Yoculan: Rivalries and comebacks

ESPN Films

SEC Storied: "Sarah & Suzanne" airs Wednesday, April 30 at 7 p.m. ET on ESPNU.


Suzanne Yoculan led the Georgia gymnastics team to 10 NCAA championships during her 26 years at the helm of the program, including five straight titles before she retired in 2009. Her coaching career -- and her often-contentious relationship with Alabama head coach Sarah Patterson -- are legendary, and the subject of ESPN Films' SEC Storied documentary, "Sarah & Suzanne." We talked to the controversial coach about her career, her uneasy retirement and Georgia's recent slide down the NCAA rankings.

What word would you use to describe the rivalry between you and Sarah Patterson?

I would say competitive. We both measured ourselves against each other and we both wanted to be first. Always. In everything. We had fireworks at our home meet and I remember Sarah saying that they would have had them two years ago but the fire marshal wouldn't let them. When I first saw Alabama's amazing media guides, I remember saying, "Look at this! How can we do this? We only have 30 pages and they have 128!"

We had recruiting wars over gymnasts, and even [competed over] our salaries. I had it in my contract that I would be the highest-paid gymnastics coach in the country. So if Alabama won and she got a raise, it automatically bumped me up. I thought it was smart, but in the last five years I coached, they never beat us at championships, and I never got raises!

The rivalry was not as much about the competition, because if you look at the record, we really did beat them a lot more than we lost to them. The rivalry was about the whole program. Some people thought we did it all on purpose, like we plotted to build attendance at meets by doing things to each other to rile up the fans. But I'm not that clever.

Was there a moment that defined your rivalry?

Well, probably the time that I said, "Winners make adjustments, and losers make excuses." I actually thought it was kind of witty and funny at the time. It was a meet in the mid-'90s, and Alabama was complaining that we didn't have the newest set of uneven bars out on the floor. So when the media asked me what I thought at the post-meet news conference, I just blurted out that quote I'd read in a motivational book.

It took on a life of its own. A year later when we were headed to Alabama for a competition, the headline in the newspaper there said. "Yoculan Calls Patterson a Loser" and I had no idea what they were talking about. It turns out, they were referring to that quote from the year before! I would never ever call her that. It did generate a lot of fan interest, that's for sure.

How has your relationship changed now that you've retired?

Now we'll go out and have a glass of wine and talk about her program and our kids -- something we'd never do when we were both coaching. I actually know her much more on a personal level now than when I was coaching, and I'm able to see what a phenomenal job she's done. In 2012 she coached her team to an NCAA title, ending on beam and averaging a 9.9. That's one of the best coaching jobs I've ever seen. We'll text each other, and we're Facebook friends now.

Georgia was the top team in the country for the last five seasons that you coached, but hasn't placed higher than fifth since you retired. Jay Clark, your former assistant, resigned as head coach after three seasons, and now Danna Durante is in her second season in that role. What does it feel like watching all this turmoil from afar?

It's been really, really hard. We'd had continued, ongoing success. In 2009, we were the only team in the country to have made the Super Six team final every single year. Then the next year, Georgia didn't even make it to nationals. It spiraled from there and it hurt the program because it was a new coach. Recruiting against Georgia became easy.

But I believe in Jay -- he was my assistant coach for 17 years and it was the reason I wanted him to be the head coach at Georgia. Seeing him be unsuccessful as a head coach and seeing what it did to him was devastating. Having no involvement in the program and watching all that happen...I don't even really know how to explain it. I missed it and felt devastated by the turn of events.

Have you ever thought about coming out of retirement?

I actually have. I might. Just because I really believed in our philosophy and how we did things at Georgia during that last decade of my coaching career. All the girls graduated, no one transferred to another school. I really believe a head coach's job is to have their athletes reach their full potential -- athletically, academically and in life after the sport.

I know this sounds overconfident, but I honestly think I could teach a soccer team or a tennis team or a volleyball team, and not know anything about their sport, and be successful. Because once you get to college it's not as much technique in gymnastics. Your body is fried, and it's mostly a mental game and strategy. And the coaches that get that are the ones that are most successful in our sport. So I'd love to do it again.

Would you try to go back to Georgia?

Well, no. No, no, no. But I do enjoy teaching, and would love to do that again somewhere.

What did you think about this year's tie between Oklahoma and Florida for the NCAA title?

Oklahoma coach K.J. Kindler is by far one of the best coaches in the country. She can stay the course and I love the way that she works. I loved to see her win. And I was so excited for Florida, because winning back-to-back championships is much harder than winning one on its own. The way that the Florida gymnasts performed that day was an unbelievable feat.

It could have been Oklahoma, Florida, Alabama or LSU that won -- all four of them were in the mix. I was surprised that Alabama had two falls on the last event, but sometimes stuff happens that you can't explain. Georgia wasn't at its best. But again, they have a young coach, and it's the highest finish Georgia has had since 2009.

What does Georgia needs to do to get back on top?

I think they're on the right track. They need to work on their mental game. This year they'd have a good competition, then a bad one, then another good one. Consistently having good meets comes from mental training.

That starts with the coach and that takes experience. Danna is a very young, inexperienced coach, and being a head coach at other programs versus being a head coach at Georgia is very different. You now have 10,000 fans who are used to winning and you have an administration that expects the same thing. I think she's doing everything right; part of it is just experience. My first 10 to 15 years on the job were certainly all about growth and learning.

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