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Thursday, April 16, 2009

Suzanne Yoculan: Deleted Scenes

I have a story in today's Telegraph previewing the Gym Dogs quest for another NCAA championship, but mostly dealing with the retirement of longtime coach Suzanne Yoculan.

In doing the research for this story, I spent nearly an hour talking with Yoculan, who -- as she always does -- spoke quite candidly about her feelings as her career drew to a close. If you read the Telegraph story, it's pretty darned long -- about 2,500 words (don't let that intimidate you though!).

Still, that was but a fraction of our complete conversation. Here's more of it...

On handling that pressure to leave on a high note…
"I never talk about it to them, and they don't read the newspapers. I never talk to them about that or put pressure on them. I put pressure on myself, and I honestly work best under pressure. But I'm the kind of coach that my personality fits best for an underdog team. I loved it when we were ranked 12th in the nation and won the national title. I loved it when we won two national titles when we were ranked fifth. I have that no dream is too big mentality, that there's no such thing as failure mentality to just go for it. And it's so easy when you're not No. 1 to get a team to go for it and push that extra bit and not hold back because you don't feel like you have anything to lose. When you're No. 1, it's a lot harder to have a team wrap their arms around the fact that they need to go all out. It's more natural to hold back and be more tentative when you're No. 1. I've watched it for years and years and years. It's more difficult to get them to have that go-for-it attitude and just attack when you're No. 1 for the fifth year in a row.

"People just expect you to win, and if you come home No. 2 and you know you had the best meet of your life and your team did it all, people are like, 'Oh, they didn't win.' They're disappointed in you. It's like, wow, OK. People don't get it. They're disappointed if you don't win. I'm disappointed if we don't do our best. But I'm not disappointed if we don't win. Fans, they get disappointed if you don't win, and that's tough."

On regretting retiring if she doesn't win this year…

"No, I know for sure I will not regret my decision based on whether we win or we lose because I don't make decisions based on how many championships we have. I don't make decisions based on the athletes that are on our team. There's always another championship out there to get, and there's always great athletes coming into Georgia as freshmen that I get attached to. So it has nothing to do with the number of championships or who's on our team right now or who's coming in. It was entirely based on where I am personally in my life, where this program is, and where Jay and Julie are in their life.

"And I would never make a personal decision to retire unless I thought it was the right time for the program as well. But I won't regret it. I might regret things I did during the year or the way I went about it, but there's been very few years where I've looked back and regretted anything. I tell the girls all the time that that's what I don't want. I never want to look back and say, 'Gosh, I wish I could have done this or that.' I never have that regret because if I have a thought in my mind, I do it. You might not like what you hear from me. You might not like what I say, but you are going to hear what I feel and know what I feel. There are no secrets on this team. I make my decisions spontaneously, instinctively, I trust my ability in that, and I can't ever really remember but two times in 26 years where I looked back and said I should have done something differently at the end of the year."

On how involved she'll be after her retirement...
"I'm not going to come in the gym. I'm not going to come into the office. Jay and Julie do things very different than me. I know that already, and I don't need to be involved unless they call me up and ask my opinion on something.

"I won't be in the gym, but I'll definitely be in the stands. I will never go to Tuscaloosa, Alabama again. I don't even care if it's for the national title. I'm never going to Tuscaloosa again. Those people told my daughter they hated her mother when she was 11, and I'll never forget it. She cried all night.

"I know that I'll continue to have a relationship with the girls on the team who I have coached. … I'm getting seats in four different locations. I'm definitely going to go full circle because in my first meet in 1984 I saw people moving from event to event to event to follow the team around, so I'm going to go full circle and do the same thing. I'll have a seat in front of each event so I can get a good view.

"I'm actually looking forward to watching our team from the stands. I think I'll enjoy that different perspective of how it looks different than when you're sitting right there.

