Casey Jo Macpherson mid cheer

Does Athletic Prowess Predict Coaching Success?

If you ask a group of longtime college gymnastics fans for their lists of the greatest coaches and teams, they’ll probably have roughly the same list (and it’s likely to be a pretty short one at that). Since women’s gymnastics was added to the NCAA championships program for the 1981 to 1982 school year, relatively few coaches or programs have ever qualified to a national championship—let alone won a title. However, within the last decade we’ve seen an influx of big-name former gymnasts hired as head coaches as more programs try to make it onto that exclusive list. We wanted to know, is that all it takes? Is an all-time great gymnast guaranteed to find coaching success? To find answers, we took a look at what the data had to say.

Admittedly, scores and rankings are a crude means of determining a coach’s level of success. Factors like injury rate, recruiting, or athlete and staff turnover are all just as significant—arguably moreso as they reflect the underlying culture and health of the program—so take this analysis for what it is: A comparison of current NCAA gymnastics head coaches by the numbers, without considering more intangible variables. 

Note: NCAA gym records and documentation prior to the mid-2000s are frequently incomplete and/or inaccurate, assuming they’re even accessible. Coaches’ biographies are similarly inconsistent. 

Title Winners

NameYears ActiveNCAA TitlesPrior Coaching ExperienceTop 3 Finishes as HC (1982 – present)NCAA Finals as HC (*1993 – present)Elite Gym ExperienceCollege GymExperience
Suzanne Yoculan (Georgia)1983 – 200910 titles: 1987, 1989, 1993, 1998, 1999, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009Woodward Camp: ~1975 – 19842117
Greg Marsden (Utah)1976 – 20159 titles: 1982, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1986, 1990, 1992, 1994, 1995 2119
Valorie Kondos-Field (UCLA)1991 – 20197 titles: 1997, 2000, 2001, 2003, 2004, 2010, 2018UCLA: 1983 – 19911222
Sarah Patterson (Alabama)1978 – 20146 titles: 1988, 1991, 1996, 2002, 2011, 2012 2220Slippery Rock (1974 – 1978)
KJ Kindler (Oklahoma)2006 – present6 titles: 2014, 2016, 2017, 2019, 2022, 2023Iowa State: 1992 – 20061212Iowa State (1988 – 1992)
Rhonda Faehn (Florida)2003 – 20153 titles: 2013, 2014, 2015Nebraska: 1999 – 2002
Maryland: 1997 – 1998Lanco GTC: 1994 – 1996UCLA: 1992 – 1994
5102X US VT champion,U.S. Ntl Team member 1985 – 1988, 1988 U.S. Olympic alternateUCLA (1990 – 1992)
Bev Plocki (Michigan)1990 – present1 title: 2021West Virginia: 1988 – 1989411Alabama (1983)West Virginia (1985 – 1987)

*The “Super Six” NCAA championship format was used from 1993 to 2019 before transitioning to the current “Four on the Floor” format in 2021. 

Since the NCAA formally began sponsoring the sport in 1982, seven head coaches have won a national championship. Of those seven, four competed as college gymnasts and only one—Rhonda Faehn—was a former elite. In all, 26 of the 42 championships to date have been won by head coaches with zero experience as gymnasts. 

The scale and scope of NCAA gymnastics has certainly increased since 1982, as has parity among the teams. There are coaches with impressive gymnastics and coaching résumés leading programs across all conferences and divisions, but—in the interest of minimizing variables like program size, available resources, and program age—this analysis will focus on head coaches in the Power Five conferences. 

Note: 2020 rankings for all programs and 2021 rankings for Auburn, Michigan State, and Stanford were removed from data sets due to abbreviated seasons because of COVID protocols. 

