Sunday, May 6, 2012

Was Jay Clark Given Enough Time?



In women's gymnastics, there tends to be an "aww, they work so hard" mentality that doesn't exist in other sports.  The University of Georgia is an SEC school where Bible-thumping Christians take out their closeted rage at sporting events, boo the other teams and worship all things that win.  They vehemently hate their rivals and adopt a mob mentality.  In short, Jay was given enough time to prove himself as a coach and the results continually returned the same year after year.



Jay's tenture began in 2010 with a team that lost nine routines from Kupets, Tolnay and Stack.  He had recruited their replacements who were supposed to be stars, but looked like average college freshmen doing an extra curricular activity they once enjoyed.  His senior leadership alone competed nine routines in 2010, yet they were not the sharp three-time NCAA Champions they had been before.  Had Jay been more in touch with what got them to click and been more of a charismatic leader, he could've figured out the problems midseason and gotten them back to their normal selves for one more round in the post season.  He had a stellar sophomore in Kat Ding and a solid one in Gina Nuccio.  Mauro was consistent, which McComb was a mess that year.  Given the talent and experience on that team, there were no reason for them to fall out of the top three, even if Jay was just having a mediocre first year and phoning it in.  Unfortunately, the dynamic got out of whack and the season became an embarrassing free fall for the program.  On paper, they had enough gymnasts to make the Super Six on a day when half of the team could've been hungover.  A team with McCool (Olympian and NCAA Champion), Taylor (NCAA Champion), Newby (Pan Ams Team Member and All-American), McComb (SEC Freshman of the year), Ding (All-American), Worley (World Champion, Three-Time American Cup competitor), Nuccio (Multiple JO National Champion) and Tanella (Top Recruit) couldn't get the job done.  In fact, they hit rock bottom in slow motion.  The 2010 season was so bad that many wondered if Jay would be back for another season.  It wasn't as though missing NCAAs was unforeseen.  The team had talent, but imploded.  It was like watching Alissa Czisny compete at the World Championships.  It was so bad that Jay Clark had to reinvent the team.  One can only imagine the meetings Jay had to sit through about expectations for the next year.



In baseball or football, if you don't win, you're out.  The SEC is a lot like the Yankees under Steinbrenner, Win or Pack Your Bags.  What emerged over the next two years was a team that aimed for 9.850s and was 'all they needed to be.'  In short, Jay shot himself in the foot by lowering the expectations of the programs.  The SEC brand and Georgia brand across all sports is to big, go brash and win.  Jay was a part of a program that sold out stadiums for years with big black girls doing double layouts while Suzanne spotted in heels and fierce talents like Courtney Kupets who would come back from a torn achilles just to keep Tiffany Tolnay from ever winning a meet.  The meets had an electric vibe.  As several GEF Foundation and 10.0 club members mentioned in my previous post about the situation, they felt as though they were a part of the program and a part of the team.  The alumni, sponsors and boosters were an active part of the program who went to intrasquads, dinners, benefits, donated tons of money and boosted the girls.  The girls built confidence from their support and there was an energy of support. The newspapers, radio shows and local TV networks were frequently in the gym and the Gym Dogs were everywhere.  Yoculan was never one to shy away from doing whatever it took to promote her team.  She promoted them and made sure her team delivered when the butts were in the seats.  Yoculan emulated what Marsden did for his meets at Utah, but she added her own edge and personality to it.  There was a ruthless vibe, but it was an exciting vibe and it worked.  It was a hallmark of the University, the Athens community and a wonderful recruiting tool for the University as a whole to have a University with school spirit with football in the fall and gymnastics in the winter and spring.  Many universities like Penn State are unable to carry the football season spirit throughout the season because their other athletic sports are not as accomplished or fan-oriented.  The newspapers used to discuss the Georgia gymnasts as household names.  Kim Arnold, Cory Fritzinger, Chelsa Byrd, Hope Spivey, Courtney Kupets, Karin Lichey, Leah Brown and Agina Simpkins were all local stars.  Shayla was recruited to have that persona, but wound up becoming infamous for her underachievement.  The anti-Shayla venom on some boards became so potent that all one needs to do is type her name into youtube to see her spectacular falls at Georgia.  This situation was never address or diffused in public by the coaching staff, which only heightened the spectacle.



