Alabama and Dana Duckworth dropped some shocking news on the gymternet Thursday when the head coach announced her intention to step down to focus more on her family. In this week’s (last-minute) roundtable, we’re talking our emotions at the news, next steps for Alabama and more.
What was your initial reaction to the news?
Elizabeth: I was in the middle of working out when I saw. Turn to me trying to help get a breaking news article published while doing a Peloton ride. I guess I have this news to thank for the heart rate bump I got. Needless to say I was shocked. Duckworth recently signed an extension, and we’re a bit past the time period for coaches that would have been fired based on the 2022 season.
Claire: Absolute shock. There were none of the usual indicators or whispers that she was leaving.
Allison: All I saw was a lot of capital letters on my phone before jumping on Twitter to see just what was happening. This was for sure the last thing I expected to hear out of Alabama.
Emily M: Shock! I opened Twitter while I was waiting for a meeting to start and just happened to see the Tweet seconds after it went up. I almost yelled out loud right as the meeting got rolling.
Alyssa: I did not believe what I was reading at first. That was one of those announcements that made me excited to open social media to get my drama fix.
Tara: I was absolutely shocked! I was in the middle of working and just about audibly gasped when I saw the news come through on our CGN Slack.
Savanna: I happened to be on an extended work break and caught the message on Slack. My jaw dropped. Out of all the preseason coaching changes I considered, that one was not even on my radar.
Katherine: It was interesting for sure. I only get Slack notifications that tag either me directly or our entire channel, so when I saw “is anyone available to do a breaking news piece?” flash by while watching a court proceeding at my job, I knew something was up. But I expected another big time transfer since we’ve heard about a lot of those lately…not this!
Ian: I was in the middle of math class when the news dropped, but this was a lot more interesting than calculus! I was very surprised.
Who do you think would be a good fit for Alabama’s next head coach?
Elizabeth: There are two clear front-runners for me: Minnesota assistant coach Geralen Stack-Eaton and Auburn associate head coach Ashley (Priess) Johnston. Both are alums of Alabama, and both are very solid coaches that I think would be great fits to lead this program.
Claire: Ashley Priess Johnston seems like the obvious top choice and Geralen Eaton-Stack is not far behind (plus, she has the added bonus of a built-in assistant coach).
Allison: Fully with Elizabeth and Claire about Geralen Stack-Eaton; Ashley Priess as well. I think alums can bring a lot to coaching positions, especially as they have a little more background knowledge and can really hit the ground running.
Emily M: I agree with everyone else. Johnston and Stack-Eaton certainly have to be the first two calls. We did see Ashley Miles’ name batted around for UCLA, so one would think that rumor will resurface here despite her lack of coaching experience.
Alyssa: I am echoing everyone else here. With multiple Alabama alumni that have coaching experience with teams that have qualified to nationals, I would be surprised if Alabama did not go in the direction of Johnston or Stack-Eaton.
Tara: Also echoing everyone else with Johnston and Stack-Eaton. Alabama’s going to want someone with experience, and both check that box. Robert Ladanyi also has loads of experience and recently disappeared off Nebraska’s roster. There are lots of under-the-radar, up-and-coming coaches, but I can’t see Alabama going that route.
Savanna: I feel like I’m copping out with this answer, but I also see this position coming down to Johnston and Stack-Eaton.
Katherine: The question asks about “good fit,” not “realistic option,” so I’ll throw out some fun ones. I think it’d be crazy to see one of the current SEC coaches or assistants to jump ship to Tuscaloosa. Just a few of those I think would be a great fit for the task include, yes, Ashley Priess Johnston, as well as Casey Jo MacPherson, Owen Field and Kurt Hettinger. Big time SEC experience wouldn’t hurt in this position, that’s for sure. Speaking of SEC, this would also be a great opportunity for the up and coming Garrett Griffeth and Courtney McCool Griffeth, but they just signed a big contract extension. But wouldn’t that be fun?
