Marsden has built a gold-star womens gymnastics program one vault
(and flip, twist, and split) at a time.
Greg Marsdens plan was
simple. He was 24 years old and had just lined up a graduate teaching
gig at the University of Utahsomething about starting a womens
gymnastics team at the school.
The way Marsden ex78 figured it, hed coach at the U for two
or three years, help pay for graduate school, and then move on. I
had no intention of making a career of coaching, he says now.
Thing is, he says this 27 years, 10 national championships, and 743 wins
after he took that coaching gig. The guys built an empirewhether
he meant to or not.
And, 27 years later, Marsden
says hes still pretty demanding and passionate about what
I do. He should be. Marsdens talent, persistence, loyalty,
and vision put Utah gymnastics on the mapa map he himself drew.
humble early days, when the Utes had to beg, borrow, and steal for practice
facilities, equipment, and attention, Marsden had a vision for Utahs
gymnastics program and an enthusiasm for possibilities that became infectious.
Though he basically had to teach himself to coach womens gymnastics,
he brought a kind of brash intensity and competitive flair to the sport
from the beginning. His first team in 1976 may have been mediocre, but
by his second year the Utes were 10-2-1.
First-place finishes became common by the early 80s, but it was
in 1981Utahs last season in the old AIAW (Association of Intercollegiate
Athletics for Women)that Marsdens legend began to take shape.
It was then that his 26-2 Utes pulled off the first of what would turn
out to be six straight national championships, forging a reputation for
excellenceand sky-high expectationsthat continue to pace the
program even 20 years later.
Greg was an innovator, says Peter Behle BS86, a former
Daily Utah Chronicle editor who covered the Utes in the early championship
years. He demanded total focus when it was time for gymnastics.
Those early teams laid the foundation, Marsden says.
In fact, Utah fans had grown so used to NCAA Championship banners flapping
around during home meets that a second-place 1987 national finish after
six straight titles suddenly illustrated how special those earlier Utes
We learned never to take the national titles for granted,
Marsden says. The 87 season was, by the way, about a decade after
Marsden had unceremoniously launched his coaching career. Others in Marsdens
position might have thought about moving onand the Utah coach did
flirt with a few options, including a run as U.S. National Womens
program administrator and U.S.A. National Womens Team coach. He
even led the national team to a gold medal at the 1987 Pan American Games.
Parlaying his name, success, and experience into opportunities at larger
schools could surely have been in the cards for Marsden, who by then had
married a Utah gymnastthe former Megan McCunniff BS84, a two-time
NCAA all-around champion and the spark plug of Marsdens early 80s
teamsand was starting a family. But he kept going at Utah, coaching
the Utes even while taking on some high-profile moonlighting opportunities.
I loved it here, Marsden says of both Utah the school and
Utah the state. I still do. Megan feels the same way. This is home
Its no secret that Greg and Megan, who has been a Utah assistant
coach for 18 years, make their teams an extension of their family (they
have two young sons, Montana and Dakota). They and their chief assistant,
Aki Hummel, bring a kind of comfortable enthusiasm to their program. Megan
sends e-mails and updates to former gymnasts around the world, and most
of the alumni stay in touch, too.
When you spend so much time with someone over the course of their
collegiate career, its hard not to get attached, Marsden says.
Were with our gymnasts nearly every single day. Were
family. (A family, by the way, that even includes the gym dogthe
third in the past 20-plus years.)
After the 87 stumble,
Marsden had his family back in the national championship circle by 1990,
when the team went 18-1. They did it again in 92, 94, and
95, and flirted with it every time they didnt win. And even
though Marsden hasnt had a national title since the 95 squad,
his Utes are always in the neighborhood. Utah is the only womens
gymnastics team in the country to qualify for all 20 NCAA Championships.
But Marsdens approach has changed a bit, too.
Ive mellowed over the years, he says. My athletes
may not agree with that, but I know. Getting older and having my own family
gives me perspective on things.
