Friday’s gymnastics meet between No. 3 Utah and No. 14 UCLA not only pits two of the contenders for the Pac-12 and NCAA national titles, but represents two of the teams in the “old guard” of gymnastics.
The two of them have combined for 16 national titles and for many years were part of an exclusive group, along with Alabama and Georgia, to have the distinction of being the only teams to win the NCAA title until Florida broke the monopoly in 2013.
All that winning brings a lot of respect and reputation to the programs. It also brings expectations, as the coaches for the programs are now finding out.
All of those aforementioned teams have new coaches, leaving others to maintain the high level of success they established.
Utah coach Tom Farden and UCLA coach Chris Waller are both in the second year as their programs’ solo head coaches after previously being assistants then associate or co-head coaches.
Farden, who joined the Utah staff in 2011 and was named the co-head coach in 2016 along with Megan Marsden when Greg Marsden retired, at least has a good sense of humor about his situation.
“The year before I took over from Greg, we finished second, in 2015,” Farden said. “So great, I have approximately one spot for me to move. It’s like congratulations, you took over a program that just finished second, what are you going to do.’ That is a scary thing.”
Waller is in a similar situation at UCLA. He was on Valorie Kondos Field’s staff for 17 years, helping the Bruins win national titles in 2003, 2004, 2010 and 2018. Waller was named her successor when she retired at the end of the 2019 season.
“I thought I knew what I was getting into in a lot of ways,” Waller said. “I knew I was going to have the spotlight on me and I would be compared to Miss Val. The biggest thing I needed to do in taking over the position was be confident in being my own authentic self.”
UTAH VS. UCLA
At the Huntsman Center
When • Friday, 7 p.m.
TV • ESPNU
It would be extremely presumptuous to judge either Farden or Waller based on their 2020 coaching performances, especially since the season was cut short. But UCLA and Utah were ranked third and fourth, respectively, in March when the season abruptly ended, at least indicating they are on the right track.
Farden believes his history with the program has helped make the transition easier.
“Looking at a lot of legacy programs, there is a danger in following in the footsteps of a legend,” he said. “Tennessee basketball struggled when Pat Summitt was no longer coaching and other programs have struggled and I go in and am replacing two legends, but I knew the system and the athletes and the fans and community and that helped.”
While Farden credits the Marsdens and others for building the sport, he does hope to leave his own stamp on the program.
Both he and Waller tend to go after power gymnasts in recruiting. Both want to continue doing more with social media, an avenue of exposure that is still fairly new when considering the history of the sport.
During the pandemic, Farden has stayed in touch with Utah’s season ticket holders by offering media clips and other online tidbits to keep fans engaged.
“Back in the day when Greg and Val were coaching in their heyday, there was no internet or cellphones,” he said. “If you wanted to reach out to somebody you mailed them something. Now everything happens at warp speed and things are instantaneous.”
The Bruins have been media darlings for their floor routines that have gone viral the last couple of years and have more internet stars this year in Margzetta Frazier’s Janet Jackson-inspired floor routine and Nia Dennis’ tribute to Black excellence.
“The bottom line is social media is the most cost effective way to grow the sport and our brand of UCLA gymnastics,” Waller said. “We invest a lot of time and effort into sharing our stories on YouTube and video shorts. We can share who we are with a super wide audience.”
Both coaches understand that media exposure would fall away if the programs ultimately aren’t successful, which gets us back to that task of winning.
Waller said he copes with the pressure by putting his energy into the team.
“The most important job is taking care of the student-athlete in front of me,” he said.
Farden is extremely competitive and has brought that fire to the forefront of the way he coaches, relishing in the task of meeting the winning standards Marsden set.
“I do believe that success is a byproduct of preparation,” he said. “So I want to prepare this team to the best of my ability to win. It’s hard to win in this conference. You’ve got these blue blood programs and others like ASU and Cal coming up fast and strong. Things are always changing.”
Changing, but he and Waller hope, staying the same.