Gymnastics coach walks a fine line
When his team produced what he thought was a winning effort and still lost to Georgia by .125 points last year, Utes gymnastics coach Greg Marsden walked off the floor with his jaw set and his face crimson with fury. He left, but not before barking that Utah was robbed and "had the wrong leotard on to win."
It was the kind of demeanor, says his wife and former gymnast, Megan, "that freaks people out."
Marsden, the man who built University of Utah's program into the most successful in collegiate gymnastics history, sits in his tidy office at the Huntsman Center. He leans back in his chair, wipes imaginary dust off a spotless table. He's been called a jerk, an ass and anti-social among other things.
Mardsen gives such personal assessments an agreeing nod.
"I don't," he says, "view myself as particularly well-liked by anybody."
Driven, brilliant, genuine, committed, passionate, loyal. These too are words offered by his friends. They accept the first because of the latter.
To fans and peers, Marsden is a gymnastics guru. He wins championships and attracts crowds of more than 10,000 to his meets. A guy, in the words of his meet director, Anne Marie Jensen, who can "take a boring women's sport and make it something people will come to watch."
But few know Marsden past that image. Even Megan, his wife of 22 years, is still learning his quirks.
"He is always going into some new phase," she says.
Maybe it's because he's not comfortable in any role but one that includes sports, so, like his team's routines, he's always switching, always tweaking, always searching for a comfortable combination.
When Marsden was growing up in the 1960s in tiny Clarksville, Ark., athletics provided a haven from a childhood marred by tragedy.
His father, a weather pilot, flew into a typhoon off Guam when Marsden was 3 and never came out. Marsden's father's body was never found and his mother never reconciled her husband's death. Depressed, she soon succumbed to a mental illness.
Now, Marsden recognizes it as schizophrenia. Then, he just endured instances of her paranoia.
She'd go off on the clerk at the grocery store, convinced she was getting cheated, or she would lock Greg and his brother, Wes, and his sister, Jeanne, in a bedroom convinced someone was trying to get them.
To keep from going home from school and experiencing such episodes, Marsden played every sport he could. The times when his mother's illness was really bad, when she'd stop taking her medication, he and his siblings would live with their grandparents.
"It was very difficult," he said. "It was an emotionally difficult time, watching your mother deteriorate. I can remember us taking her to the hospital for treatments for shock therapy or whatever they'd do to her, and it looked more like a prison than a hospital."
One night when Marsden arrived home at his usually late hour, he found his mother slumped and despondent. He took her to the hospital where he was told she had had a stroke, but that she'd be fine.
She never did come home. The next morning, Marsden's grandfather, who had lost his wife only a year earlier to breast cancer, told him his mother was gone now, too, at the age of 42.
"When something like that happens, a lot of people come back even hungrier," says Keith Henschen, Marsden's friend and team psychologist. "They become a competitive person because that's what they need to become to be successful."
Marsden competed for Central Arkansas as a diver, then earned a master's degree from Arkansas State in 1973. Searching for a place to study sports psychology, Marsden and his brother moved to Utah on the advice of one of his father's former flying buddies.
While earning his Ph.D. in sports psychology, Marsden worked in the University of Utah's P.E. department. When the U. made a move to comply with Title IX by adding a gymnastics team, Marsden was given the job, which came with a $1,500 salary and a $4,500 budget.
He put an ad in the paper for gymnasts and seven girls tried out.
His squad finished 10th at the 1976 national championships.
THE CONTROL FREAK
Marsden has always been involved in every detail about his team, from picking the leotards to approving the media guides to making sure his team received the most media exposure possible. Everything had to be right and nothing was overlooked.
Jensen, his assistant coach for six years, can remember times when she'd have to re-staple papers if the paper was crooked or re-copy things if the logo was the tiniest bit off kilter. Then there were the times Marsden would call her, complaining that after she'd cleaned the gym, the mats didn't line up straight. When he vacuumed the floor, the lines were always perfectly even.
"It was always the smallest things," Jensen said. "But it's also the kinds of things he expects from girls on the balance beam."
Some of his biggest influences were on the marketing of the Utes.
Utah has won 21 of the past 24 gymnastics attendance titles and has averaged 10,533 fans for its home meets in the last 14 years.
Marsden made the sport more enticing to fans by making the meets just like he is, short and to the point. He also brought in cheerleaders and made such drastic changes as playing music in between routines, a move that ruffled some of the sport's stuffy supporters. But it worked.
"Greg Marsden has done more for our sport than anyone in collegiate gymnastics," UCLA coach Val Kondos says. " . . . He understands it's entertainment, not just a sport."
In 1987, Marsden resigned as coach of the USA National Team over judging and team selection practices at the World Championships, a daring move against the mighty establishment.