"I expect that Jay will be calling me up every now and then to ask what did you see. I'm still going to have a Web site for fans. I'm not allowed on the chat rooms because of an NCAA violation as one of my penalties. But I plan to get on there a lot and hopefully teach some fans. Give them some facts. I love college gymnastics. I'm totally hooked on it. I want to go to Baylor and Clemson and go meet with Pat Summitt at University of Tennessee to see if I can convince someone to start a gymnastics program. I'm going to do professional public speaking."

On why she's retiring...
"Well first I've completed my bucket list. I need challenges. I'm very competitive. Probably as much so as Dara Torres. I'm just so competitive. And I don't like to do anything I can't be good at. Which is why I started golf and quit right away. But I don't have anything left in the bucket list. It was never really about the number of championships, but filling the arena was always a goal of mine, having all the scholarships endowed was something that I was on a personal mission to see that we accomplished. The first time we had tickets scalped I was like wow, they're scalping tickets for gymnastics, this is cool. Sellouts, having the permanent seat program put in place.

"I feel like the athletes win the championships. It's their talent, and their ability to overcome adversity, and their fight that brings home the trophies. But for me personally I know that I've really put a lot of time into marketing and promotions and I've really spent a lot of time on trying to build attendance. So for me that's a personal accomplishment for me, that was always a goal. And then of course the Gym Dogs show, I wanted a gymnastics TV show, writing a book. The last was having this new facility. So really from a gymnastics standpoint, from a career standpoint, I really don't have anything left on the bucket list. Personally I love the relationship with the girls, but that's not on the bucket list. So that's part of it.

"And then part of it is just my time with my family. I really feel like I'm at a point in my life where I want to have more time with my family. My mom and dad live in Athens, they moved here to take care of my children when I got the job. They're in their late 80s and they need help. My son and daughter have both moved out of Athens. My son just got engaged, so I'd like to be able to spend time with them. My son's in Chicago, my daughter's in Colorado. And Don's retiring so I want to be able to be available to do things with him. I just want flexibility in my life. This job does not give you any flexibility in your life. You are on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I can't even tell you how many Sundays I've spent with gymnasts in the study on different issues. You just don't have a lot of flexibility. It's a paradox, because it's what you love about coaching is that they need you and you impact young peoples' lives, but then at the same time, you can't ever walk away. You're never really away from your job, ever. Because your job is not a job, it's relationships. And when your job is relationships with people, it's always a part of you. It's always a part of you."

On handling two top talents like Tiffany Tolnay and Courtney Kupets...
"[Utah coach] Greg Mardsen gave me the best compliment I think I've ever gotten in coaching. He said Suzanne does a great job of keeping thoroughbreds from nipping at each other. And that was just a great compliment I thought, and a really interesting way of putting it. Having thoroughbreds that are pretty much two of the top three gymnasts in the country for the last three years, Tiffany and Courtney on the same team, and in the same class. Both the same age. So you have to keep them from nipping at each other. But they're never really nipped at each other. They are both very respectful to one another and they've got very different strengths and attributes and they're very different. They've learned to respect one another. But it's taken time, it's taken a lot of time.

"Courtney was definitely more secure in herself coming in her than Tiffany. Tiffany, because she was not an Olympian, Courtney was an Olympian, Tiffany looked up to Courtney a lot, and compared herself a lot to Courtney. And that took her some time to get out of that and realize that Courtney is just a gymnast from everyone else. Courtney makes mistakes like everyone else."

On her replacement...
"I personally think that's his strength. I think his strength is that he has a very spontaneous way about him, a very instinctive read on the situation, even though it's between women. I sometimes say he's got too many girl genes or something, I don't know. He's part girl I think.

"I think one of my strengths is reading the moments and being spontaneous and knowing what the girls need, and I think that's definitely a proponent of him being the next head coach because he has that ability to do that. And I think that's what's more important than the technical knowledge. He has the technical knowledge, anyone can learn the technical knowledge. It's sort of like street sense of coaching. He's got street sense of coaching women. And there aren't very many men that have street sense with coaching women. I would never, if I was an Athletic Director, I would always prefer a woman coach for a women's team. In general, in principle. But you always have to go for the most qualified person, and in this particular instance it's a man.

