Janelle McDonald UCLA California

CGN Roundtable: On UCLA, Janelle McDonald and Cal

What a surprising bit of news! In case you’ve been offline the past couple of days, UCLA announced Cal assistant coach Janelle McDonald would be its next head coach. McDonald led the Golden Bears to record-setting heights on her pet event, bars, and has been touted as one of the top assistant coaches in the country for the past couple of years. It was only a matter of time she made the move to lead her own program. On this week’s roundtable, we’re discussing all aspects of the hiring, from her fit at UCLA to who we think we’ll see fill her role in Berkeley.

What was your initial reaction to the news?

Elizabeth: At first I was surprised because who drops big news on a Monday night, but then I was so excited. I think this is a fantastic hire for UCLA and that McDonald is a perfect next head coach for the program that recently went through a very up and down season.

Talitha: I was delighted! When speculating with my fellow editors, I had thrown McDonald’s name into the mix, but we weren’t sure she would be the type of coach UCLA was looking for. When the announcement was made, though, it became immediately clear that she was a great choice. Suddenly, there was something so quintessentially UCLA about the way she carried herself—perhaps it was a peculiar, charming type of self-confidence. I had never noticed it before.

Emily M: I was so pleasantly surprised! McDonald was perpetually on the radar as a high-achieving assistant who seemed lined up to move to a head coaching role, but for whatever reason I hadn’t thought of her for UCLA. As soon as I saw the news, though, it all clicked. It was also just so nice to read some genuinely good gymnastics news for once.

Rebecca: Relief. I fully expected UCLA to pick someone young who didn’t have the experience to handle the demands of the job, either technically or personally. 

Brandis: Echoing my fellow editors, very pleasantly surprised at the hire! Like Talitha said, McDonald’s name had been in the conversation, but with the gymternet leaning heavily toward Jordyn Wieber I didn’t see it coming.

What is your opinion about McDonald as a coach?

Elizabeth: I think she’s great. She found a lot of success at Cal and it was only a matter of time before she led her own program—I just didn’t think it would be a program as big as UCLA. She’s ready though. UCLA hasn’t had standout bars for a few years now, but that’s going to change soon.

Talitha: Numbers clearly show that she’s one of—if not the—greatest bars coaches in the country. I had the pleasure of interviewing her and a number of Cal gymnasts last year, and the vibes they gave me were really positive. The athletes seemed genuinely enthusiastic about McDonald and her coaching style, and McDonald seemed extremely passionate about gymnastics and caring toward the gymnasts. The fact that so many Cal athletes praised her on social media after the announcement seems to confirm that she’s respected and beloved, which is amazing to see.

Emily M: Like Talitha said, numbers don’t lie. She built one of, if not the, most successful bar squads in the country. More than that, though, I love the way her former athletes talk about her. Just scroll through Cal gymnasts’ comments on Twitter. They clearly deeply respect her. I haven’t seen one negative comment, which we know is rare. Seeing comments about the energy and positivity she brings to the gym certainly makes her sound like an incredibly well-rounded coach.

Brandis: UCLA got it all right in choosing McDonald. Not only does she excel coaching the event that plagued the Bruins last season, but the attitude and demeanor she displays should be the perfect fit to help the program overcome the non-gymnastics issues we saw from UCLA last season.

How do you think she’ll fit at UCLA?

Elizabeth: I think she brings the perfect mix of passion, care and discipline to the team. She won’t let the gymnasts run the show, but she’ll also be compassionate about their needs as individuals. I noticed that almost immediately a majority of the Cal gymnasts posted on Twitter about how excited they were for her, and to me that’s very telling about the kind of person she is.

Talitha: UCLA is a team of stars, and to manage such a star-studded team you either need a coach who’s a star themselves or someone with a lower profile who can be both compassionate and firm. I think McDonald fits into the second category, and that’s what she will bring to LA: competence, empathy and firmness. Additionally, I believe that she will respect UCLA’s culture and tradition, but she will also stand by her opinions and personality. In short, this really is the beginning of a new era; it’s not a clone continuation of Miss Val’s legacy. It’s the breath of fresh air the program needs.

Emily M: Elizabeth and Talitha made good points. Outside of the gym, there’s a lot of pressure on UCLA’s coach, no matter who it is. It’s a program that not only wants to win, it wants to win in a very specific UCLA fashion. McDonald will be a breath of fresh air, and I think she has the quietly confident personality to handle the externalities. The fact that she comes from outside of the UCLA orbit also seems like a positive. She’ll bring a new perspective and force some change, which the Bruins need.

Rebecca: The best case scenario is that she’s able to become the grown up in the room for a team that has sorely lacked quality leadership. Rebuilding UCLA’s culture is a delicate task, but I think the team is really motivated to start fresh and just get to be a normal gymnastics team again. It’ll be important to be proactive about equity, but hopefully Cal prepared her for that.

Brandis: I cannot overstate how good of a hire I think this is for UCLA, so I think she’ll fit in incredibly well. Not only does she have the coaching chops and personality to succeed, but coming in as an “outsider” without any previous ties to the Bruins, she’s in a great position to build upon the traditions of the program while also creating her own legacy.

Who do you think will—or who do you want to—fill her role at Cal?

Elizabeth: Oh man. I don’t know if I necessarily have a specific name now, but I think it’ll either be a great bars coach poached from another team or another underrated coach like McDonald was when she was first hired by Cal from WOGA. Maybe Justin and Liz have another club coach up their sleeve who’s ready to make a move.

