When Zaakira Muhammad took her unofficial visit to West Virginia at 15 years old, she didn’t know much about the school or the state itself. By the end of her visit, she and her family knew her recruiting journey was over.
“As soon as I walked on campus, my mom [said] you’re going here. This is where you’re going to make your dreams happen,” Muhammad recalled about her recruiting journey, one that led her to Mountaineer fame as a gymnast and now back again two years later as the assistant head coach of a team on the rise thanks in part to her efforts.
As a gymnast, Muhammad’s name is written all over the Mountaineer record books. Although she never recorded a 10.0 as a gymnast, she holds the ninth highest number of 9.900-plus scores for West Virginia, tied with fellow alumna Kari Williams. Plus, she holds the sixth highest all-around score in program history with a 39.575 and was an individual all-around qualifier to the NCAA championships her junior year, securing second-team All-American status, the first WVU gymnast to accomplish that feat since Janae Cox in 2007.
After graduating with a journalism degree in 2018, Muhammad felt her journey in gymnastics was unfinished and she wasn’t ready to leave the sport. She had expressed desire throughout her career of going into coaching one day, and it was evident, especially during her senior year, that she had the natural ability to be a great leader. Thus began her path toward a coaching career.
Her first job was at Temple as a graduate assistant where she took over coaching vault. Her impact was felt immediately as Temple won the ECAC title for the first time in school history and posted its highest finish in over 20 years. After finishing her masters’ degree, Muhammad headed to Eastern Michigan, where her responsibilities shifted to choreography for balance beam and floor exercise. Her impact again was evident on beam, where the team finished with its highest ranking on the event since 2017.
Her time at Eastern Michigan was cut short due to the COVID pandemic in 2020. That offseason, an assistant coaching position opened up in Morgantown and assistant coach Travis Doak knew the perfect fit for the job.
“[He] said we should really reach out to Zaakira and just see if maybe this would be a fit,” head coach Jason Butts recalled of the hiring process after the departure of Kaylyn Millick. Muhammad originally had no intentions of leaving Eastern Michigan, but she agreed to talk to Butts about the opportunity. “When I got on the phone with [Muhammad], we danced around the topic a little bit. Finally I said if I was to offer you an interview, would you be willing to do it?. She basically said I thought you were never going to ask.”
For Muhammad, the decision to return to her alma mater initially was a difficult one. Getting the phone call to interview at West Virginia pulled her in two different directions: Should she return to the place that had made her who she was, or should she stay at a place where she had already spent a year building relationships and networking?
Finally, Muhammad agreed to go through the interview process. Even though she had been a gymnast at the program, she didn’t want to solely take the opportunity because it was at a Power Five institution. Two years had passed since she had graduated, and there were questions that needed answers before she agreed to go down the process. Butts didn’t know she was initially that serious, but he was prepared.
“[Butts] had the answers to every single question that I had. [April Messerly, senior associate athletics director], had a list of every single answer that I needed as well as the other support staff that I interviewed with. At the last interview, I was pretty much like this works.”
In May 2020, the offer to return to West Virginia was given to Muhammad via Zoom, an honor she recalled tearfully as she described it. “They took a chance [on me] as an athlete and now they’re taking a chance [on] me as a coach. They trust me to walk in and work with these athletes and give them the experiences that I’ve had.” While Muhammad was excited for the opportunity, no one was more excited than the one who knew West Virginia would make her daughter’s dreams come true. “My mom was screaming [on the Zoom call] because she loves West Virginia [and] the coaching staff and I was like this is not professional!”
The news was given to the team also over a Zoom call in the midst of the pandemic, bringing some happiness to the athletes during a time of stress and anxiety. Fifth-year Kendra Combs recalled the excitement of learning who was joining the coaching staff.
“Jason and Travis pulled the whole team [together] and said, we’re going to bring someone else in, guys, and they were trying to build up the anticipation. When they told us it was Z, I was so excited because I knew her [from] before, so we had already built a relationship.”
Combs enjoys having Muhammad as a coach because of how light-hearted she keeps everything. Her insight of being an athlete at West Virginia gives her a unique perspective, but also allows her to advocate for the team as the only female coach on staff. From planning agendas to ensure the gymnasts have time to get dressed or do their makeup, or giving them time to just breathe and relax, Combs appreciates having someone on staff that understands the gymnast’s perspective.
“She understands us on a deeper level. It’s nice to have her on our side about things that are female-related,” Combs said.
Even though the staff takes an all-event approach to coaching, floor is where Muhammad’s impact is most evident. In 2020, before Muhammad’s arrival, the Mountaineers finished the year ranked No. 24 on floor, topping out at 49.475. One year later, the Mountaineers began an impressive streak of scoring 49.000 or higher on floor in consecutive meets. That streak extended through March of 2021, all of 2022 and into 2023, and currently sits at 27 meets.
The improvement and consistency was evident, and because of it, Muhammad was rewarded with a title promotion to assistant head coach. While the title change made official the “equal vote, equal voice” process the staff operates under in the gym, it was a well-deserved promotion in Butts’ eyes.
Muhammad’s impact at West Virginia extends beyond coaching too. Many of the social media and publication changes made recently are because of Muhammad’s insight as a former athlete. But the biggest impact Muhammad has made outside of the gym is in the area of community service. Under her guidance as the community service coordinator, the Mountaineers tallied the most service hours last season and the highest amount of impact hours, winning an award from the WVU SAAC.
“[Muhammad] was doing such a great job, and I wanted to let her know how great of a job she was doing and fend off any other programs that might come looking her way. In reality, it just made sense. She definitely deserved it.”
Earning that promotion was another emotional yet exhilarating moment for Muhammad. Knowing she was appreciated as a coach and that she was going in the right direction gave her the confidence to know that she was doing a good job and making a difference. Combs calls Muhammad her mentor and has learned multiple lessons from her as she prepares to move on from gymnastics herself.
“[She’s taught me] to keep a good attitude and stay in the moment,” Combs said. “She tells us [that] all the time, and I think it’s really helped me grow as a person and as an athlete.”
For Muhammad, there’s many things she’s enjoyed about her time as a coach at her alma mater, but her primary goal is to continue growing her athletes like the staff grew her when she was on the team.
“I’ve grown so much from that 17-year-old that walked into Cary Gym. I want to be able to pour into other young women [and] watch them find their identity outside of this sport. I found that [at West Virginia], and I wanted to give that experience to someone else.”
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Article by Savanna Whitten
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