Still, his empire continues to grow, whatever his perspective. For years,
the gymnastics team trained in a rather nondescript gymnasium in the Us
HPER complex. These days, the Utes call the beautiful Dumke Gymnastics
Center home. The 18,000-square-foot center offers gymnastics for the 21st
centurywith aerobic facilities, lockers, and weight training space,
as well as the latest models of gymnastics equipment and matting, loose
foam and port-o-pits for each apparatus area, and specially designed sound,
lighting, and ventilation systems.
The support we get in
this community is incredible. The Dumkes and others have really stepped
up for us, Marsden says, adding that all 12 of the Utes scholarships
are made possible by donorsfor the fourth year in a row.
This season, as usual, he expects his Utes to be vying for a title, if
he can keep them healthy. Though the 2002 Utes are stronger and deeper
than they have been in recent years, theyre facing a tough schedule
and schools that become more competitive by the year.
Still, Marsdens teams remain popular with the fans, especially at
home, where the Utes have averaged 10,627 fans a meet in the last decade.
And, of course, a large part of that continued success comes from Marsden,
a savvy marketer who works on selling his team nearly as hard as he does
coaching it. When we began the program, it was obvious to me that
our opportunity for ultimate success was going to be tied to our attendance,
He is the
mastermind behind the promotion of his team, says Liz Abel, assistant
athletic director/sports information, who has worked with Marsden for
20 years. He has his hand in everything, from marketing to scheduling,
from overseeing every detail of the construction of his new practice facility
to designing the teams leotards.
Ah, yes. The leotards. Marsden smiles when he recalls one of the great
Wasatch Front debates of the early 90s: the now infamous pose that
former Utah great Aimee Trepanier BS96 MS97 struck on local
billboards and posters promoting the team. The dynamic, sexy look created
mass attention and great controversy, filling letters-to-the-editor columns
Perhaps not coincidentally, the Utes also drew an average of 13,164 fans
to each home meet that seasona national best.
We were simply trying to create interest. Our intent has never been
to offend, Marsden says now. Our athletes are strong, athletic,
intelligent young women. Still, a lot of people werent used to seeing
an athlete on a billboard in a leotard.
Interestingly, copies of that old Trepanier poster are impossible to finda
framed, autographed edition was a hot item during the silent auction at
a fall 2001 Crimson Club fund-raising event. Marsdens aggressive
attitude continues to influence gymnastics marketing nearly a decade later.
He never stops looking for new, better ways to do things, and he
never runs out of energy when he comes across an idea he likes,
Abel says. One of the reasons Greg has been so successful for so
long is his ability to stay ahead of the game.
Besides (or maybe because of) his competitive flair, Marsden also packages
his Utes for even the casual fan, taking his cue from the NBA, rock music,
and other avenues of popular culture. The Utes traditionally are introduced
with great fanfare, and have regularly incorporated all manner of razzle-dazzlefireworks,
highlight videos, spotlights, loud musicwhen they take the Huntsman
Is it effective? The Utes havent lost a regular season meet in the
Huntsman Center in 22 years (yes, a recordfor any NCAA sport).
That, too, is part of the Marsden legacy. Hes the only 700-win coach
in womens gymnastics history (with a career record of 743-113-5),
and hes been named national coach of the year seven times. Hes
coached 214 All-Americans in his 27 years, and his teams are as formidable
from an academic standpoint as they are in the gym: last years Utes
finished second in the national academic standings with a 3.6292 cumulative
To say that Greg has done a phenomenal job as the gym-nastics coach
at the U is a vast understatement, says Chris Hill MEd74 PhD82,
Utahs athletic director. Hes just committed to doing
an excellent job, in every facet of coaching.
And he has committed to that excellent job for a number of years to come.
Lets just say Ive got two kids who are going to have
to go to college, so Im not going anywhere soon, Marsden says.
I still enjoy coaching tremendously. The most rewarding part of
my day is still when I go into the gym at 1 p.m.
And he laughs when he considers the Marsden legacy: What a lucky
guy, he says, mocking himself.
Luck? Maybe. Then again, maybe it was all part of the plan.
John Youngren BA88
works in advertising for Love Communications. He last wrote about sports
clubs for the Fall 2001Continuum.