Last month, the University of Georgia gymnastics team had a…let’s call it a lackluster performance at Nationals, placing 12th or last of the teams that were competing.
Just days after, then-head coach Danna Durante released 3 gymnasts from the team. Odd because these 3 gymnasts included 2 walk-ons who didn’t compete at all this season and 1 who was out most of the year because of illness/injury.
Notice I said “then-head coach.” In the midst of observers trying to sort out the confusion from the dismissals, Danna and the whole coaching staff was let go, or “not retained” as the release was worded, leading basically everyone engaged with NCAA gym to go: “WTH UGA?”
Jump forward to today, a couple days after the biggest NCAA gym recruitment weekend aka J.O. Nationals, Georgia has hired a new head coach. “New” being the operative word. Who? Courtney Kupets Carter, a former gymnast for the team who is at the very least on the Mount Rushmore of UGA gymnasts all-time.
I remarked to someone last week when I first heard the rumor that I thought it’d be unlikely. After all, she’s only been coaching club gym for a short period of time. No high level club gym or NCAA coaching experience on the resume. It’s hard, and in my opinion a bit unfair, to ask someone to take on the highest level of job responsibility in most professions, not just coaching, without some apprenticeship. Even she remarked in the press conference, “It’s more than anything I [have] ever done…”
Furthermore, she’s no lower than the #3 SEC Network analyst for gymnastics behind the venerable Kathy Johnson-Clarke and Bart Conner. As Bomani Jones is apt tell you, TV is what you can call a “good a** job” — you don’t just give one up. Why take on the pressure cooker that is the UGA gymnastics head coaching position at this point in time?
Taking the announcement at face value: Yes, she is amazing with conveying the technical aspects of gym and her passion for the sport really shows. But analysis from the booth doesn’t automatically translate to coaching smoothly (see: Barry Melrose of ESPN’s hockey coverage).
It didn’t take long for people (myself included) to start thinking that the hire felt “figurehead-y,” particularly after Courtney herself announced that Suzanne Yoculan Leeburn (you know, the queen of gymnastics in Athens) would be the volunteer coach. The only member of the new coaching staff “hired” thus far.
With a “green” head coach and a volunteer coach who happens to have a statue of herself in front of where the team competes, it’s not hard to understand why people are asking “who’s really in charge here?” Though the question (and possibly the answer) in many respects is unfair to Courtney and her new title.
However, the questions aren’t shocking. Suzanne is UGA gymnastics. And considering how close they are it’s not surprising that Courtney reached out to Suzanne in this venture (I mean, for illustration, Suzanne was holding Courtney’s daughter during a meet Courtney was commentating this past season). It’s likely, no matter who is hired to complete the coaching staff, that Suzanne will be the one taking over the reins temporarily when Courtney gives birth to her second child later this year. Add in Suzanne’s magnetic and room dominating personality, and there’s no wonder the “puppet or master” questions started coming. Did UGA re-hire Suzanne without re-hiring Suzanne, so-to-speak?
For context, it’s important for Georgia to get an image and morale boost right now. The team by its standards hasn’t been the same since Suzanne retired. Having a head coach in a former team standout who personifies the best the program has to offer was obviously extremely attractive to the heads of the athletic department as they try to right the ship and stay competitive in the recruiting race. But there’s a nagging feeling that bringing in a rookie coach and having the standard-bearer thisclose in proximity may not be the right move.
The bottom line is this: I want Courtney to do well as UGA head coach, but I (and many others from what I’ve seen) can’t help thinking about the unknowns surrounding the hire.