Not in Kansas anymore

Athletics’ Tanner Gardner named to Wrestling All-Century Team

Tanner Gardner wanted to play on his seventh-grade basketball team. When the 4-foot, 11-inch Kansas native didn’t make the cut, he didn’t let it keep him down. He just found another sport — one in which he continues to earn accolades.

Tanner Gardner photo by Jeff Fitlow/Rice University

Tanner Gardner photo by Jeff Fitlow/Rice University

Gardner, chief revenue officer in Rice Athletics and former Stanford University Cardinal, was honored by the Pac-12 athletic conference in Tempe, Ariz., Feb. 27 after recently being named to the conference’s Wrestling All-Century Team. The team consists of the conference’s 28 most talented wrestlers from the past 100 years.

Gardner, who wrestled for Stanford from 2003 to 2008, was one of only three wrestlers in the 125-pound weight class to receive the recognition.

Gardner’s accomplishments on the mat made it fairly easy for the members of the 20-person panel to place their votes with him. In his college career, Gardner was the first three-time NCAA All-American in Stanford’s history; a two-time Pac-10 champion (2007, 2008); the all-time Stanford record holder for career wins (145), single-season wins (43) and single-season pins (19); the only Stanford wrestler to post multiple 40-win seasons; and the 2007 University Nationals freestyle champion.

Gardner attained all of those records while also being a three-time Academic All-American in the classroom.

“Tanner really embodies all the attributes you hope to develop in high-level Division I student-athletes,” said Joe Karlgaard, director of athletics at Rice. “He’s personable, responsible, tenacious and humble, and I believe he honed many of those qualities both as a teammate and a competitor on the wrestling mat. I’m so happy for him and proud of him. Everything Tanner’s achieved in life, he’s earned.”

Growing up just outside of Topeka, Kan., Gardner turned to wrestling after being cut from his seventh-grade basketball team. His phys ed teacher was the high school wrestling coach and suggested that Gardner try out for the wrestling team, a sport in which most people start at 4 or 5 years of age, Gardner said.

In wrestling, competitors are bounded by their weight class, which normalizes size. It turns out that Gardner was naturally gifted for the sport. “I was athletic, but I wasn’t big,” he said. “It was perfect, because I could succeed within my bounded weight, so I found success pretty quickly and was naturally good at it.”


Photo courtesy Doug Gardner

He moved up in weight classes in middle school. When high school rolled around, Gardner made the varsity team as a freshman in the 103-pound class at Shawnee Heights, a school of about 1,200 students. Always humble about what he attained in wrestling, he said, “You have to keep in mind that you don’t find a lot of juniors or seniors — who are 17-18 years old — in that weight class.”

By his sophomore year, Gardner had taken third place in the 103-pound class at the Kansas state tournament. That experience, gaining some size and wrestling from September into July for two years and accumulating hours of practice and conditioning led Gardner to win state his junior year in the 112-pound weight class and his senior year in the 119-pound weight class. And in the summer after his junior year, he won U.S. nationals.

Gardner credits the great amount of support provided by his parents for a lot of his success early in his career.

His father, Doug Gardner, who attended all of Tanner’s high school matches, said, “It’s how he approaches life. He just has a drive that’s amazing. Not only was it in wrestling, but it’s how he interacts with other people outside of sports.”

“He works so hard at what he does,” said his mother, Mimi Gardner. “I joke about it. I say that when I grow up, I want to be Tanner Gardner.”

After his success-filled junior season, Gardner started receiving letters from colleges, including Stanford, Harvard, Columbia and Brown.

“I always thought I’d be going to a small private school somewhere,” he said. “I never really considered wrestling in college; to me it wasn’t ever going to be an opportunity. Winning state my junior year and then nationals was a big step for me.”

In the fall of his senior year, Gardner visited Missouri, Columbia and Stanford. “When I went to Stanford, I knew that’s where I was going to go,” he said. “I’d never been to California before, and they took me from the airport to campus on Palm Drive. If I got in, I was going there. It was sunny and 75 degrees in October.”

Gardner wrestled in the 125-pound weight class his entire Stanford career. He competed as a freshman but took a redshirt his sophomore year. “I wrestled my freshman year, because the senior in my weight class had injury issues, so I ended up redshirting my second year, which is not typical.”

Tanner Gardner photo courtesy Stanford University

Tanner Gardner photo courtesy Stanford University

He had a stellar college career. After going 23-17 his freshman year in 2004, he improved every year, going 37-17 in 2006, 42-5 in 2007 and 43-3 in 2008, his redshirt senior year.

Gardner earned his bachelor’s degree in public policy; because he was a redshirt student-athlete, he was able to enter a co-term program offered at Stanford that allows a five-year student to begin work toward a master’s in their fourth year. He took advantage of the program and earned his master’s in sociology.

After graduating from Stanford and prior to coming to Rice, Gardner worked at Boston Consulting Group in Dallas and earned his MBA from Harvard. In 2010 he went back to Stanford for a football game, where he first met Karlgaard, who was then the senior associate athletics director for development at Stanford.

“I told him my story,” Gardner said. “I told him if he ever needs anyone with my skill set, here’s what I’m good at and I want to work in the business (athletics administration).”

Shortly after Karlgaard was hired at Rice in 2013, he brought Gardner aboard to oversee the revenue side of the Athletics Department and to assist him with his new vision for Rice Athletics.

“I see my job being about two things,” Gardner said. “The first is to further build the brand of Rice Athletics and the second is to generate a significant amount of more revenue than we already do.”

Gardner, 30, has been at Rice for 18 months and has made inroads on both fronts. When asked about his long-term plans, he said he knows where he eventually wants to land.

“I want to be an athletics director,” he said. “I want to be an AD of a school that is interested in being great at academics and athletics.”

“Tanner has all the tools to be a terrific athletics director,” Karlgaard said. “I’d bet the house on Tanner’s success not because he never gets knocked down, but because he always gets back up. He’s extraordinary.”


About David Ruth

David Ruth is director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.