Greg Marsden has built a gold-star women’s gymnastics program one vault (and flip, twist, and split) at a time.

By John Youngren




Greg Marsden’s plan was simple. He was 24 years old and had just lined up a graduate teaching gig at the University of Utah—something about starting a women’s gymnastics team at the school.

The way Marsden ex’78 figured it, he’d 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 guy’s built an empire—whether he meant to or not.

And, 27 years later, Marsden says he’s still pretty “demanding and passionate about what I do.” He should be. Marsden’s talent, persistence, loyalty, and vision put Utah gymnastics on the map—a map he himself drew.

From his humble early days, when the Utes had to beg, borrow, and steal for practice facilities, equipment, and attention, Marsden had a vision for Utah’s gymnastics program and an enthusiasm for possibilities that became infectious. Though he basically had to teach himself to coach women’s 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 1981—Utah’s last season in the old AIAW (Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women)—that Marsden’s 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 excellence—and sky-high expectations—that continue to pace the program even 20 years later.

“Greg was an innovator,” says Peter Behle BS’86, 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 had been.

“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 Marsden’s position might have thought about moving on—and the Utah coach did flirt with a few options, including a run as U.S. National Women’s program administrator and U.S.A. National Women’s 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 gymnast—the former Megan McCunniff BS’84, a two-time NCAA all-around champion and the spark plug of Marsden’s early ’80s teams—and 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 to us.”

It’s 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, it’s hard not to get attached,” Marsden says. “We’re with our gymnasts nearly every single day. We’re family.” (A family, by the way, that even includes the gym dog—the 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 didn’t win. And even though Marsden hasn’t had a national title since the ’95 squad, his Utes are always in the neighborhood. Utah is the only women’s gymnastics team in the country to qualify for all 20 NCAA Championships.

But Marsden’s approach has changed a bit, too.

“I’ve 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 U’s HPER complex. These days, the Utes call the beautiful Dumke Gymnastics Center home. The 18,000-square-foot center offers gymnastics for the 21st century—with 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 donors—for 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, they’re facing a tough schedule and schools that become more competitive by the year.

Still, Marsden’s 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 says.

“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 team’s 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 BS’96 MS’97 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 for days.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the Utes also drew an average of 13,164 fans to each home meet that season—a 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 weren’t used to seeing an athlete on a billboard in a leotard.”

Interestingly, copies of that old Trepanier poster are impossible to find—a framed, autographed edition was a hot item during the silent auction at a fall 2001 Crimson Club fund-raising event. Marsden’s 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-dazzle—fireworks, highlight videos, spotlights, loud music—when they take the Huntsman Center floor.

Is it effective? The Utes haven’t lost a regular season meet in the Huntsman Center in 22 years (yes, a record—for any NCAA sport).

That, too, is part of the Marsden legacy. He’s the only 700-win coach in women’s gymnastics history (with a career record of 743-113-5), and he’s been named national coach of the year seven times. He’s 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 year’s Utes finished second in the national academic standings with a 3.6292 cumulative GPA.

“To say that Greg has done a phenomenal job as the gym-nastics coach at the U is a vast understatement,” says Chris Hill MEd’74 PhD’82, Utah’s athletic director. “He’s 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. “Let’s just say I’ve got two kids who are going to have to go to college, so I’m 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 BA’88 works in advertising for Love Communications. He last wrote about sports clubs for the Fall 2001Continuum.