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Tanner Gardner holds college degrees from Stanford and Harvard, was an All-American wrestler and a member of multiple halls of fame.

TannerGardnernewmug 2Tanner Gardner, a 2003 Shawnee Heights graduate and 2018 inductee into the Topeka Shawnee County Sports Hall of Fame, took over as the director of athletics at Pepperdine University earlier this month. [Pepperdine Athletics]

TannerGardnerAction 2Former Shawnee Heights state champion and Stanford All-American wrestler Tanner Gardner is the new director of athletics at Pepperdine University. [Stanford Athletics]

But the new athletic director at Division I Pepperdine University in the beautiful ocean-front city of Malibu, Calif. will never forget where it all started -- in the small close-knit community of Tecumseh at Shawnee Heights High School.

"I'm really grateful to God for this opportunity and it's a place that when you're growing up you never really expected to be,'' Gardner told TopSports.news in a phone interview. "I never envisioned that I'd be the athletic director at Pepperdine. It's like I got one good opportunity after another and kind of parlayed one into the next.''

Gardner took over as A.D. at Pepperdine this month after a successful stint as a deputy athletic director at Rice University, but said he wouldn't be where he is without the values he learned through wrestling and his coaches, including former Heights coach Bob Gonzales.

Gardner was a two-time undefeated Class 5A state champion for the T-Birds, graduating in 2003, and went on to become Stanford's first three-time wrestling All-American before eventually getting into athletic administration.   

"I got into wrestling because of Gonzo, I got good at wrestling because of a lot of good coaches and I got to Stanford because I was good at wrestling,'' Gardner said. "It went on from there and now I'm the athletic director at Pepperdine, so I'm really a product of those who helped me get to where I am.

"I'm really grateful for the opportunity to lead such a distinguished department at really a terrific university that has their values straight and has great leadership.''

Gardner said he felt the lure to enter the field of athletic administration after finishing his academic career at Stanford and receiving his master's degree from Harvard.

"When I was in college I never considered that as a career but through some professional and personal experiences once I got out of college I felt a calling to go be an athletic director,'' Gardner said. "I'm a man of faith and I feel like it was a calling from God. That was in 2009 and it took me about five years to get my first job in college athletics but since I've been in it, it felt really affirming and that this is what I wanted to do.''

Gardner said he relished his time at Rice, located in Houston, but said the Pepperdine opportunity was too good to pass up. Gardner takes over at Pepperdine for longtime Waves A.D. Steve Potts, who retired at the conclusion of the 2023-2024 academic year.

"I have a pretty narrow criteria for the type of school that I want to work at,'' Gardner said. "It's not without exception, but it's private schools that are high academic and want to be excellent in athletics and also align with my personal values. So that probably narrows it to 15 or so schools that would fit what I wanted and Pepperdine fell within that bucket.

"All these jobs are run by search consultants these days, so I got a call about the job back in February, and was open-minded to explore it even though I was quite happy at Rice, and it ended up being the right job.''

Gardner said he feels very blessed to be able to join what is an already a well-established, successful athletic department at Pepperdine.

"Most of the time when people take over A.D. jobs it's because there's a problem, but that's not the case at Pepperdine,'' Gardner said. "I'm taking over for an A.D. who's retiring with an athletic department by and large in great shape.

"We have a solid foundation. We were Top 25 in nine of the 12 sports that we fully fund within the last 18 months.''

Gardner said that Pepperdine has a ton to offer for prospective student-athletes in the era of NILs and conference realignment.

"I think our biggest challenges are being nimble to adapt to the new environment while also staying true to our values as an institution,'' Gardner said. "I think in the future of college athletics there's going to be two types of schools that win. One is going to be schools that have the most money and the other is going to be the schools that have unique and distinguished value compositions and I think Pepperdine falls within that category.

"People aren't coming to Pepperdine because we have the most money. They're coming because we're a high-academic, faith-based school that has a history of being great at athletics and wants to continue to be great at athletics and we're in one of the most beautiful places in the world. That's why people are going to come to Pepperdine.''

Now Gardner just wants to add his stamp on the successful Waves athletic program.

"I think my strength as an athletic director is my relational nature, my ability to connect with others in communities and I think at Pepperdine we have an opportunity to increase our reach in athletics and we have this great story to tell with the great competitive success that we've had,'' he said.

"I think where I can make my stamp is, 'Hey, we're going to continue to be good in the sports that we already are and we're going to get better in (the others) and we're going to tell our story even more so people know the great things that we're doing.' ''

And if Gardner, who is the father of three children with wife Emily, feels like he's landed in paradise, it's because in many ways, he has.

"I can see the ocean from my office window,'' he said. "I've got to walk across the Pacific Coast Highway, but it is close. I'm very lucky to have a job like this, that's for sure.''

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