The most successful coach in University of Georgia athletic history will conclude the home portion of her final season in Stegeman Coliseum Saturday night against the University of Michigan. That's correct, I did say her. If measured by championships, Gymnastics coach Suzanne Yoculan is far and away the best coach to ever lead the red and black.
Under Coach Yoculan, UGA won the national championship in 1987, 89, 93, 98, 99, 2005, 06, 07 and 2008. Count 'em up. That's nine times that the Gymdogs have brought the gold home to Athens in Coach Yoculan's 26 seasons as head coach. They will be going for number 10 in Lincoln, Nebraska April 16-18.
This year's undefeated squad has scored 11 victories to make their total record 815-116-7 since Coach Yoculan's arrival. Prior to 1984 the University of Georgia had never made a single appearance in the NCAA Championships. They finished ninth in 1984, seventh in 1985, fourth in 1986 and except for a disappointing fifth at home in 1995, no worse than third place since.
Coach Yoculan has also coached the team to 16 SEC Championships and 20 NCAA regional titles. Add to that 33 individual national champions and 57 gymnasts earning 291 All-America honors and it is easy to see why she rates as the most successful coach in any sport in school history. There can be no debating the hard facts. Like Tennessee basketball coach Pat Summit, the proof is in the pudding, or should I say hardware, as in trophies.
When speaking to a group of Bulldog supporters here in Thomson in 1997, Coach Yoculan jokingly said that Athletic Director Vince Dooley hired her in 1984 because she demanded "a very low salary." By hiring on the cheap, if I may, Dooley likely had no idea what was ahead for the Georgia gymnastics program.
Besides her technical knowledge of the sport, Coach Yoculan has created such a juggernaut of a program by being a dynamo in the area of promotion. Not only has she promoted the sport to the point of building a large and faithful fan base, she has also recruited nationwide to bring some of the nation's finest young gymnasts to UGA. This year's roster alone lists girls from Nevada, Massachusetts, Virginia, Missouri, Illinois, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, Pennsylvania, Florida and Georgia.
A New Jersey native, Coach Yoculan graduated from Penn State in 1975 and is the mother of two adult children. Upon her retirement, Associate Head Coach Jay Clark will take the reins of the Gymdogs. Coach Clark has served on the staff for 17 seasons. Coach Yoculan has also enjoyed the assistance of Georgia Southern graduate Doug McAvinn for 24 seasons.
My family became Georgia gymnastics junkies in the early 90s to the point of becoming season ticket holders. We even traveled to Alabama in 1996 and Florida in 1997 for the national championships. When my daughter, Ashley, became a high school cheerleader, we found ourselves giving away the tickets more often than not in favor of Thomson High School basketball. My family jumped back on the bandwagon upon Ashley's college enrollment.
I never understood the scoring and judging but enjoyed the matches when my children were young. Unlike football, the girls don't line up 11 on 11 and hit one another so the thrill is somewhat gone for me. Nevertheless the other three members of my family never miss a home match. They will be there Saturday night for Coach Yoculan's Athens swan song and will travel to Nashville next weekend for the SEC Championships. They won't make the nationals simply because to get to Lincoln, Neb., from here they would have to start from somewhere else.
In today's world of mega-bucks coaching searches, it is amazing how the University of Georgia hit the jackpot with the hiring of an unknown club coach from Pennsylvania a quarter century ago. Taking such a chance would be unheard of today. Suzanne Yoculan has developed a true championship mentality in her niche of the Bulldog athletic program. The Walkers wish her the best in a well-earned retirement.