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Clark flipping around UGA

 
POSTED: April 21, 2011 7:00 a.m.

Jay must go. Simple as that.

When Jay Clark became head gymnastics coach at the University of Georgia two years ago, he was handed the keys to a Rolls Royce. He proceeded to drive it right off a cliff.

In two short seasons, Clark has taken the flagship program of NCAA women’s gymnastics and turned it into nothing special. He should be stopped before nothing special becomes mediocrity.

Suzanne Yoculan built the GymDogs into a colossus that won 10 national championships, including five straight in her final five seasons. Admittedly, that’s one tough act to follow. No one expected Clark to begin his tenure by winning five straight national titles.

But Clark still fell short of expectations. This year, Georgia failed to advance out of the semifinals at the NCAA championships. Still, that was a modest improvement over last year, when the GymDogs failed to reach the NCAAs.

Those two results are shocking, because from 1989 until her retirement, Yoculan’s teams finished in the top three every single season except one. In 1995, the GymDogs finished fifth.

Clark was a long-time assistant to Yoculan, and that may be part of the problem. Yoculan demanded the very best that every athlete had to give. And since Clark was the recruiting director, I suspect that there was a “good cop, bad cop” dynamic at work.

When asked to predict how Clark might fare before his first season as head coach, former GymDog Tiffany Tolnay replied, “Everybody loves Jay.”

That’s not always a good thing. All the Georgia basketball players supported assistant coach Ron Jirsa for the head coaching job when Tubby Smith left for Kentucky. The players liked him so much that he was gone in two years.

Clark is a master recruiter; he delivered the talent that produced those five straight championships. In January, ESPNU and ESPN The Magazine rated Clark the ninth best recruiter in all of college sports. He was the only gymnastics coach listed.

But being a great recruiter doesn’t mean a thing if you can’t coach up the athletes once they arrive on campus. Anyone recall Ray Goff?

The GymDogs scored 195.575 in their first meet of the year, on January 8. In their final meet, they scored 195.45. How does a team not improve over four months of competition?

In each meet, 24 routines are performed. If a score under 9.7 is posted, something drastic went wrong. In their first six meets, the GymDogs posted 5, 5, 3, 3, 5 and 5 scores under 9.7. In the next five, 4, 2, 2, 4 and 4. That’s improvement, though microscopic.

Then came the postseason. They missed three routines at the SEC championships, finishing a distant third behind Alabama and Florida. They missed two at the NCAA regionals, losing to UCLA.

Then came the national semifinals. In the biggest meet of the year, the GymDogs blew seven routines. Three of their six floor exercise scores were 9.425, 9.55 and 9.325. Not the stuff of championships.

“I would have bet we would have had our best meet of the year, not our worst,” Clark told Jeff Arnold of the Athens Banner-Herald. “But for whatever reason, the wheels seemed to come off.”

Now, if the head coach is clueless as to what’s going on, what chance do the athletes have? Reminds me of a Ray Goff quote: “I don’t know how we lost to Tennessee.”

Alabama and Florida both visited Athens this winter, and the GymDogs weren’t competitive in either meet. That’s intolerable. The GymDogs actually posted their best score of the season against Alabama, 197.225, and still lost by almost half a point.

Once upon a time a GymDogs meet was an event, and you could always count on being thoroughly entertained. Where routines were once crisp and tight, now they’re loose and sloppy. Missing is the attention to detail so prevalent during the Yoculan era.                      

The faithful have noticed. Actual meet attendance dwindled during the season, vacant seats appearing where once there were none.

Sadly, Clark doesn’t project the image you want from a head coach, either. He can often be observed during meets with an empty paper cup between his teeth, gyrating his jaw so that the top of the cup flips up to the bridge of his nose.

Not at all unlike the time Ray Goff was captured on the sideline in Tuscaloosa, his image flashed across the nation as he contented himself with a long blade of grass stuck between his teeth.

Goodness, that’s three references to Ray Goff in one column about Jay Clark.

What does that tell you?

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