ladder to the role of head coach.
"He's been there going on eight years and it was a natural evolution for him,'' said Emery. "He's going to take to it quite well. He knows how to be successful.''
Gardner will take what he learned playing for and working with Emery and from his seven years with Talley to help form an identity as a head coach.
He says he still talks with Talley in California "on the Bat phone'' to get insight when needed.
"I'm a very passionate, energetic guy,'' said Gardner. "Everything we do in our program on the field and off is going to be a blue-collar approach and mentality.
"Our goal is to outwork and out-organize and outclass our opponents, whether that's recruiting wise, whether that's organization or player development or how we prepare for game, that's how we're going to be successful here.''