The new brand of going for a 9.850 extended to the program at large too.  Jay Clark was uncomfortable talking to the press and lacked the charisma to excite others about his team.  Kevin Copp began hosting much of the Gym Dog and was the more engaging broadcaster.  Jay adopted an "aw, shucks...you care about the numbers' mantra whereas Yoculan would let you know just how many times her team broke 49.300 on beam during the regular season.  The promotional aspect of the team quickly evaporated and the articles in the local paper slowed as well.  We no longer felt the same access to the team across the country and Georgia became a program on par with Arkansas, only with past greatness.  Earlier this week, Greg Marsden congratulated himself on the message boards once again for kicking everyone's ass with his annual average attendance record.  While Georgia's arena is smaller, it typically averaged an almost sell-out crowd.  It's capacity is about 10,200, yet the program averaged 9,921 in 2008 and 9,727 in 2009.  There was a bump in 2010 to 9,819 after its fifth title in a row, but the program has now  dropped to 8,768.  This is reflective of the shrinking program as a hole.



The program has not improved from a 10th-14th position that it has been in for the last three years.  It is a marked shift of the program in three years, but things didn't appear to be on the way up by any means.  This year appeared somewhat better in terms on consistency, yet the program didn't inch any closer to contending for conference titles and remained a non-threat at NCAAs.  Clark is a very good coach, but he didn't fill the void of a winning NCAA coach.  Not only did he lack the persona necessary for success, he was overshadowed by filling the shoes of someone else's program.  In many ways, the expectations were doomed when the mantra became that nothing about the Georgia system would change, just the person at the helm.  We knew that clearly wasn't true and we were right.

Whoever inherits the program will have to go big or go home.  The boosters, the university and the gymnasts will be eager to make a big splash in order to erase the 'rainy day' vibe that has clouded the program in recent years.  Everyone loves an underdog and there were some who began pulling for the Gym Dogs to get it together, but the program has descended into 'The Little Engine That Couldn't.'  While Jay is likely disheartened by the situation and may feel some smaller schools are beneath him at this point, it would behoove him to start over from the ground up and build a solid team.  The Gym Dogs need a charismatic bitch in heels to lead the program, not eeyore, if they hope to prevent the program from becoming just another Western Michigan.

15 comments:

  1. Insightful and entertaining analysis--just what you are known for, and I appreciate the read. Really wish you didn't feel the need to start it off with the Christian-bashing, though....

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  2. I noticed you put MLT on your poll as candidate for the UGA job.... any bullet point reasons? She's only been a club coach right? or has she had some college experience I'm unaware of. I do like the idea of her coming onto the college scene but the head job at UGA may be much.

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  3. SEC is old school..at least the top tier SEC schools..u r right when you said they need a 'woman in heels'..Jay was doomed to start with the wrong gender..when Ohio State beat them at the NCAA preliminaries ..I felt that was the nail on the coffin for Jay, everyone thought I was nuts when I was at the meet proclaiming loudly..there goes Jay..It seemed from the body language of Jay and Julie at the Event Finals with Kat Ding that they even knew it was over for them..like the air was out of their balloon..As dynamic a personality as Suzanne was..you have to wonder if she knew Jay was ill equipped for success at Georgia, especially with her working with him for as long as she has..sad..

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  4. I wasn't bashing Christians. I was noting the population at SEC football games as being the same as those in church the next morning. I'm down with GCB.

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  5. I personaly think the program would have gone better next year when the last of "suzzans's girls" had left. guess we will never know?

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  6. Suzanne's girls were the only ones who competed with fire at NCAAs.

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  7. Well. Seems as those "hypocritical Bible-thumpers" know what they're doing down in the SEC. Don't argue with success. As for Jay, it has less to do with his gender, and more with the fact that he has all the personality and charisma of a dead fish. Can you imagine him trying to motivate ANYONE? The guy has about as much fire as a wet noodle.

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  8. Jay was very good for the girls who would be fed up or unresponsive to Suzanne's personality. He always seemed very close to both Kupets sisters.

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  9. AJ-Awesome posts this week! I noticed that you threw Nunno on the UGA coach poll for shits and giggles, but in all seriousness, I think that they should go after Peggy Liddick. Mitchell got a World title and if she can earn a medal in London, Peggy would have done all that is realistically possible with that program. She would make UGA rockin' on beam which is key, she's a bitch( I mean this in a positive gymnastics way), and she can do the media and politics thing. We'd have to get her out of warm ups and glam her into power suits, but she could definitely get this program turned around. Who knows what she could accomplish when given a team where the best kids can't quit when your program is at its peak (ie Australia in the Beijing quad). Thoughts?

