As Benjy Taylor tried to focus on the task at hand in Bakersfield last winter, a wave of grief was washing over his family on the other side of the country.
Taylor, in his third season as an assistant coach with the Cal State Bakersfield men’s basketball team, was preparing for the upcoming Western Athletic Conference slate when his father, Otto Taylor Sr., passed away after a battle with prostate cancer in his hometown of Jacksonville, N.C.
After returning home for the Dec. 29 funeral, Taylor was back in Bakersfield by Jan. 1, preparing for the conference opener against Seattle two days later. But while he tried to keep his mind on basketball, additional family issues made a business-as-usual approach all but impossible.
By June, Taylor’s mother Linda, herself a cancer survivor, was also gone, following a long bout with Alzheimer’s. To make matters worse, Benjy says the degenerative brain disorder prevented his mother from processing that her husband of 54 years had passed away.
“She kept reliving my dad’s passing once every week or two,” he said. “It was agonizing for her because she would forget about it and start asking where he is. And then when she would find out, she would just be in agony for a few more days.
“It was a tough six months. I was stressed out and the thought of coming back to California was a very tough predicament for me personally.”
Taylor knew it would be difficult to leave CSUB, in part due to his nearly two-decade long friendship with Roadrunner head coach Rod Barnes.
The pair is so close, that when Taylor served as interim head coach at Hawaii during the 2014-15 season, he and Barnes would speak on the phone “once or twice a day.” So when a spot on Barnes’ staff came open in 2016, Taylor said it was an easy decision to uproot to Bakersfield.
But after returning to Jacksonville to be with his mother prior to her death, Taylor knew being more than 2,600 miles from home was no longer a viable option.
So when the opportunity to take over at Division II Tuskegee University in Alabama came about, Taylor was quick to seize it. After accepting the position in August, he was introduced as the Golden Tigers’ head coach last week.
In Tuskegee, Taylor will be eight hours from sister Stephanie in Jacksonville and five-and-a-half hours from brother Jemayne in Rock Hill, S.C.
He’ll also be less than two hours from sons Tyler and Otto III, who both live in Atlanta. His youngest children Ostin and Olive currently live in Hawaii, but Taylor says there have been talks of them moving to Atlanta, as well.
“Coach Barnes talks about mentorship and leadership, and sometimes you have to do that in your own household,” Taylor said. “And that’s one of those things this move has been able to assist me in is being there more for my family.”
One person who fully supported the move was Barnes, who says he was “amazed” by how Taylor handled the stress from a season ago and thinks coaching with a clear mind will help his friend find great success in Tuskegee.
“If you can overcome that kind of hurt, that makes you better prepared for the next challenge,” Barnes said. “I’m excited for him to do really well.”
Will the duo’s long-distance phone calls continue with regularity?
“Absolutely,” said Barnes, who added that he’d spoken with Taylor just moments before being interviewed by The Californian. “I imagine we’ll talk five or six times a week.”