Unlike college football which has 120+ years of tradition, NCAA women’s gymnastics is a relatively young college sport. Up until recently, college gymnastics was dominated by its “first generation” of coaches. Those who were participants of this sport back in the early days of college gymnastics when the sport was in its infancy and trying to establish legitimacy.
Gymnastics fans owes a great deal to this particular era of coaches. For many of them, they built these programs from the ground up. For a time it gave gymnastics a unique twist that the mighty programs like the Utah Red Rocks and Georgia GymDawgs were being lead by the very coaches who gave them life. That those who started their careers hoping to get maybe a couple hundred fans had grown their teams to the point it could realistically fill 15,000 person arenas.
But in the last decade, things have changed. In 2009 Suzanne Yoculan left Georgia after 29 seasons and 10 National Championships. In 2014 Sarah Patterson left Alabama after 36 seasons and 6 National Championships. In 2015 Greg Marsden left Utah after 10 National Championships and 40 seasons. In 2019 Miss Val left UCLA after 29 seasons and 7 National Championships. And finally, in 2020, DD Breaux left LSU after 42 seasons.
Their departures represented the conclusion to a generation of coaches who meant so much to the development of the sport, but also represented the only type of coaching stability the sport has ever known. Michigan head coach Bev Plocki has been around for 31 seasons. Not only is Plocki one of the last links to the era of first-generation coaches, but she herself has never won a National Championship.
This is one of the great things about Michigan winning the 2021 National Championships. If there was one coach who had a “monkey on her back” it was Bev Plocki. If there was one final way to remember the generation of coaches who built women’s gymnastics at the college level, it was giving Bev Plocki a national title.
Strangely enough, Michigan winning a National Championship is both a homage to the past and a homage to the future of the sport. It is a homage to the past in the sense of, for one last time an aging coach who is a member of the first generation is finally getting her due. But it introduces the arrival of a new generation of power programs.
Up until recently women’s college gymnastics had embarrassing levels of parity. The first 31 National Championships were shared between four schools (Georgia, Utah, UCLA, and Alabama). This for a sport that didn’t contest its first National Championship until 1982. But as college gymnastics said goodbye to the generation of coaches who dominated the sport in its early days, it is doing so while witnessing the arrival of new dominant programs.
Since 2013 Florida and Oklahoma have crashed onto the scene and shifted the balance of power of the sport by winning a combined seven National Championships. Thus making Michigan in 2021 only the 7th program to have ever won a title. But while Michigan is celebrating, it comes at a time when two other programs (LSU and Arkansas) are also on the rise.
The success of Michigan is as much about Michigan as it is a possible indication that gymnastics is turning a corner, with more programs than ever in a position to contend for a title. It is hard to watch Michigan’s victory and not think whether Jordyn Wieber will soon be able to work her magic in the near future. Or that with Alyona Shchennikova and Olivia Dunne in its arsenal, perhaps LSU could make a run in the near future.
College gymnastics is changing. It is no longer dominated by a small number of coaches and ruled by only a few programs. This is the inevitable result of what happens when a sport becomes more accessible, more popular, and athletic directors are taking it more seriously than ever before.