Two weeks ago at Georgia, the heads rolled. First, three gymnasts—including one on scholarship—were unceremoniously dumped from the roster without explanation. The gym was closed and an end-of-the-year banquet was canceled at the last minute. Then, a few days later, head coach Danna Durante was fired from the program after five years at the helm. Durante was the Georgia Gym Dogs’ second head coach in eight years.
Durante’s removal came after a solid season but a poor performance at National Championships. This year, the Gym Dogs, who, under Suzanne Yoculan-Leebern (more on her in a bit) won 10 NCAA titles, placed last in the field of 12 teams. Before Durante was hired, Jay Clark, Yoculan-Leebern’s longtime assistant coach, “resigned” after just three years at the helm due to poor results. The once-dominant SEC team, which holds the record for most NCAA championships, was struggling to make the Super Six, much less win national championships. And as they struggled, new powers rose in the SEC, with Florida winning three consecutive national championships and LSU (with Jay Clark as associate head coach) taking the top spot in the conference this year.
After the Durante ouster, many wondered who would even want a coaching job that seemed to offer so little in terms of stability. It was highly doubtful that a head coach of another program could be lured away to take such a high-stakes job where it seemed like results would be expected almost immediately. Sarah Brown, whose name was floated as a possible replacement for Durante after a successful season at Eastern Michigan, was snapped up by Penn State after their head coaches were forced to resign amid allegations of emotional abuse by gymnasts. Another possibility was UGA alum Courtney McCool-Griffeth and her husband Garrett, who are both assistant coaches at Texas Woman’s University.
In the end, UGA decided to hire former world champion Courtney Kupets-Carter, the most successful collegiate gymnast of all time, as head coach. Kupets-Carter competed for the program from 2006 to 2009 after winning Olympic silver and bronze medals at the 2004 Games. Georgia won the NCAA championship during all four of her years at the school. The prodigal daughter is coming home.
And so is Yoculan-Leebern, even though she never really left. (Yoculan-Leebern’s name is on the gym and she is married to the longest-serving member of the Georgia board of regents.) Kupets-Carter announced that her former college coach would be assuming the role of “volunteer assistant coach” next year. As Spencer Barnes of the Balance Beam Situation pointed out on Twitter, doesn’t every program have a statue of the volunteer assistant coach out front?
Bringing Yoculan-Leebern out of retirement to help Kupets-Carter with her first year as head coach is a canny move on Georgia’s part. Kupets-Carter, for all of her accolades as an athlete, doesn’t have a tremendous amount of coaching experience. She’s never held a position an assistant coaching position in women’s college gymnastics at either a DI or DII school and her club coaching experience is also limited. Having Yoculan-Leebern join her in a volunteer capacity should reassure fans that Kupets-Carter will have the appropriate guidance as she takes the reins of a program at a major SEC sports power.
It should also serve as a reassurance to UGA recruits who were probably quite nervous about the sudden coaching upheaval. While the incoming freshman class for 2017 may have already been locked, future recruiting classes—gymnasts are recruited as far as four years out of college—could back out of their verbal commitments and look for scholarships at other schools. This happened when Jay Clark “resigned” five years ago and one of UGA’s top recruits, 2012 junior national champion Lexie Priessman, who had only verbally committed to Georgia, backed out and followed Clark to LSU.
(Perhaps the biggest loser in all of this is Durante’s daughter, Samantha, a talented Level 10 who could’ve earned a scholarship to any number of schools but decided to attend Georgia as a walk-on to be coached by her mother. Having a gymnast of Durante’s caliber on the team as a walk-on, instead of on scholarship, basically gave Georgia 13 scholarships for next year instead of 12, the Division I standard. No word yet on whether Durante will still attend UGA after her mother was fired or whether a program with an extra scholarship has snapped her up.)
Durante, despite this year’s weak finish at National Championships, had successfully recruited a number of blue-chip Level 10 gymnasts to compete in the coming years, so Georgia had to be worried about preventing an exodus. I’m sure that UGA hopes that bringing Yoculan-Leebern back to the program—even in this so-called “volunteer” position—might be enough of a draw to keep those committed gymnasts from looking elsewhere. It should also function as a lure for the uncommitted. The prospect of working with the one of the most successful NCAA women’s gymnastics coaches in history must be appealing to many young gymnasts out there.
The same can be said for the prospect of working with the most successful NCAA gymnast in history. With a capable, knowledgeable “assistant,” Kupets-Carter should be able to overcome her inexperience.
But will she be able to overcome her “family situation”?
Yes, one of the first questions that Kupets-Carter was asked after making her statement came from a good ol’ boy sounding Georgia reporter, who asked the former world champion, “What is your family situation?” a 1950s I Love Lucy way of asking Kupets-Carter about her pregnancy. The new coach acknowledged that, yes, she is married, with a 17-month-old daughter and seven months pregnant with a boy. This shouldn’t be a problem for Kupets-Carter because she is not being tasked with doing the actual gymnastics. (She used all of her NCAA eligibility, after all.) And since competition season doesn’t start until January, Kupets-Carter won’t have to hide her baby bump with plants and other large objects during televised meets. Crisis averted!