Georgia's Clark ready for first season

ATHENS – Jay Clark once escaped the madness. He retreated to his office and buried himself  in his work, spending hours on recruiting or practice planning.

There were no knocks on the door. The phone wouldn’t ring. There was nothing but him and his work and silence.

“I could get tunnel vision about whatever I had going on at the particular time and hide there and nobody really wanted to bother me or talk to me,” Clark said.

The free moments are rare these days. As the new head of Georgia’s gymnastics program, Clark says he  “keeps his head on a swivel,” balancing his new set of responsibilities with the weight of expectations in taking over a dynasty.

Georgia has won five consecutive NCAA titles – 10 in 23 years – and Clark, a longtime assistant, is determined to not only continue that dominance but build on the unprecedented success that predecessor Suzanne Yoculan experienced before retiring July 1.

Clark, 41, insists little has changed philosophically. Yoculan’s  unwavering energy, strong will and dominant personality are gone. The more mellow yet equally passionate Clark knows he can never replicate that. He’s just ready to get a look at his first team, which opens its season by hosting Stanford at 4 p.m. Saturday.

“When Suzanne was here, we put so much expectation on ourselves, that, and maybe I’m just dumb, I don’t feel any different about that,” Clark said. “Certainly expectations are high and I do recognize that on the outside looking in it must seem like, ‘Man, he’s really got a pressure-cooker on his hands.’ But we have that every year. We’ve always felt that expectation.”

Anticipation leading up to the season has been considerable for Clark, who has known since 2004 that he was being groomed to take over for Yoculan. That’s when Clark was prepared to take over the Ohio State program, going as far as contacting potential assistant coaches. Yoculan promoted him to associate head coach and made him the coach-in-waiting.

“I stayed knowing there was a possibility that it wouldn’t work out,” Clark said.

Clark didn’t become the official heir until October 2007, when Yoculan announced she would coach two more years and retire in 2009 after 26 seasons.

Yoculan always has seen something special in Clark, who she first hired in 1990 though he knew practically nothing about women’s gymnastics. The former Roswell High School football player attended Georgia with the intention of becoming a physical therapist, but made friends with a few gymnasts, set up the facilities for meets and helped out in the practice gym, spotting and moving equipment.

He became the restricted earnings coach, earning $12,000 a year. His new contract pays $130,000 a year over five years.

“The reasons I hired him 20 years ago are exactly the same things I choose him to take over when I left,” Yoculan said. “He has a passion for gymnastics, a passion for Georgia and a willingness to learn. He has a passion for the athletes and has great insight of knowing what to say and do at the right time. He has the ‘it' factor when talking and connecting with people. You can learn technique in any sport, but you can’t teach heart. He’s always had that.”

The transition has been as seamless as one of the Bulldogs’ best routines. Clark hired his wife, Julie, a former Georgia All-American and volunteer assistant, to fill his former position. Vault expert Doug McAvinn, who is in his 25th season, remains  content in his role.

Yoculan long ago turned over recruiting to Clark, who gradually will hand some of those responsibilities to his wife.

As far as working together, the Clarks insist there is no problem. They owned an Athens gym for a few years and actually will spend more time together now that Julie is involved with the program on a daily basis.

“When we owned our club gym, that’s all we knew,” she said. “What’s good and fun about it is my strengths are his weaknesses and my weaknesses are his strengths. When we come together and we’re passionate about one thing, both of us working together leaves no stones unturned. We end up balancing it out, so we have two forces going forward, or one big strong one. The partnership is fantastic.”

Spousal coaching combos have been a winning trend in collegiate gymnastics:  six of last year’s top 11 teams included married coaches on those staffs. In addition, Julie will provide a female go-between that might be missing with Yoculan no longer in charge.

“It’s awesome having both of them in the gym at the same time,” senior Courtney McCool said. “They kind of balance out. When Jay is blowing up, she’s mellow. When she’s high-pitched, he calms her down. It’s a good balance.”

Said Clark: “There’s a comfort level that can be gained by having a husband-and-wife team in place. I don’t think it’s a ploy. It’s a real deal.”

Clark left the Georgia program for two years to start Classic City Gymnastics, an absence that coincided with Julie’s final two years at Georgia. Clark returned to Georgia in the fall of 1998, after Julie’s eligibility was complete, and they were married in August 1999.

“Her brother Steve was my roommate here when I was in school and that’s where the connection was,” Clark said. “We started dating while I was gone. I was still around the program and around the gym some, but I wasn’t acting in any official capacity.”

Clark’s first team returns six All-Americans in Grace Taylor, Marcia Newby, Kat Ding, Cassidy McComb, Hilary Mauro and McCool, including former individual national champs in McCool and Taylor, and a freshman class highlighted by Shayla Worley, a member of the U.S. 2007 World Championships team.

“It’s kind of like being given the keys to a Ferrari and being told not to wreck it; you still want to drive it, though,” Clark said. “Somebody gives you a Ferrari, you’re not going to lock it up in the garage. We’re going to drive it and we’re going to drive it hard. We’re going to see how this thing will perform.”

Clark’s program likely will never completely leave Yoculan's shadow. He's  not sure if he wants that to happen. Yoculan was responsible for the team’s rise in prestige and reputation, which increased as Georgia became the dominant force in NCAA gymnastics. The Bulldogs practice in the Suzanne Yoculan Gymnastics Center, which opened in 2007 and was built on the success of the former coach.

“The tradition is not gone, but there’s a certain amount of what Suzanne was that not replaceable,” Clark said. “We’re not going to have that. We’re not going to have components that only Suzanne brought to the table. We just don’t have it. We have other things that maybe we didn’t have before. I’m not going to try to imitate Suzanne, but I do embrace everything that has gone on here."