Ian: Echoing the opinions of a few others here and saying the obvious choices are Johnston and Stack-Eaton. However, I also think this would be a hard opportunity to pass up for a big name Alabama alum like Ashley Miles if she was given an offer or the chance to apply.
Alabama has the No. 1 incoming class and currently ranks No. 2 for the class of 2023. What does the next head coach need to do to keep all those stellar recruits on board?
Elizabeth: I’m not as worried as I would be with other programs because to me Alabama brings in such a specific type of gymnast (sort of like a UCLA where you can only see a lot of those recruits only going to Westwood). But I think some recruits’ decisions will come down to the coach. If it’s someone like Stack-Eaton or Johnston, I don’t think we’ll see many flips. If it’s someone less experienced or questionable, we may see more uncertainty on the recruiting side.
Claire: It’s going to take some finesse. They need to have the name recognition, experience and proven coaching results without bringing along the baggage from their previous gig. They’ll also have to invest in getting to know the gymnasts and why they chose Alabama, then ensure that the program and new staff can still deliver on its promises. That work needs to start now with interim head coach Gina Quinlan.
Allison: I don’t think there’s too much to worry about here just yet, but Alabama will want to bring someone in that isn’t the polar opposite of Duckworth to avoid any commits from moving elsewhere. Or maybe that’s what Alabama could use.
Emily M: I hope interim head coach Gina Quinlan is spending today on the phone. The next two classes are just absolutely mind-blowing, and I guarantee savvy recruiters like Jay Clark are placing calls to folks like Lily Smith to take their temperature given the news. Keep in mind that a coaching change is one of the few ways a student-athlete may be released from an NLI, so the 2022 signing class could make changes. It’ll be a tense few days for the remaining staff, and when the new coach is named, he or she will need to immediately address recruits.
Alyssa: Alabama is a school in the SEC that has NIL connections and history. Most of the recruits will likely stay at the school for those factors. They will need to be reminded of the reasons they chose Alabama in the first place throughout the process, though, because I am sure other schools will want to try to poach them.
Tara: I feel like this won’t be a problem for Alabama—it is Alabama, a big SEC school with an elite reputation and plenty of NIL resources—but then again you never know. Reassurance on the part of Gina Quinlan and the remaining staff (and whoever ends up getting the permanent role) is a must, and they need to be sure not to let up on recruiting in the meantime. If it ends up being Johnston, maybe we’ll see the opposite with her flipping some of Auburn’s recruits to Alabama.
Savanna: I don’t think it will be much of an issue because of the gold mine that is NIL in the SEC. The opportunities for exposure alone will likely keep a lot of recruits’ interest. However, if there is a coach named that the athletes don’t jive with, NIL opportunities alone may not be enough to keep their interest—after all, plenty of other SEC teams have strong NIL opportunities.
Katherine: Few schools have an elite national championship brand like the University of Alabama, both in gymnastics and across the board (ever heard of Nick Saban?). I hope Gina Quinlan and the rest of the staff don’t let the current and future recruits forget the significance of that. Emphasizing the “ungodly” NIL earning potential they’re going to have wouldn’t hurt either.
Ian: Although in many ways Dana Duckworth has become synonymous with Alabama gymnastics over her tenure, I don’t think her departure will impact recruiting too much assuming Alabama makes a competent choice for its next head coach. At the end of the day, many of the people who want to go to Alabama are always going to want to go to Alabama for the school itself and its culture, regardless of who the head coach is.
What changes do you hope to see with the start of a new era for Alabama gymnastics?
Elizabeth: In the past few years, we’ve seen Alabama struggle on the leg events. The recruiting is there (see the above question) and the bars and beam are mostly there, but vault and floor are what have held Alabama back from being a team final team these past few seasons. I don’t think it’ll take much to “fix” the issue, but that’s the thing I’m most interested in watching improve.
