By: Sean Cartell
SEC Digital Network
ATHENS, Ga. – Ten words hang over the athlete lockers at the Suzanne Yoculan Gymnastics Center in Athens.
Those 10 terms characterize one of the greatest traditions in all of college athletics. When you think of the most successful programs of all time – Notre Dame football, Kentucky men’s basketball, Tennessee women’s basketball, North Carolina women’s soccer – the Georgia gymnastics program may not immediately come to mind.
Jay Clark is at home in the facility that houses one of the greatest legacies in all of sport. Ten NCAA Championships and 16 Southeastern Conference titles, and a whole host of countless other honors, for academic, athletic and community service success.
The third-year head coach and Georgia graduate has been affiliated with the Bulldogs gymnastics program all but two years since he set foot on campus as an undergraduate.
Standing in the center of the team’s locker room last Friday, the presence of the former past All-American and NCAA Champion gymnasts was palpable. Clark understands the importance of the team’s decades of success.
“I think tradition is important in any collegiate program, but I think for us, when the girls come on campus and see the evidence of everything that has gone on in the past, you just want to be a part of that,” Clark said. “You want to kind of be able to write your name down next to the ones who have done so many great things. When we were designing the gym, we let the team pick 10 words that embody our program and these are the ones they came up with. It speaks to the character of the kids. I think these kids have made this program and it’s evidenced when you see those words.”
Wherever you go in the Coliseum Training Facility, you can’t help but be reminded of the incredible track record of success that has characterized the Georgia gymnastics program. Posters, photos, trophies, rings and much more line every wall, shelf and table in the facility.
Graciously giving this reporter a tour of every inch of the facility last Friday in Athens, Clark gravitates to a favorite photo on the wall at the end of the hallway near his office.
In the picture, former superstar gymnast Courtney Kupets had just nailed a perfect 10 bar routine. In the background, Clark has thrown up his hands in a demonstration of pure euphoria.
“She was thinking about training for the Olympic Games for 2008 and we had trained a new bar routine, she had learned some new combinations and she wanted to do it,” Clark said it. “It was at home against Alabama. So, we had agreed to let her to it and she got through the new part of it. I’m standing back and at some point, I flipped the switch from being a coach to being a fan because I knew I was watching something special. If there has ever been a real 10 scored in college gymnastics, that was it.”
Clark walked over to another photo of equal importance to him. Grace Taylor Johnson, currently an NCAA Woman of the Year finalist, had just completed her dismount in her first meet at Stegeman Coliseum. For her, it was the culmination of a lifelong dream. Clark beamed with pride as he described the moment.
“All her life, all she wanted to do was be a Georgia gymnast,” Clark said. “And you can see her first dismount and just the job of her being there and doing that.”
On one corner of the team room next to the team’s nutrition and hydration station, is a wall filled with marker-penned words of encouragement and an explanation of the tradition of Georgia gymnastics from the 2005 team.
“We had the first team that was in this facility sign the wall and I like that a lot because I think that just speaks to the character of our kids,” Clark said. “I think our biggest success has been in that area. I don’t think that we all of a sudden became geniuses in 2005. We just had a culture change and those kids were responsible for that. It was a neat phenomenon to watch.”
The motivation that Clark has to continue the success that his program has had is an opportunity, not a pressure. Helping legendary former coach Suzanne Yoculan build the Georgia program, Clark saw the expectations grow and continue to be met over the span of three decades.
“I didn’t feel pressure because I think pressure is something that we put on ourselves,” Clark said. “Every year, whether we win it or we don’t win it, we expect to win it. I think that is self generated and internally generated. I understand that the outside entities have those expectations as well, but I don’t feel that as much as I feel a sense of obligation to maintain the standards that we set, not standards that somebody set for us.”
It would seem that a program that has experienced as much success as the Gym Dogs have, would constantly be chasing the next milestone or trying to accomplish the unthinkable all over again. Not so, says Clark.
“I don’t feel like we’re chasing anything,” Clark said. “I just feel like we’re trying to maintain the standards that have been here for a long time. We decided what those standards were; other people just sort of got on board with that. External pressures or expectations really, for me, are not a factor.”
When building the Georgia gymnastics program, the goal was never to attain the standards that any other program had set as the standard of excellence, it was to be the best Gym Dogs that they could be. Clark says he mainly couldn’t have predicted the success that Georgia has had because he was focused on present success and improvement, not a global vision of building a dynasty.
