One of the earliest memories Utah gymnastics coach Tom Farden has of the illustrious program he now guides was in 1992, when the Dayton, Minnesota, native traveled to Minneapolis with his father to watch Utah win its seventh NCAA title.
Farden was in high school at the time, but even at the young age he realized he was seeing something special.
“I remember thinking it was a sports dynasty,” he said. “Utah had built this huge fanbase and a lot of internal expectations to win and it was evident.”
That brief moment has played out a lot into Farden’s career, first when he became the head coach at Southeast Missouri State in 2004 and still now in his second year as Utah’s head coach.
“We didn’t have enormous expectations or fans at Southeast Missouri but I put that pressure on myself and it helped us,” said Farden, who was 71-48 as SEMO’s head coach from 2004-09. “When expectations exist, you compete at a higher level.”
That philosophy is becoming more and more obvious with Farden as the Utes’ head coach.
After the third-ranked Utes defeated Washington 197.475-193.5 Saturday, Farden noted the Utes have had a target on their back for more than 40 years and seemed to relish in that identity.
“We know to compete like that we have to practice like that,” he said.
NO. 3 UTAH AT NO. 16 ARIZONA STATE
When • Saturday, 1 p.m. MST
TV • Pac-12 Networks
It was a quick comment said at the end of a long night, but it is extremely revealing of the way Farden is guiding his Utah team.
Back in the 1990s, when the Utes were en route to winning 10 national titles under the guidance of Greg and Megan Marsden, the pressure and spotlight regularly was on the Utes.
But Utah hasn’t won a national title since 1995 and programs like Georgia, Florida, UCLA and Oklahoma rose to prominence. The Utes were always around, threatening and never discounted, but the bull’s-eye belonged to other teams.
Farden clearly wants it back.
“It fits with this program,” he said. “What I said the other night, that I see those routines in practice is true. In simplistic terms, I want us practicing at the higher level so we can compete like that. I don’t think it’s realistic to expect 9.9s in practice and then ask them to raise that to a higher score in competitions.”
Utah’s gymnasts have embraced his philosophy, Sydney Soloski said.
“Having the target on your back is a good mentality for a team to have,” she said. “It takes a lot of determination and drive to be that kind of team. I love that feeling of walking into the arena and feeling they [other team] are afraid. That type of thing helps us rise to the occasion. As much as it seems like negative pressure, it gives the younger girls more confidence if you are on a team with a target on its back. It means you are doing something good.”
Soloski said she can remember the exact moment last season the Utes adopted the mentality. The Utes were only a few meets into the season but weren’t performing like they wanted, so Soloski and the other team captains held a team meeting.
“We said this is the reality, our potential literally means nothing at the pace we are going,” she said. “It wasn’t where we wanted to be if we wanted to have the legacy and continue the consecutive national championship appearances this team has. We didn’t want to be the team that ends that streak, no team does, but we could have unless we did something about it.”
The team responded by logging some of their best scores of the season, including a 197.55 at California and a 198.075 in a win at UCLA.
Soloski said there was a similar regrouping after the Utes lost at Oklahoma this year and feels the Utes are once again competing like a team that knows it belongs at the top.
“I couldn’t be more proud,” she said.
Neither could Farden, who is embracing, not backing down, from the challenge of restoring Utah to the top of collegiate gymnastics elite.
“Nothing reminds you of the supreme dominance of this team than the banners hanging in the gym,” he said.