Head Coach Rankings as of 2023 Season

Head Coach (Program)First Season as HCHC Highest RankProgram Highest Rank (1998 – present)HC Lowest RankProgram Lowest Rank(*1998 – present)HCMedian RankProgram Median Rank (Five Seasons Prior to HC Start)
Ashley Priess Johnston (Alabama)20231011012N/A7
John Court (Arizona)2019211138382724
Jay Santos (Arizona State)20179441512230
Jordyn Wieber (Arkansas)202016518411718
Jeff Graba (Auburn)20114424421519
Guard Young (BYU)2015171136502229
Justin and Liz Crandall Howell (California)20137728571150
*Amy Smith (Clemson)2017231542543136
Melissa Kutcher Rhinehart (Denver)199944233815N/A
Jenny Rowland (Florida)201621101431
Courtney Kupets Carter (Georgia)2018713030186
Nadalie Walsh (Illinois)2018191129472221
Larissa Libby (Iowa)2006151140602915
Tim Garrison (Kentucky)20126412561023
Jay Clark (LSU)201922182053
Brett Nelligan (Maryland)2010221439463041
Bev Plocki (Michigan)19901114148N/A
Mike Rowe (Michigan State)20189949492637
Jenny Hansen (Minnesota)20156630361522
Shannon Welker (Missouri)20145543511720
Kim Landrus (NC State)2018151132442831
Heather Brink (Nebraska)2019643939257
Danna Durante (North Carolina)202232153652N/A41
Meredith Paulicivic (Ohio State)2018131034411824
KJ Kindler (Oklahoma)2007111028212
Tanya Chaplin (Oregon State)199866272712N/A
Sarah Shire Brown (Penn State)201824740403222
Umme Salim Beasley (Rutgers)2018403156644643
Tabitha Yim (Stanford)201814352282010
Janelle McDonald (UCLA)202251517N/A4
Jen Llewellyn (Washington)20221672142N/A18
Jason Butts (West Virginia)2012201237402925
*Data reflects Smith’s tenure as head coach at Utah State.

California’s head coaching duo of Justin Howell and Liz Crandall-Howell have overseen the biggest program glow-up by a long shot, with a median ranking improvement of 39 spots. Though now firmly established as a postseason threat, the Golden Bears only advanced to regionals once in the eight years prior to Howell assuming head coaching duties in 2013 (Crandall-Howell joined the staff as an assistant coach in 2014 and was named co-head coach in 2018). 

Besides the Howells, there are four coaches who’ve overseen improvements in the double digits: Brett Nelligan, Maryland (+11); Mike Rowe, Michigan State (+11); KJ Kindler, Oklahoma (+10); and Tim Garrison, Kentucky (+10). Coincidentally, there are also five coaches whose programs have fallen 10 or more places under their leadership: Sarah Shire Brown, Penn State (-10); Tabitha Yim, Stanford (-10); Courtney Kupets Carter, Georgia (-12); Larissa Libby, Iowa (-14); and Heather Brink, Nebraska (-18). 

Let’s take a deeper dive into their respective data and credentials and see what, if any, patterns emerge. 

Head Coach Results – Biggest Improvements and Declines

Head Coach (Program)First Year as HCChange in Median RankingQualified to RegionalsQualified to NCAA Championships
Justin Howell and Liz Crandall-Howell (California)2013 (JH)2018 (LCH)+392013 – 20232016, 2018, 2021, 2023
Brett Nelligan (Maryland)2010+112010 – 2015, 2018 – 2023
Mike Rowe (Michigan State)2018+11*2022, 2023
KJ Kindler (Oklahoma)2007+102007 – 20232007 – 2023
Tim Garrison (Kentucky)2012+102012 – 20232019, 2023
Sarah Shire Brown (Penn State)2018-102018 – 2021, 2023
Tabitha Yim (Stanford)2018-10*2018 – 2019, 2022 – 2023
Courtney Kupets Carter (Georgia)2018-122018 – 2021, 2023, **2018, 2019
Larissa Libby (Iowa)2006-142008 – 2013, 2015 – 2023
Heather Brink (Nebraska)2019-182019, 2023
*Michigan State and Stanford had abbreviated 2021 seasons due to COVID protocols.
**Former Georgia head coach Suzanne Yoculan Leeburn served as a volunteer assistant coach for the 2018 and 2019 seasons.