In 1991, Georgia coach Suzanne Yoculan accused him of standing behind and intimidating the judges during a meet, an ugly confrontation that ended the series between the schools until last year. After that much-publicized event, several judges came forward and said they'd declined to work Utah's meets because of his intimidating ways.
In 1993, the NCAA reprimanded Marsden after he stormed out of a coaches' meeting during an argument with then-Stanford athletic director Cheryl Levick.
Then, in 1994, there was the infamous incident in which he yanked his team off the floor at Brigham Young University out of protest over the judging.
Marsden now says he knew 30 seconds after he left the floor that he screwed up, which was only a couple hours before he got a call from his athletic director, Chris Hill.
"I remember watching the 10:30 p.m. news and saying, 'What did he do now?' " Hill says. "When I called, I couldn't even yell at him because he kept apologizing. He's so passionate about what he does, and there is an upside and a downside to that. He's not a walk in the park and sometimes he's tough on me, but it's really because he's so passionate about what he's doing."
Even Marsden's gymnasts have felt the brunt of his temper.
During a meet at Utah State, Suzanne Metz ignored his instructions to water down her beam routine, and fell off. Utah still won, but her disobedience sparked an outburst.
"There was every kind of stream of profanity coming out of his mouth, directed at the team and at his wife because she coached the beam," his friend and Salt Lake City lawyer Rick Casey said.
Like basketball's Bob Knight, Marsden has a reputation for dancing on the line of what is allowable and what is considered too much, yet the nation's top gymnasts continue to pour into the program.
Gymnastics might be a pretty sport to watch, but it's infamous for wearing out and burning through its top athletes before they hit puberty.
That fact is not lost on the father of Sarah Shire, a four-year member of the U.S. National Team who has signed with University of Utah and will be a freshman next season. He still allowed his daughter to sign with Marsden.
David Shire says Sarah is in the gym about 40 hours a week, with only Christmas and New Year's Day off. At the U., the NCAA will limit her to just 20 hours of official practice time a week.
"Sarah doesn't want a pal or someone to hang out with," says her father, a high school volleyball and basketball coach. "She wants to win. Don't think I haven't done my homework, this is my baby, but what she will go through at Utah can't be any tougher than what she has been through. I looked Greg in the eye, and I know he will take care of her."
Ashley Kever, a gymnast from 1997-2000 who is now an attorney for the Environmental Protection Agency and living in Dallas, has similar thoughts.
"It's a tough discipline," she says. "You don't just go into it for a ride. There are a lot of elite programs with a lot of hard-ass coaches out there who are almost degrading to their athletes. One of Greg's strong points is he respects gymnasts and treats them like adults. It takes an independent gymnast to come to Utah who wants to be a part of that."
Marsden and those around him say he accepts the same standards for himself. One day, grumpy after losing to Oregon State, Marsden brought the wrong kind of vibe into the gym and captain Lisa Mitzel was brave enough to toss him out.
Shocked at first, he left with a smug smile plastered on his face.
"I was like, 'Hallelujah,' " Marsden said. "I like it when my relationships grow with my team enough that they'll speak their minds. 'Queenie' was terrified of me her first year, now she'll tell me when I'm full of it. It's important they mature like that. . . . Sometimes in [Utah] society, all women hear is they have to get married, have children and live happily ever after. I want to emphasize their own power."
Megan Caudle, a gymnast from 1993-96 who is now a dentist in Portland, Ore., said Marsden's athletes eventually understand what the coach is trying to get out of them.
"There were times when we'd get pissed at him for making us do something, but now I realize I needed that extra kick in the butt," she says. "When I came to Utah, I was 17 and hadn't developed as a person. I was living in a kind of bubble, and I depended on Greg as some kind of father figure."
Up on the hill, Marsden is known among coaches as one of the biggest proponents of women's sports. He spends hours on the U.'s Web site, uploading pictures and videos. He learns all the new text lingo from his son so he can communicate with recruits better, and he shudders to think what would happen if the NCAA lets up on its regulations of Title IX.
"There are still people who resent women's athletics and would take us back 10 years if they could," Marsden says. He gives the same loyalty to his gymnasts, such as finding a way to allow Cindy Reichelt, a gymnast from 1982-86, to keep her scholarship when she tore her anterior cruciate ligament and was unable to compete her senior year. He gave her a position during the meets, and she is still working for him 21 years later.
"It was his way of saying, 'If you commit to me as an athlete, I'll commit to you as a coach,' " she said. "But he can be very intense and it can be difficult to handle as an athlete. You had to be the kind who would get upset at him and fight back and prove him wrong. I'd crumble under pressure. I'd probably be a better gymnast now because I understand that intensity."