Utah gymnastics: Greg Marsden going for milestone win
Utah gymnastics coach Greg Marsden had a vision of what he wanted to do when he started Utah's gymnastics program in 1976.
More than anything, he wanted a successful program that wasn't in place merely to satisfy Title IX requirements but could stand on its own, out of the shadows of major collegiate men's sports.
Well, it's safe to say he reached those goals. And so much more.
Now in his 39th year, Marsden could achieve a landmark win Saturday when the fourth-ranked Utes compete at No. 19 Arizona State. A victory would be the 1,000th of his career, against 199 losses and 7 draws.
Reaching such a milestone is rare. The NCAA doesn't keep the statistic as any official record, but very few coaches have come close to the mark outside of baseball and volleyball, where the high number of contests played in a season has helped 64 baseball and seven volleyball coaches achieve the magic 1,000 mark.
The most well-known coach to surpass the milestone was Pat Summitt, who coached the Tennessee women's basketball team from 1974-2012, posting a 1,098-208 record.
In men's basketball, Harry Statham at McKendree University in Illinois is 1,076-441 in his 48th season.
Marsden downplays the accomplishment.
"It's nice, but for me it means I've been around for a long time," Marsden joked. "Really to me it is much more significant as a program than for myself. There have been a lot of people involved from the beginning who have been responsible in helping us achieve that number."
However, those around Marsden recognize the almost singular nature of his accomplishment. Perhaps more than anyone, he is responsible for the growth of college women's gymnastics into an arena-level sport.
"It's something that just doesn't really happen," Utah athletic director Chris Hill said. "I've watched him grow the sport since 1987 and what is most impressive is it has grown in every way. He is always working to make the program better and he has done a phenomenal job."
Gymnast Lia Del Priore compared Marsden to Duke basketball legend Mike Krzyzewski, who is "just" 993-301 in his 39 seasons.
"Basketball has so many more games than we do so it shows just how good he has been for how long," she said. "It would be awesome to get it for him this weekend."
Among all those victories are 10 national championships. Marsden lists the first in 1976 as one of his memorable moments, as well as the one in 1992 when the Utes swept every title and in 1995, when the Utes were an underdog but still managed to win.
But wins didn't necessarily have to come at the championships to lodge themselves in Marsden's memory.
There were many unforgettable nights, such as when Utah edged Georgia in 2010 and went on to qualify for the NCAA Super Six in 2011 where the favored Bulldogs and Florida failed to make the cut.
"A lot of times it wasn't about the wins but just the reward of how hard teams worked and improved and their desire to improve," Marsden said. "Those were the really satisfying times. Those early wins, we created a monster with them. Everyone thinks that is how success is judged and that you have to win to have a satisfying season, but that isn't the case."
To that end, Marsden said the current season has been one of his most enjoyable.
The current Utes are determined to avoid a repeat of 2013's disappointing ninth-place NCAA finish, appearing more motivated than ever.
Friday's surprisingly easy 197.125-195.875 win over the No. 8 UCLA Bruins provided some hints that this team could be special.
"Last year was humiliating and disappointing and it has been fun to see them mature and grow from that," Marsden said. "The one thing this team is really hungry for is to be the first team from our school to win a Pac-12 title. We've been close and they really want that."
Marsden's one regret thus far isn't over any particular loss, but his inability to make collegiate gymnastics a bigger sport on a national scale.
Programs in the SEC have enjoyed mass media exposure similar to the Utes, but elsewhere they often remain in the shadows of more traditional sports and it grates at Marsden that the NCAA Championships are relegated to ESPN3.
"I worry more about the sport now than when I started," he said. "It absolutely kills me that we aren't on live TV, we're on the Internet and that seems like a step backward. It doesn't have to be that way."
The issue has divided the sport's coaches because the NCAAs ideally would be cut from 12 to eight teams thus eliminating the need for byes to make it feasible for the event to be televised live. However, other coaches don't want to see the number of teams participating in the NCAAs cut. Marsden strongly believes teams should face the challenge of a more difficult path to the NCAAs, even if it means fewer teams make it to the finals.
For him, gymnastics will never be just about the wins, but about the overall health of the sport.
"A lot of people are reluctant to change and it's frustrating," he said. "We need to do things to help promote the sport."
Such tasks keep him fresh and engaged. Asked if he sees retirement in his future, he just laughed.
"I tell people they will know the day I retire when they read my obituary," he said. •
Greg Marsden has 999 wins during his career as Utah's coach. Here are a few highlights he remembers as his favorites.
1976 • The Utes beat Cal State-Long Beach (89.7) and BYU 97.75 (81.05) for the program's first win.
1979 • Utah starts a winning streak that lasts 107 meets, until the Utes lose to UCLA 196.75-197.225 on Jan. 10, 2003
1981 • The Utes win their first AIAW championship, which starts a string of six national title wins
1986 • Utah edges ASU 187.75-187.7 as the Utes win on their final floor routine at regionals, upsetting the favored Sun Devils
1992 • Utes sweep everything, from the NCAA title to the individuals with Missy Marlowe winning all but the vault, which was won by Kristen Kenoyer
1995 • Georgia was favored at the NCAAs but the Utes came from behind to win the title over Alabama 196.65-196.425
2000 • Shannon Bowles (neck), Theresa Kulikowski (knee), Marsden (hamstring injury) and assistant Aki Hummel (skiing accident) were hurt, but the Utes still somehow managed to finish second at the NCAAs, upsetting Georgia, Nebraska and Alabama to finish behind UCLA
2010 • a crowd of 15,552 packed the Huntsman Center to watch the Utes edge Georgia 196.55-196.5. It was the second largest crowd in Utah history, surpassed only by a crowd of 15,558 that watched Utah lose to Florida in 2011.
Utah at Arizona State