“I don’t think we looked at it that way,” Clark said. “I know Suzanne had a vision of that coliseum being full and I’ve heard her speak of that many times; I think that was a personal mission of hers. But the greatest thing that we did and have been able to do when we’ve been successful is to stay focused on us. That means right now and this team. Every year was different and each team was different. What we did a good job of was not falling into the trap of trying to draw comparisons either to what we had done before or to what other programs were doing.”
It was that single-minded focus on self improvement that eventually translated into a tradition of excellence.
“I don’t think we set out to win 10 championships,” Clark said. “I think it was just a by-product of where the focus was. I don’t ever recall thinking ‘What if we do this?’ I think it was just a matter of we were grinding and it took a long time. Suzanne was the spearhead of that whole thing and there’s no question about that.”
When any one of the 10,000 fans who regularly files into Stegeman Coliseum for a home match comes to watch a competition, they are treated to much more than an athletic event. The exciting production is what Clark believes makes a Georgia home meet one of the most unique events in all of college athletics.
“It’s something similar to what you’d see in Las Vegas,” Clark said. “When you walk into our arena, the lights go out, the fireworks explode in the ceiling, we have a big video pump-up and when the team comes out, we have 10,000 people barking like dogs and screaming at the top of their lungs. We have autograph lines all the way around the concourse of the coliseum. It’s an event and it’s a production that is worthy of something you would see in Las Vegas, and that’s the kind of atmosphere that we have.”
Clark feels that the family-friendly environment and accessibility provided by his programs makes it one of the true gems of college sporting events.
“For us, the crowd that we draw is heavily family oriented,” Clark said. “The majority of our fans are people with young children because it’s a big production with a lot of excitement and a lot of interaction. We make our team accessible to our fans, which is a big key to driving attendance. It’s an amazing environment and a wholesome environment. It’s something that kids can come and get excited about.”
It’s impossible to spend five minutes with Clark and not realize his immediate love for the University of Georgia.
“One of the reasons that we’ve had any effectiveness in recruiting is because we’re passionate about the University of Georgia,” Clark said. “It’s not just about the gymnastics to us. When I say that this is the best place in America to go to school, I honestly believe it.”
In many ways, just as it was a dream for Taylor Johnson to be a Georgia gymnast, so too is Clark fulfilling a lifelong dream with his head coaching position.
“I’m a second-generation Georgia Bulldog,” Clark said. “I grew up wanting to be here and wanting to be involved in Georgia athletics, never knowing that my path would lead me to where it has. I’m very proud of this place and it’s a place that I love. It’s taking pride in the university and pride in the growth of this program and wanting to maintain those standards that we have worked so hard to set over the years.”
It has been the commitment from the Georgia administration that has allowed its gymnastics program to flourish among the nation’s elite.
“The support for gymnastics here has been amazing,” Clark said. “It’s unusual, to say the least, to have the kind of support that our administration has given to us. It’s evident not only in the facilities, but just in our day-to-day life in the support that we get in all facets of our program. The support staff that we and our student-athletes have access to is so vast that it really allows us to focus on coaching and recruiting. If you walk around this campus, whether it’s an academic building or an athletic building, the commitment is very high at Georgia, there’s no question about that.”
At both ends of the Suzanne Yoculan Gymnastics Center hang incredibly colorful paintings of the program’s All-Americans, painted over the years by longtime assistant coach Doug McAvinn. It’s yet another reminder of the decades of excellence that the program has experienced.
In Athens, it’s a culture that extends to each sport and each program.
“I think excellence breeds excellence,” Clark said. “There’s no question that there has been tremendous success, particularly on the women’s side of our sports here, but the men as well. It’s all over the place and you’re surrounded by that. It is an environment of excellence. I would think any competitor, anybody who really enjoys competition and wants to win would want to be in this environment. It’s a great atmosphere.”
It’s a championship atmosphere that is on par with any of the great traditions in collegiate sports. Clark is proud to be leading the program into its next generation of excellence, one that is sure to continue for decades to come. Most certainly, they can find some room in the trophy case for more hardware.
“I’m very proud and very honored,” Clark said. “It comes with a lot of expectation, but I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. This is the greatest place in the world.”