Talitha: I can’t really think of a name either… There are not many good and unemployed bar coaches right now. As Elizabeth said, Justin and Liz did a great job hiring non-NCAA coaches before, so they may be able to do it again?

Emily M: This is so tough. There’s competition, too. Arizona is also in the market for a bars coach. Rebecca pointed out that the Gymcats seem like a program that will go for a newer, younger coach, while Cal will likely look to someone more established, be it in NCAA or in the club ranks. If Alabama hadn’t picked up Gina (Logan) Quinlan from Metroplex last year, I would’ve thrown her name out there. That’s exactly the kind of hire I see Cal making here. You know…who is coaching bars over at Wildfire these days, Whitney Dames? 

Rebecca: My thought is Ivan Alexov, who coaches bars right now at Boise State. His bars rotation actually ranked higher than Cal’s in 2022, and while you never really know from the outside, he seems popular with the team. Other Bay Area bars coaches including James Williams (SJSU) are outside possibilities.

At UCLA, how do you see her filling out the rest of her staff?

Elizabeth: McDonald excels on bars—and I don’t know if she has expertise in the other events—so we need the other events covered. Someone who is a strong vault and floor specialist plus maybe a beam and choreography person. I see her potentially bringing on a young female up and comer paired with a veteran “man” type. This is just me guessing, though.

Talitha: I think she will have to hire a good leg coach for vault and floor, and a great beam coach, too. UCLA’s turmoil this season overshadowed the evident problems the Bruins had on beam under Kristina Comforte, so I hope the next hire will be especially strong. UCLA is also known for its floor choreography, and that’s a tradition McDonald can’t drop. I’m excited to see who she will choose for that job. Given her own personality, I hope it will be someone talented and visionary, but with less of a show-off, attention-seeking, viral-focused approach.

Emily M: I have to assume McDonald is immediately thinking about a great beam coach, like Talitha mentioned. She has WOGA and Legacy Elite connections, both clubs that tend to produce good beamers. Obviously, both also have tarnished reputations, which McDonald will want to avoid. Kristin White is an interesting name; she’s only been at Arizona State (McDonald’s alma mater) for two seasons handling beam and floor choreography, but the Sun Devils have thrived on her events.

Rebecca: I’ve heard Jeffrey Langenstein’s name raised, and those two certainly know each other from the Bay Area, but personally I’d like Washington’s new staff to stay together. We’ve also heard Casey Jo MacPherson in association with UCLA lately: She’s a possibility for beam. Alternatively, how about Kaytianna Kell from UC Davis? Jessa Hansen from Iowa is a third beam idea, as well as boasting great choreography skills, but I’ve said before that I see her staying at Iowa a little longer. The vault/floor job is tougher to pick, but I could see someone like Whitney Snowden at Michigan State or Stephen Buckner at Illinois. Both have made great strides with their lineups lately. 

Brandis: This is a tricky question as last summer was the big assistant coach shuffle and now most of the big names are locked up at programs where they’re presumably next in line for head coach. With McDonald the first non-Bruin alum to lead UCLA in decades, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a former Bruin on staff to aid in her transition into the Bruin bubble and help retain the longstanding traditions and legacies within the program.

What do you think she needs to do, if anything, in terms of the recent season’s turmoil within the team?

Elizabeth: I don’t really think she needs to specifically address it in any way because you shouldn’t have to try to be a good person—it should come naturally, which I think it does for her. I don’t think she would have been hired for this role if she wasn’t a good fit for the job both technically and from a PR standpoint. I think as long as she sets clear boundaries, for lack of a better term, to prevent any issues with harmony within the team, she should be solid.

Talitha: I agree with Elizabeth that there’s nothing specific she should do, at least not in front of the cameras—the worst thing would be to start off with some vacuous, artificial, PR-led statement. If she’s the good person she seems to be, her actions will speak for themselves, and the athletes will recognize the respect, empathy and compassion she has for them. I think a lot of the recent problems at UCLA seemed to originate in the head coaches trying too hard to present themselves as exceptional and flawless individuals. You shouldn’t have to explain to others why you’re a role model; your actions, if worthy, should make you one. I have faith that McDonald will take a more subdued yet healthier approach to the sport and the important traditions of the program.

Emily M: I again agree with Elizabeth and Talitha. I’m sure questions will come up in press conferences, which I expect she’ll handle, but I don’t think McDonald needs to make any kind of statement like we’ve seen out of the program the past year. I think the work will be internal, gaining the trust and respect of a team that has been through so much, and that should rightfully happen out of the spotlight.

Brandis: With the nature of the turmoil and how public it was, addressing the situation is definitely a necessity. However, since that was in the pre-McDonald era, addressing it and continually demonstrating that it is all in the past is all she really needs to do (in my opinion). Building off what Elizabeth said in response to a different question, McDonald has a great combination of compassion and structure that should help the Bruins move forward rather quickly.

READ THIS NEXT: Janelle McDonald Named UCLA Head Coach

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  1. She may only be a volunteer coach at Arkansas, but I could see Kyla Ross getting the assistant coach position. She might be young and inexperienced but she seems to have done good work on beam for them this past year. She’s also got a strong reputation as a student athlete who was always striving for perfection. The one issue would be that her boyfriend is currently in Arkansas, although maybe he would be willing to relocate back to UCLA since he is also an alumnus. That would leave floor and vault open but Dom seemed to have been the only coach that the athletes liked and respected, but Janelle will likely want to start from scratch.

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