Claire: I don’t pretend to know what the team culture has been like behind-the-scenes the past few seasons, but I’d like to see them put the work in toward rehabbing the program’s public image. Gymnastics-wise, Alabama has to find some consistency on vault. For years now we’ve seen the potential for a stellar vault lineup never materialize.
Allison: It’s been a while since we’ve seen Alabama as a consistent threat, so honestly, just someone that can bring a good polish to the program, and like Elizabeth said, build back vault and floor depth.
Emily M: The Crimson Tide needs a PR facelift after a few tumultuous years. Hopefully a new coach will do more morale-wise than just PR stunts, but from an administrative and hiring perspective, that will be on the AD’s mind.
Alyssa: Alabama has been on the hated list in parts of the gymnastics fanbase for the past couple of years, so working on its image like Emily mentioned will be crucial. I would also love to see it post new content so we can get to know the gymnasts on the team as people instead of just athletes.
Tara: Working on its image, for one. Whether the internal team dynamic was stressed or not over the past couple years, we’ve seen a lot of the gymternet hop on the Alabama hate train. Gymnastics-wise, Alabama is going to have A LOT of talent in the coming years and I’d love to see the Crimson Tide capitalize on that and potentially make a run at the national title—this team better be making the team final at the very least.
Savanna: I’d like to see Alabama return toward the top of the rankings like it was during its Sarah Patterson era, but I think the bigger need, as others have stated, is to do some much needed PR and culture rebuilding for the results to show on the floor.
Katherine: Rebecca said what we were all thinking today: The next couple years’ rosters are made for the team final. Alabama has been racking up four- and five-star recruits left and right. I want to see them reach that potential in this new era.
Ian: For me, I just want to see Alabama capitalize on its wealth of recruiting in a way that was sometimes hindered during the Duckworth dynasty. It has two incredibly talented classes coming in, and it will be important to Alabama’s success that these talents pan out. Obviously repairing the public image is of the utmost importance, but people will pay more attention to a shift on a good team than on a mediocre one.
Do you have any remaining questions or comments about this news or next steps for the program?
Elizabeth: I personally don’t believe this was a forced “resignation” brought on by an unhappy administration, and I don’t think it’s fair to speculate about any potential personal reasons for Duckworth. However, even if she was encouraged to step down for one reason or another, it’s now done. My focus is now on the what next. Alabama is a storied program, and it’ll be interesting to see what the AD decides to do in terms of the direction of the program and how much better it’ll be than whatever Georgia is doing in Athens (I’m still salty, sue me).
Emily M: I agree with Elizabeth that this situation has the hallmarks of some kind of personal tragedy, and we as the public don’t have a right to that information. I know there is justifiable anger out there at the way Duckworth handled situations involving racism, but I hope we don’t see folks wishing ill on her or her family. This puts Alabama at an interesting crossroads. The incoming classes are so good, the job is one of the most attractive and it’s a program in rarified air with national titles. A few smart choices by the AD in the coming weeks could set the Tide up for an extremely successful run.
Tara: Others have said it, but how this went down so suddenly doesn’t scream forced resignation to me. With the program’s legacy, I hope Alabama can continue seeing success under new leadership and reach the top again.
Savanna: Personally, my concern is just for her health and well-being. With how quickly this went down and how little it seemed like alums knew beforehand, I wish her all the best. As for the program, I hope Alabama can ride the momentum of having some of the top recruits coming in and use that to bring in a head coach that will help the Tide get back to the top.
Katherine: I want to comment that this felt like such a ball sports moment, more so than other big gymnastics coaching announcements for some reason. Miami and Michigan State have both seen their head football coaches step away suddenly in the past few years, creating a big stir in the process. The craziness of the coaching carousel, everyone!
Ian: More of a comment here, but I think the public eye is really on Alabama here, and I am interested in seeing how scrutinized whoever fills the coaching gap ends up being. This is a huge job, and Duckworth was often viewed negatively by the general public. No matter who is picked, it is going to be a big deal.
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Article by the editors of College Gym News
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