The Yankee Who Saved Georgia Gymnastics

ATHENS, Ga. — Suzanne Yoculan felt cheated. She had a prime opportunity to escape
from the strenuous demands of coaching club gymnastics. She was ready to begin a college coaching career at Nebraska, but she was passed over for a coach who had previous experience at Georgia.
Yoculan returned to the routine of training elite gymnasts at Woodward Camp in
Pennsylvania ahead of the 1984 Olympic Games. Meanwhile, fellow club coach Ed Isabell thought Nebraska’s loss could be Georgia’s gain. Without Yoculan knowing, he shipped her resume and cover letter down south to Athens.
A few days later, Liz Murphey, Georgia’s assistant athletic director for women’s sports,
called Yoculan.
“‘I’m not interested in that job,’” Yoculan told Murphey. “‘I’m not interested in peanuts, Jimmy Carter or Confederate flags.’ I saw Georgia as the state you went through to go to Florida.”
Georgia needed a coach because its gymnastics program was on the verge of becoming
defunct. Gender-equality mandates created by Title IX were the only reason it had a pulse, Yoculan said. Murphey was persistent, so Yoculan made the trip and found the match that would lead to the most-decorated era in program history.
Throughout her 26-year coaching career, Yoculan collected 10 NCAA national
championships, five consecutive from 2005-09.
“Suzanne was one of those transformational coaches, and I don’t know whether that’ll be done again,” current Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity said. “Those are once-in-a-lifetime coaches who do that over time.”
Yoculan saw Athens as “home,” modeling her alma mater of Penn State with a small
downtown area and a tight-knit community.
She wasn’t the best college gymnast, she said, although that’s not evident from her
coaching career. Similarly, Georgia was far from prosperous at the time she took over, but a chance to build the program from its foundation appealed to Yoculan. She also had control, and a lot of it.
“(Former Georgia athletic director Vince) Dooley wasn’t too excited about me being
there or about gymnastics,” Yoculan said. “He sort of gave me a free rein to do what I wanted. I walked into the coliseum for the first time and envisioned us filling the arena. Everybody else thought I was half crazy, but I had to chip away at the vision.”
Thirty-six years later, the “GymDogs” often do fill Stegeman Coliseum as Georgia’s
second-most popular team behind football, and Yoculan’s name is written in university lore. It’s hard to meander through the coliseum without seeing her accomplishments in the display cases.
Yoculan’s path to escalate Georgia gymnastics into the dynasty it has become, however, was far more tedious than noticed by the public eye.
Her team distributed fliers throughout campus parking lots to publicize meets. She once had to pull out gymnastics mats to intervene with Hugh Durham’s men’s basketball practice on the Stegeman floor because a meet was set to begin in a few hours. The administration gave her little help, Yoculan said, because gymnastics was ranked fifth – behind men’s and women’s basketballs games and practices – on the coliseum’s priority list in the university handbook.
It became more than gymnastics for Yoculan. She became a trailblazer for women’s
sports. It wasn’t easy for a self-described, determined “Yankee” to endear herself to the South and have everything go her way. Fixing those inequalities, she said, made it worth it.
“She created the program, so there are so many things I took from her,” said current
Georgia head coach Courtney Kupets Carter, who competed for Yoculan from 2006-09. “She never quits, has a strong mentality and always wants to push for more. That has been the biggest thing that I’ve taken from her.”
Yoculan won at least one national title in each decade of her career. But her mostmemorable reward was the ascent in the mid-to-late 2000s. The competition for the national title was between Georgia and everybody else. Recruits lined up to be GymDogs. The team hoisted championship trophies year after year. Fans had a front-row seat to watch Kupets Carter — who could be considered the greatest college gymnast with nine individual NCAA titles as a 15-time All-American.
“It was almost magical and surreal,” Yoculan said. “I had people I believed in and the
team responded to my system. We had a culture that ran itself with a highly-disciplined group of girls.”
In the years after her retirement in 2009, the results weren’t the same. Yoculan (now
Yoculan Leebern) felt a need to return in 2017 as a volunteer assistant coach, when her former star athlete took the reins as Georgia’s head coach. A dynamic duo returned, and Yoculan’s legacy continues.
“We saw her walk in and we were all scared of her,” Georgia gymnast Sydney Snead
said. “I thought I was going to pee my pants, but she’s amazing and we all got close with her – after we were terrified, of course.”
Georgia has a vision for titles yet again. The GymDogs felt the “old days” of program
success after posting their first 198 score since the last title in 2009.
Yoculan Leebern said she hopes to add another title before she calls it quits. She remains the coach others must go through to get to a national championship.
“I didn’t ever know I was going to be a coach,” Yoculan Leebern said. “When doors
open, you have to kick them in and take risks. There’s no dream too big.”