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.