College Gymnastics: Yoculan, Marsden to renew rivalry
A few days ago, Georgia gymnastics coach Suzanne Yoculan inquired about the possibility of having dinner with Utah coach Greg Marsden and his staff on the night before the teams meet in Athens. The Utes and Gym Dogs tangle Friday.
Yoculan and Marsden, sharing a dinner and conversation together? What is next, a scoring system that uses 11.0 as the highest mark?
For the past 14 years, Marsden and Yoculan, the most successful coaches in collegiate gymnastics history, haven't even shared a floor together voluntarily, much less dinner.
College basketball has Bobby Knight, football has Steve Spurrier, and college gymnastics has Marsden and Yoculan, controversial figures who sometimes act on emotions first and tact second. But all are winners.
Yet, it isn't supposed to be this way in gymnastics, a sport known for its politeness as much as its back flips. But that is what makes the Georgia-Utah rivalry so much fun.
"With those two, what you see is what you get," Nebraska coach Dan Kendig said. "Both of them will get right in your face, and tell you what they think. That is what makes it so nice; most other coaches aren't like that."
Friday marks the first time the teams will compete in a dual meet since 1991. Controversy at that last meeting, won by Utah 193.55-193.5, left the coaches in a feud, with Yoculan vowing to never schedule the Utes again.
Feelings have obviously changed.
"It's time," Yoculan said of the renewed rivalry. "It may have taken us a long time, but we're finally older and wiser."
The last meet between the teams ended ugly. Marsden complained during the meet about Utah's low scoring on the beam, purposefully raising his voice so the head judge would hear. The close loss left Yoculan feeling Marsden had intimidated the judges into giving the Utes the win, and as it seems always happens between the two, a small incident got blown into something bigger.
After making amends, the two have talked about adding each other onto their schedule through the years, but some tiff or scheduling conflict inevitably ended the talks.
"It has always been like a sibling rivalry with Suzanne," Marsden said. "We'll yell and scream at each other, but at the same time, we have a great amount of respect for one another. We're both very competitive people."
Perhaps it's their likeness that gives their rivalry such a spark. Their paths to the top of the sport are virtually the same. Frustrated by a lack of media coverage, Marsden in the 1980s took it upon himself to market his team so the media wouldn't have an excuse not to cover the Utes. He sold the team to the public, and he ran meets in quick order with little dead time. Attendance went from a couple hundred fans to 10,000. He is a winner, too, claiming 10 national titles in his 30 years.
Virtually at the same time, Yoculan was transforming Georgia. The New Jersey woman used a brash attitude that made her a favorite among the heavy hitters of the SEC football community who may not have understood what a double layout was, but liked her cockiness. Before the 1993 national championships, she gave a rousing speech to her team that ended with her on top of a desk, kicking over a chair. Atypical for gymnastics, but it did inspire the Gym Dogs to win the national title with a then unheard of score of 198.0. Now Georgia, winner of five national titles, sells out its arena with 9,951 fans.
"Suzanne was known as the first woman coach in the SEC who just went out and got things done and didn't wait for handouts from the men," says Utah State assistant coach Ernestine Russel. "The first time I met her, she asked me if I was going to be her nemesis. I didn't even know what that meant. She was tough, her style of gymnastics was very different, it was a football mentality."
Neither has shown much ability, or desire, to be politically correct in public, always letting their true emotions show:
l In 1993, Marsden got in an argument with then-Stanford athletic director Cheryl Levick during a coaches meeting and left the room. Marsden received an NCAA reprimand for his behavior.
l In 1992, Utah gymnast Aimee Trepanier was featured on a billboard in a pose from her floor routine, but it was so provocative that several women's groups demanded its removal. Marsden made light of the situation months later at the Utah Arts Festival when he was carried in on a cart in a tutu in the same pose, while holding a placard with the festival's slogan, "What is art?"
l In 1994, Marsden pulled his team off the floor during a meet with BYU after he got into an argument with a judge who penalized his team when he went out on the floor to get a better view of a card showing the level of difficulty. Utah lost that meet, 194.125-125.80.
l In 1995, after listening to Alabama coach Sarah Patterson complain about why her team lost to Georgia, Yoculan made their already tenuous relationship even rockier by offering that "winners make adjustments, losers make excuses."
l In 1999, Yoculan was seen as the instigator of a last-minute shuffling of region seedings, which forced Utah to go to Corvallis, Ore., for a tough regional meet instead of Georgia. Both teams advanced to nationals, hosted by Utah, but the Utes didn't make the cut for the Super Six, adding to the bitterness when Georgia won.
l This year, Yoculan unknowingly committed an NCAA violation when she took a group of former gymnasts to New York for a weekend, including a flight on a private jet. She shrugged off the supposed extravagance of the trip, saying "lavishness is in the eye of the beholder."
"We get in trouble, and it isn't fun at the time, but ultimately those are the moments gymnasts and fans look back on and remember," Marsden said. "Neither one of us minces words.
"In some ways, I'd like to think we are more experienced and wiser, but we're still so hotheaded," Marsden said. "We still do our fair share of rattling cages, we're just more discreet about it now."
As similar as they are, they are also very different, too. Yoculan was known for her aggressiveness and penchant for going for the big skills with her teams while Marsden was more traditional, stressing artistry. The philosophies often left the two at odds during coaches meetings when skill values and composition are discussed.
More and more, though, the two have found a middle ground over the years. Marsden even helped Yoculan with a book she has written on the history of collegiate gymnastics, which will be published in the coming months.
"At the time, we had some valid differences and it was the right decision for us not to compete," Yoculan said. "Neither one of us wanted a personal situation to interfere or become more important than our athletes. We're just competitive by nature, we have that tunnel vision. But it's time for us to compete again. We want a good, healthy rivalry with Utah."
Which leaves everyone wondering what will happen Friday, when the two friendly foes meet once more. The thought brings a wry smile to Marsden's face.
"It's probably always going to be a roller coaster ride with Suzanne and I," he said. "That isn't altogether bad; it keeps it interesting."
Utah at Georgia
5:30 p.m. MST
Live stats: http://www.utahutes.com
Tale of the tape
UTAH COACH GREG MARSDEN
* 30th year (807-139-5)
* 10 national titles
* 7-time national coach of the year
* 15 placings in the top three at nationals
* Coached gymnasts to 22 event national titles, 244 All-American awards
GEORGIA COACH SUZANNE YOCULAN
* 22nd year (674-98-6)
* 5 national titles
* 3-time national coach of the year
* 16 placings in top three at nationals
* Coached gymnasts to 26 event national titles, 232 All-American awards