When Jessie DeZiel got the call from the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire informing her that she’d been selected as the next women’s gymnastics head coach, she was excited. Eau Claire is near her hometown in Minnesota, and her sister Brittany competed for Eau Claire’s WIAC conference-mate UW-Stout. DeZiel remembers watching Brittany compete.
“The atmosphere at Division III is so much fun,” she said.
The first person she called to share the news, even before her parents, was her mentor, former University of Nebraska head coach Dan Kendig. Kendig had given her a glowing recommendation for the job, one that Eau Claire Athletic Director Dan Schumacher says helped put DeZiel over the top among a large pool of candidates.
Schumacher and DeZiel share some big, long-term goals for the gymnastics team. Both come from Division I athletics and believe in elevating the program beyond what may be seen as typical for a DIII school.
Beyond the many recommendations Schumacher received on DeZiel’s behalf, her resume speaks for itself: two-time level 10 national champion, U.S. Senior National Team member, Pan American Games team gold medalist, five-time NCAA All-American and coaching experience at Nebraska, Illinois and Ball State. She also serves as the USA Gymnastics athlete representative and was a member of the Tokyo Olympics selection committee.
Schumacher refers to those accolades as DeZiel’s “street credibility”—he comes from the Southside of Chicago and so affably noted that he still uses that phrase—and pointed out that team members already knew her name before she was hired.
During her interview, Schumacher brought DeZiel into the training facility. Two team members were working out independently. When they saw DeZiel they were, “jumping-up-and-down excited.” One of the gymnasts even wrote a high school paper on DeZiel.
Schumacher is proud of the fact that he fought for the head coaching position to be full time, something relatively unique among peer institutions and a reason he believes he had so many qualified applicants. He estimates that about half of Division III head gymnastics coaching roles are part-time, and those that are full-time often include other administrative duties in the department. Not so at Eau Claire, where DeZiel’s full-time focus will be her team.
“She’s being paid to be a head coach only,” Schumacher said.
Schumacher isn’t worried about the fact that DeZiel has no head coaching experience; in fact, he sees it as a positive. He says he passed up on a few other applicants who had prior head coaching experience, preferring to hire young assistant coaches to head coaching roles because they’re hungry and bring energy.
DeZiel certainly brings that energy. She was thrown into the job with little time to prepare before the start of official practices, and appreciates the opportunity to learn on her feet.
Everything about DeZiel’s transition to Eau Claire was quick. Her hiring was announced on Sept. 2, the same day classes began. She quickly packed up some clothes, moved into furnished housing provided by the university and got to work.
“I like being busy, so it was a good busy,” DeZiel said of the transition. She hit the ground running, getting to know her 23-member team, sorting out when to start official practices and jumping into recruiting for the class of 2022.
“The first day there was so much energy in the gym,” she said. Official practices started at the beginning of October, and in just two weeks the team has made improvements. DeZiel said the first practice was rough; everyone was settling in.
“The first day, it was a lot for some of them and they struggled, but seeing them a whole week later, it was a lot easier this Sunday than it was in the past.”
DeZiel had to adjust to a new division, too, not just a new campus. Though she says things aren’t all that different, she did have to make one big shift in her planning. In Division III, academics truly come first, and sometimes student-athletes miss practice.
She pointed out that in Division I, academics nominally are the top priority, but there’s a lot of wiggle room, with multiple sessions of classes or ways to adjust a student-athlete’s academic schedule to fit around practices. In Division III, if a student-athlete has to take a class that conflicts with practices, that student-athlete simply misses practice, something it took DeZiel time to wrap her head around.
“At first, when [gymnasts] said ‘I can’t make practice Monday,’ I was like, ‘What?!’”
The Blugolds train at the local YMCA and have specific blocks of time when they’re permitted to be in the facility, so DeZiel doesn’t have a lot of flexibility with her practice schedule. That means she has to be creative with her assignments, working with each gymnast individually to maximize their practice time. That’s easier with event specialists but is hard to juggle with all arounders who need training time on all four pieces.
“We have to prioritize, what events should we get done today? What events are your best and how can we make them better? And then we’ll look forward to the next day of practice,” she said.
There have been some differences in recruiting, too. Division I recruits early, whereas DeZiel is talking to current high school seniors about the 2023 season.
“Recruiting is one of my favorite things to do. It’s the future of the program,” she said. There are a lot of class of 2022 gymnasts yet to commit, and DeZiel is enjoying talking to them about Eau Claire. She wants to build a strong incoming class and pointed out that some gymnasts possibly capable of obtaining a scholarship elsewhere may choose to come to Eau Claire for a specific academic program.
Eau Claire’s academics are something that Shumacher is proud of, and something he believes brings in high quality recruits across the athletic department. It is a research institution, in the process of adding a medical school and is one of only three University of Wisconsin system schools that isn’t open enrollment for Wisconsin residents. That means that there are standardized test scores, GPA and graduation requirements to be accepted.
Schumacher appreciates the commitment to academics, noting that he spends almost no time dealing with academic eligibility issues, something that is a much bigger problem in the other divisions.
“I [focus] 95% of my time on getting us better athletically, getting better facilities, raising more revenue and money. I don’t have to worry about academics,“ he said, because the students, athlete or not, are already strong academically when they enroll at Eau Claire.
Schumacher and DeZiel have big plans. Schumacher has spent his time at Eau Claire working to elevate expectations, improve facilities and convince the community that having an academic focus doesn’t mean your athletics teams can’t win.
When he experienced pushback to his efforts, he pointed out that Stanford, an academic powerhouse, won the Director’s Cup 25 years in a row. That’s because Stanford has a well-rounded athletic department, “not just an Alabama football team,” he said.
The Cardinal might not have won football or men’s basketball championships, but it won copiously in Olympic sports. Schumacher is looking to that model.
“You can win with smart kids,” he said.
It’s obvious that Schumacher is trying to build a winning department. He has added three new programs in the last two years, plus the football, track and soccer stadium is undergoing a multi-phase renovation.
He’s realistic about the 2021 gymnastics season, though; he wants to see the team win a meet or two. DeZiel is optimistic as well. Her goal is to have her gymnasts do in competition what they do in practice. Go up and hit six beam routines, go up and hit six bar routines. Be confident. The wins will follow.
Long term, though, both have their sights set high. Schumacher says that in years three or four of a coach’s tenure, his expectations go up. For DeZiel?
“I want to win a national championship.”
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