By John Rohde
Seems like everybody inside state lines knows Oklahoma football has won seven national championships, and most can recite the season each occurred – 1950, 1955, 1956, 1974, 1975, 1985 and 2000.
Nary a soul is aware OU men’s gymnastics has one more national crown than football – 1977, 1978, 1991, 2002, 2003, 2005, 2006 and 2008.
Sooners coach Mark Williams arrived on campus in 1988, first serving as an assistant for 12 seasons under coach Greg Buwick before taking the reins in 2000. With Williams in command, OU gymnasts have placed in the top three nationally every year except his first season, when they placed fourth.
Since the school last won a football national championship, its men’s gymnastics team has won five NCAA titles, placed second seven times and finished third twice under Williams.
The top-ranked Sooners already have served notice this season, dominating two-time defending national champion Michigan in a Feb. 14 meet during which OU shattered the NCAA all-time team record with a score of 456.400 to thrash the Wolverines (439.600) by 16.800 points. The Sooners obliterated the previous NCAA team record of 447.850 owned by Penn State.
“While it was happening, I wasn’t jumping up and down like our guys were,” Williams recalled of the record-setting night. “I watch the video and (assistant coach) Guard Young is in the background jumping up and down. I’m like, ‘Hey, I know we’re ahead by 12 points or something, but we’re not done.’
“Then I looked at the team score and said, ‘Uh, guys. Did you see our score?’ We were kind of giggling because got some (friendly) scores to get that total, but we were awesome. The Michigan coach (Kurt Golder) even acknowledged we were ready for them. We went home, enjoyed the telecast of it and thought, ‘Wow, we own the NCAA record. That’s awesome. That’s pretty cool.’ ”
"We might not always have the most talented team, but what he does is maximize everyone’s potential. It’s his philosophy."
Assistant Coach Guard Young
Senior Alec Robin said he did his best not to get caught up in the moment during the meet itself. “We’re always told not to worry about the score, just to focus on what we’re doing and that’s exactly what the feeling was,” Robin said. “But we were just so excited about what was happening. We’re sticking landing after landing, particularly the high bar, which was the last event. It was amazing. You could see the reaction on the videos. We were just so excited.”
And then just two weeks later the Sooners did the unthinkable and reset the record in a matchup against No. 2 Illinois, the nation’s only other unbeaten team. The Sooners performed nearly flawless and posted a score of 457.300.
During its dominating win over No. 2 Illinois at McCasland Field House, OU did the following:
- Averaged a team score of 76.217 per event. Only two scores outside of Norman of more than 76.000 have been achieved nationally this season.
- Set school records on floor exercise, pommel horse and still rings.
- 24 of OU’s 30 routines (80%) hit or surpassed the 15-point barrier.
OU men’s gymnastics has had just four coaches since its inception – Russ Porterfield (1966-73); Paul Ziert (1974-83); Buwick (1984-99) and Williams (2000-present). Two-time Olympian Bart Conner put the program on the map, leading the Sooners to back-to-back national crowns in 1977-78 while being coached by Ziert, but no coach’s success is in the same stratosphere as Williams'.
Now in his 16th season, Williams has an overall record of 387-36 (.915). In addition to the five national team titles, under Williams the Sooners have had 155 All-Americans, 28 individual national champions, 13 conference team championships, 53 individual conference titles and three Nissen Emery Award winners as the nation’s top senior gymnast with Steven Legendre in 2011, Jonathan Horton in 2008 and Daniel Furney in 2003. OU has had at least eight All-Americans (finishing in the top eight nationally) every season since 2001.
Williams personally has won nine NCAA team titles – six with the Sooners (one as an assistant in 1991) and three straight (1979-81) as an athlete and assistant coach with the Nebraska Cornhuskers. “I’m trying to win one for the (second) thumb at this point,” joked Williams, who also is five-time NCAA national coach of the year.
There is no “off-season” for Williams, who goes global to coach his gymnasts internationally when school is not in session.
“I don’t think there is a way to separate those two,” Williams said of collegiate and international coaching. “My wife (Susan) and I have had that conversation many times. We’re trying to sell potential. If you’re a college coach and you’re just going to coach the college season, (your gymnast is) not going to be able to make World and Olympic teams. You can’t work on it for seven months, then go away for the summer and just expect it to happen.”
Williams has placed at least one gymnast on the Olympic or World University team every year since Young started the streak in 2001. “Think about what that entails,” Young said of Williams’ duties as a personal coach. “He’s doing this in the off-season, while he’s recruiting and while he’s getting an NCAA team ready for the upcoming season. That speaks of his stamina. His stamina is just phenomenal. He’s still young at heart. The schedule we keep is really grueling (with 6 a.m. practices).”
The 56-year-old Williams sometimes flaunts his fitness by running alongside his team whenever it is being disciplined with long runs, sprints or running the stadium steps at Owen Field.
Most recently, Williams guided the U.S. Men’s National Team to a bronze medal at the 2014 World Championships in Nanning, China, on a squad that included former Sooners Jake Dalton and Alex Naddour.