"He's got that street sense with women. It's not his technical knowledge at all. Jay came here as a student and he never even did a flip in his life. I don't think Jay can do a cartwheel, or a handstand. I'm not sure, but he's never done gymnastics. He just watched it as a student, appreciated the athleticism involved and learned from us how to coach women's gymnastics and he's got an eye for technique. He's got an eye for it, he's got just a knack for it. But the other side of it, the instinctive side, the how to keep the thoroughbreds from nipping each other, he's great. He is great. If I miss a beat, he doesn't miss a beat. Together we never miss a beat. We have been a great coaching team together, Jay and I, and Doug as well and Julie, the four of us. The four of us I really feel have been a great coaching team because we all have such different strengths. That's what I think it takes to win a national championship, is a coaching staff that's consistent but has different strengths and that works well together."

On not being liked...
"I'm not popular, you do know that. I'm very unpopular. You should go in the chat rooms. In the gymnastics world, uh uh. No. That's a nice way to say I don't like her, but I respect her. I love it when people say I respect Suzanne. OK, right, that's nice, but they don't like me. That's OK, whatever. I'm really competitive and competitiveness brings out a very selfish side of people. It does. I tell the girls on the team, I want you to be competitive, because competitive people, they push, they fight, there's no dream too big. But it doesn't endear you with people when you're competitive. Think about it. Even playing bridge, the people that are most competitive, they're not that endearing to be around. It's not that much fun to play backgammon with me. Because if I lose, we're going to play again."

On handling all the free time after she leaves...

"I wouldn't say I worry about it, that's why I try and come up with all kinds of things. I've got all kinds of plans. I've got to fill the time for sure. I'm not the kind to lay around. I've got plans and I'm looking forward to having a choice. That's the biggest thing, to choose. I haven't felt like on Sunday afternoon I can choose what to do. I feel like my Sundays are dictated. With three hours of planning the week's workouts, I take my mom and dad to dinner every Sunday night, I'm just a very regimented person. I don't have a lot of free time to just be like hmm, I think I'll go get a massage today. I just don't. Whether I'll like it or not I don't know, but I want to find out. I want to find out who am other than the University of Georgia gymnastics coach. Because I don't really know. It's been my identity for 26 years. I don't think it's healthy for anyone's identity to be what they do.

"When it's all-consuming like coaching, it's very easy to get caught up in that. That's why coaches never want to retire. A lot of really successful coaches never want to retire. If you ask Greg Mardsen of Utah, when I talked to him on the phone last week, he said I'm never retiring, what am I going to do? When you're a coach you don't have hobbies. Ask me my hobbies, I don't have any. What hobbies am I going to have? First of all I'm competitive, I'm not going to do it if I can't win. So how much time am I going to have to have a hobby? Coaches that are winning all the time, most of them don't have a hobby unless they're a man and they learn to play golf at a younger age, they might play golf. Like a Spurrier or something. But women coaches that I know, that have a hobby that they're really into, except for Valeries Kondos, she crochets, but I guess you can have that hobby because you're on a lot of planes. Crocheting is one that you could fit into your schedule. But anything really active, you don't have time to do it.

"I have tried. I can't tell you how many times I've tried to join tennis teams, even having a trainer on a set time to come to my house at a set time, or a dance class that I'm going to take, and it's like OK, I can do it, Tuesday at six o'clock. It never fails that within two weeks something happens on Tuesday at six o'clock that I can't be at dance class. You cant have hobbies and you can't figure out who you are when you're coaching because coaching becomes who you are. It's just time. It's time for me personally, it's time for the program, and it's time for me professionally, that's the bucket list part, the bucket list part. And personally it's just time for me to see who I am other than the University of Georgia women's gymnastics coach."

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