Monday, May 7, 2012

Dear Jay Clark.....

Ever since the news of your "resignation" broke on Friday, I have been trying to decide how I feel about it. The best I can come up with are some decidedly mixed emotions. Forgive the oxymoron. Or is it a paradox?

I have no doubt about your skills and abilities as a college gymnastics coach. After 17 seasons as an assistant and 3 as a head coach, I'm sure you've learned a thing or two. The fact that your team failed to make the Super Six for three straight years may or may not be a direct result of your coaching. Or lack thereof. The results are ultimately, however, the means by which you are judged, and those who judge you have found you lacking.

I can only give you my perspective, that of a Gym Dogs fan. Perhaps one of their most devoted (obsessed?) fans. I can only offer my opinion based on my very limited personal interactions with you and my more extensive observations from the sidelines.

In the few times we have had direct contact, you have come across as sarcastic at best and arrogant at worst. When my husband and I attended the Meet the Team dinner, you approached us and thanked us for being there. That was cool. However, when my husband told you I would be traveling to Tuscaloosa to see the Gym Dogs take on the reigning national champions, your reply wasn't at all what I expected. You snorted -- snorted! -- and said, "Boy, you're brave." I thought you MIGHT say something along the lines of, "We appreciate your going to such lengths to show your support." You could even have tacked that on to the end of YOUR comment, and it might have taken some of the sting out. As it was, you walked away and left me feeling rather foolish for spending all that time and money to travel to an away competition.

Your responses to questions in your weekly online chats were equally underwhelming, and not just mine. Whenever anyone asked about the girls' leotards (Come on, it's what they wear! It's part of the whole package!), you always replied rather tersely, "I don't do apparel." We get that, but we also knew it was your wife who DID, so as an assistant coach, couldn't you let her sit next to you and field those questions? The couple of times she filled in for you during the online chat were much more enjoyable. She exuded warmth and enthusiasm, while your answers made it seem as though you would rather be almost anywhere else. I often left your online chats asking myself, "Why did I bother?" It was rarely worth risking burning (or delaying) dinner on Monday evenings.

I ventured to ask a question about recruiting once, because I was genuinely interested in the process. You answered with a smiley face. A smiley face? Are you KIDDING me? When I asked where fans typically sit in a certain arena, you suggested I look for a bunch of red shirts and go sit there. I also asked once, not in a critical way but more out of curiosity, why you didn't publish a bunch of training videos like a lot of other programs. You responded that if you put your routines out there for free, people were less likely to come pay to see them on Friday nights.

Seriously? You think we give up our Friday nights (and Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons) just to see a routine or two? You're talking about people (person?) who will watch the same meet over and over again, when the outcome is already determined. I don't think it would have been giving anything away to allow your true fans a glimpse into the day-to-day operations of training and practice. Practice is open to the public, I realize, so perhaps it was more a case of not wanting to put forth the effort to market your team. Then say that.

On the sidelines, it was rare to see you smile. You might fist pump, you might shout, "Yeah!" after a nailed landing, but your fierceness in those situations did not translate into competitiveness. Mostly you just looked pissed off. All. The.  Time. Except when you really NEEDED to be pissed off, like when Shayla fell off the beam. Twice. Or when she fell off the FLOOR, for goodness' sake. Twice. On those occasions you picked her up (literally) and put her back on whatever apparatus. You didn't look pissed off on those occasions.

I'm not one to question your coaching decisions, because I have to assume you know more than I do. The stapler sitting on my desk may know more about college gymnastics than I do. It did appear, however, that you contradicted your own publicly stated policies regarding the competition line-up. You said Shayla performed consistently in the gym during practice and therefore earned her spot in the line-up. She fell during competition EIGHT times out of 29 routines this past year. Twice she fell two times in the same routine, and once she fell on both events for which she was in the line-up. I'm not here to bash Shayla, and I think she's a lovely gymnast (when she isn't on the mat), but couldn't you see a pattern there? Then poor Cat Hires, who you said yourself performed very well in the gym but couldn't transfer that to the competition floor (ahem...sound familiar?) fell twice competing on floor, and she was forever (or at least for the rest of the season) banished from floor exercise.

Toward the end of the season you pulled Christa Tanella from the bars line-up and replaced her with a freshman. That's all well and good if the freshman outdid her in the gym (and I personally love her to death), although it appeared to me that Christa had been nearly flawless in the lead-off spot. Okay, I get it. The freshman stepped up, scoring a 9.8 at the Regional Championships in the lead-off position, a career high score for her. All righty then. Two weeks later, when it counted the most, you pulled her and put Christa back in. Huh? When she fell on her very first handstand, you lifted her back to the high bar, and then you turned your back. When she fell the second time, I don't think you even saw it. Your disgust was almost palpable. When Christa finally got your attention, you gestured to her in a way that seemed to scream, "Get back up there yourself. I'm done here." Probably not what you were actually saying, but certainly the message your body language telegraphed to the fans. I'm no Christa Tanella fan, but in that moment my heart hurt for her.

I watch the other NCAA gymnastics coaches, and they just seem to be more INTO their teams. They're clapping, they're cheering, they're smiling, they're hugging. Most of the time you're scowling. I realize that being warm and fuzzy may not be in your chemistry. But it's apparently what top gymnastics programs thrive on. And what fans would like to see. Guess what a lot of your fans are? Donors.

I do believe you have a skill set for coaching gymnastics that will be valuable to some program somewhere. You followed a legend at UGA, not an enviable position for anyone. But as an assistant to that legend for 17 years, you better than anyone else should have known how to make that transition a seamless one. It couldn't have been a case of the talent pool suddenly drying up. Hell, you had a former Olympian on your team in 2010, and we didn't even make it TO nationals, much less the Super Six.

I realize it also kind of sucks that finishing in the top ten (or just outside it) is not good enough. You've been along for the dynasty's ride, so you knew what kind of expectations came with the position. Finishing third in the toughest conference in the country isn't good enough either, not when that conference typically has three powerhouse teams and "the others."

Yes, I will hate to see you go. I hate change, and I believe you were beginning to turn the corner. Repeated disappointment hurts recruitment, however, and with recruiting happening in the 10th grade now (WHAT?), UGA couldn't afford to adopt a wait-and-see attitude.

I also hate that we lose TWO out of our three coaches, since your wife is an assistant, and I ASSUME she will be going with you. I hate it for your children, who have never known life without Georgia Gymnastics.

I don't know that there's anything you could have done personally to prevent this chain of events. Maybe it was just time for a new era. I wish you and your family the best, and I hope you don't wind up taking the reins of a program that will ultimately kick our arses.

Now THAT would suck.



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