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  10. I'm glad that you pointed out the talent on the 2010 Georgia team. The team may not have been as deep as the 2007 and 2008 teams, but they still had plenty of talent. Coaching, a lack of cohesiveness, and several gymnasts, from veterans to freshmen, underperforming were the culprits for the team's performance (or lack therof) that season. I do believe that every coach should be given 4 years to completely flush out the holdovers from the former regime. However, the writing was on the wall after the team failed to make the Super Six, and I could see why the AD didn't want to waste another year when it seemed clear that Jay wasn't the long term answer. Jay would do best to take over a team that is on the cusp of making NCAAs. I think he would be much better suited for a position like that.

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  11. I think MLT's personality is much more suited to NCAA than Liddick's. Frankly, Liddick doesn't know how to catch flies with honey.

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  12. Nunno is itching to get back into coaching, but his own gymnasts got him fired for violating several NCAA rules and completely ignoring the 20 hour a week rule.

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  13. As has been stated elsewhere, one of Suzanne's greatest strengths through the years was her ability to connect with fans and the general public. She never let up on the idea that gymnastics in general (not just at UGA) deserved as much attention as any other sport and this motivated her to constantly promote, defend, and celebrate the sport to anyone who was around her. She would meet someone at a random event or dinner that had never been to a meet and a week later that person would receive tickets in the mail personally sent by her. Then, she would greet them and know them by name the minute they entered the coliseum. Fans would just keep coming back. Whether someone liked Suzanne or not - everyone knew her in and around Athens/Atlanta and has either tremendous respect or just a curiosity for her energy and committment to the sport. She considered this attention positive because it created a buzz around the sport and brought more people in to see what the hoopla was all about. She never took fans for granted.

    Those fans that only care about winning liked her for the championships they won, the athletes on her team liked her for her commitment and love for them, and everyone else in the area considered her somewhat of a celebrity and would show up at meets just to see what it was all about. As everyone knows, she was a hard act to follow. So much work had been done in establishing this solid base prior to Jay taking over. For whatever reason - not just the lack of wins - the strong base was fading.

    When Suzanne departed, Litchey also bid farewell as a volunteer; this surely didn't help the situation, as she was quite the right hand woman with PR. Pre-Jay victory celebrations were truly something fabulous and exciting for boosters. Suzanne made sure the 10.0 club supporters were resoundingly appreciated, with everyone from Valeri Liukin to coaches of other sports showing up to party.

    Fritzinger, Ericksen, both Kupets sisters were great - truly great - when it came to working the 10.0 club events - full of enthusiasm and gracious humility (And Nikki Child's penchant for football players always came with quite the exciting entourage). McCool grew substantially in this capacity during her 4 years. Grace Taylor provided 3 years of cuteness. With Shayla's class/ Jay's take over, it crashed despite McCool and Ding's generous efforts. Breazeal is reserved and polite; no one knows why she's around. Shayla is too cool for school, and Tanella is a peculiar young woman.

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  14. Just to beat that drum a bit more -- I've been telling my husband for the past three years that SOMEBODY needed to take over Suzanne's "I love you fans, please come support my team" role. I understand that Jay's personality isn't going to like that role. Fine. But someone needs to do it.

    My gymnastics buddy and I have been going to UGA meets for 25 years and have had season tickets since there were season tickets. Charter GEF folks and long time Ten-O members - both past board members. My impression is that Jay has no clue who I am. My further impression is that Julie has no desire to know who I am. Doug may not remember my name (no snark there, I'm getting old and don't remember anyone's name either) but he always waves, says hello, and on occasion has hugged my neck. Janet reminded me yesterday how many notes we've gotten from Suzanne or one of the girls.

    That vibe has slid to nothingness. If you're not winning, you need someone in the AD's ear telling him what a great guy you are and asking for a bit more time. Jay did nothing to cultivate that feeling from the fan base. I don't expect folks to kiss my ass for supporting UGA sports. But a little appreciation goes a long way. Suzanne used to say there's lots of competition for entertainment dollars in Athens and she had to provide a reason for folks to spend time and money on gymnastics. Sadly, Jay slipped on the razzle dazzle AND on the "hey, friends, glad you came" part, both.

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