At one time or another, Williams seemingly has served on every committee for every gymnastics association imaginable. In August, he will be inducted into the USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame. “I’m fortunate to have had a lot of terrific athletes who made me look good and helped me accomplish some things,” Williams said.
What makes Williams so consistently successful to have finished in the Top 3 at the NCAA Championships for 14 straight seasons?
Young was a 12-year-old club gymnast when he started working with Williams, who has gone from being Young’s teacher, to coach, to boss. Perhaps no gymnast knows Williams better than Young, a member of the silver medalist team in the 2004 Olympics, a six-time All-American and a two-time NCAA vault champion at Brigham Young.
“The main thing I’ve learned from Mark is that even though this is an individual sport, if it’s team-oriented, team-focused and team-driven it will lead to individual accolades and everything else,” said Young, in his 10th season as an OU assistant coach. “We might not always have the most talented team, but what he does is maximize everyone’s potential. It’s his philosophy. ‘You might not be the best on the floor, but we’re going to get you to be your best on the floor.’ ”
Dalton said it’s all in the timing. “The best thing about Mark is his planning,” Dalton said. “He gets his team ready when it really, really counts. He’s always thinking toward the NCAAs. They’re one of the most consistent teams out there, and that’s because of the planning and training.”
When recruiting, Williams said he doesn’t automatically go after the premier prospect. He chooses his recruits carefully. “Some guys know this is a good place for them,” Williams said. “Other times, there are guys who are really talented, but maybe don’t have the work ethic that I expect. I’ll kind of back off them and not make an offer just because I don’t think it’s going to be a great fit for us. A lot of kids understand that coming in and they don’t want to come.”
Williams then formulates a plan to somehow spread his 6.3 allotted scholarships among 18 roster members.
Having one of the nation’s premier college facilities also has helped OU’s cause. The Sam Viersen Gymnastics Center, which houses both the men’s and women’s programs, is one of only a handful of freestanding, co-ed college gyms in the country. In Dalton’s freshman season, a 7,000-square-foot addition and complete overhaul of the existing facility were completed in the spring of 2010.
“I don’t think there’s a better place to train than OU, with the facility and then you’ve got some great coaches,” Dalton said. “Overall, it’s just a great place to be. That’s why we all stay so attached to the program.”
In search of the program’s ninth NCAA team crown overall, OU’s roster this year is loaded with six returning All-Americans, two returning national champions in Robin (vault and floor exercise) and Michael Squires (still rings) and seven seniors chomping at the bit for their first national team title.
“When I look back and how close we were to winning, it’s so irritating,” Robin said. “When you finish second, you have to start the process all over again to become the best. With so many seniors on our team, we know how the system works and we’ve pretty much perfected it. You can see it in how much more well-conditioned we’ve been than other teams, how much better our lines are, how confident we all are.”
"The best thing about Mark is his planning. He gets his team ready when it really, really counts. He’s always thinking toward the NCAAs." It’s his philosophy."
Former Sooner Jake Dalton
High bar is the apparatus where championships often are won or lost. The event has been OU’s kryptonite since Dalton’s departure three seasons ago, but high bar could be what lifts the Sooners to the top spot this year. “We’ve figured it out, finally,’ Robin said with a chuckle.
OU had a championship-caliber team last year, but placed second at the NCAA Championships for the fourth straight season. “Last year, we made some mistakes,” Young admitted. “We let that one get away from us, but at the same time I think that was a big motivating factor last summer for this season. We’re a little hungrier this year. When Michigan came here (Feb. 14), I’m not going to lie, we really wanted to beat them bad.”
Dalton won four NCAA individual titles (vault and floor exercise in 2011; parallel bars and all-around in 2012), but never won a team title.
“It’s definitely a little aggravating when you’ve come so close to winning that national (team) title,” Dalton said. “You still feel so far away after getting second, so I would think that’s definitely a frustration for all those seniors there now.”
At this year’s NCAA Championships, the Sooners will have the advantage of performing at home, just as the Michigan men did last season in the championship meet. This year’s NCAA Championships will be held April 9-11 at Lloyd Noble Center.
Young would appear to be a prime candidate to take the reins whenever Williams leaves as OU’s coach. There’s no telling when that day might come for Williams, who remains as driven as ever in his quest for more titles.
“Hey, Mark,” Young shouted across the room at Williams. “You ever going to step down?”
Williams answered no.
“I think they’re going to bury him in the gym,” Young said.
Under which apparatus? Williams thought for a couple of seconds, then relayed his answer.
“They’re going to bury him under the high bar,” Young said.
Makes sense, because it’s on high bar when championships often go to die.
|About John Rohde|
|John Rohde is a respected name on the Oklahoma sports scene and will provide regular features for SoonerSports.com. Voted Oklahoma Sportswriter of the Year five times, Rohde has covered OU football and basketball, the Oklahoma City Thunder, OKC/New Orleans Hornets, Dallas Cowboys, Texas Rangers, the Final Four, Masters and PGA Tour. He spent over 26 years for The Oklahoman, serving as a columnist and beat writer. He can be heard on 107.7 The Franchise, the flagship station for OU Athletics weekdays from 5:30-9 a.m.|