Senior Elite Experience

Head Coach (Program)Years on National TeamNational Championships World ChampionshipsOlympics
Justin Howell and Liz Crandall-Howell (California)31992: 11th AA (LCH) 1991: 1st UB, 4th VT, 8th AA (LCH) 1990: 12th AA (LCH)  1991: 2nd, team (LCH)
Brett Nelligan (Maryland)
Mike Rowe (Michigan State)
KJ Kindler (Oklahoma)
Tim Garrison (Kentucky)
Sarah Shire Brown (Penn State)32003: 4th VT, 15th AA 2002: 10th AA
Tabitha Yim (Stanford)42002: 2nd AA, FX 2001: 1st FX; 2nd AA, UB2001: 3rd, team, 6th BB, 7th AA
Courtney Kupets Carter (Georgia)32004: T-1st AA, UB, BB 2003:1st AA; 3rd UB, BB, FX 2002: 2nd BB2003: 1st team 2002: 1st UB2004: 2nd team, 3rd UB, 5th BB, 9th AA
Larissa Libby (Iowa)81989: 1st AA (Canada)1989: 6th team (Canada), 8th VT, 18th AA 1987: 8th team (Canada)1988: 11th team (Canada)
Heather Brink (Nebraska)21995: 2nd VT, 5th FX, 10th AA 1994: 36th AA 1992: 16th AA

NCAA Gymnastics Experience

Head Coach (Program)Alma MaterPerfect 10sAll-America HonorsIndividual NCAA TitlesHonda Award 
Justin Howell and Liz Crandall-Howell (California)SJSU (JH) BYU (LCH)2 (LCH)
Brett Nelligan (Maryland)UMass
Mike Rowe (Michigan State)
KJ Kindler (Oklahoma)Iowa State
Tim Garrison (Kentucky)
Sarah Shire Brown (Penn State)Utah, Missouri4
Tabitha Yim (Stanford)Stanford14
Courtney Kupets Carter (Georgia)Georgia1115122007, 2009
Larissa Libby (Iowa)LSU
Heather Brink (Nebraska)Nebraska31122000

Coaching Experience

Head Coach (Program)ClubNCAA (Non-HC)NCAA (HC)
Justin Howell and Liz Crandall Howell
Airborne: 1997 – 2011 (JH) Airborne: 2007 – 2012 (LCH) IGC: 2004 – 2006 (LCH)
Woodland: 1998 – 2003 (LCH)
California: 2011 – 2012 (JH) California: (2012 – 2018) (LCH) Sacramento State: 2001 – 2003 (LCH)
Brett Nelligan (Maryland)Maryland: 2003 – 2009
Mike Rowe (Michigan State)Michigan State: 2014 – 2017 Pittsburgh: 2005 – 2014
KJ Kindler (Oklahoma)Iowa State: 1992 – 2001Iowa State: 2001 – 2006
Tim Garrison (Kentucky)SCATS: 1992 – 1996 SCEGA: 1996 – 2006 NSoG: 2006 – 2011Cal State: 1992 – 1994 Nebraska: 2006 – 2011
Sarah Shire Brown (Penn State)Michigan: 2015 – 2016 SEMO: 2013 – 2015Eastern Michigan: 2016 – 2017
Tabitha Yim (Stanford)Stanford: 2011 – 2015Arizona: 2015 – 2017
Courtney Kupets Carter (Georgia)
Larissa Libby (Iowa)Iowa: 2000 – 2005 LSU: 1996 – 2000
Heather Brink (Nebraska)Nebraska: 2011 – 2019

Since the NCAA championship switched to the current eight-team format in 2021, the qualifying head coaches have had an average of 27.5 years of total coaching experience. In fact, of those 12 coaches, only Minnesota’s Jenny Hansen has had less than 20 years of experience (17 years as of 2021 and 18 years as of 2022). 

Similarly, four of the top five current head coaches had over a decade of coaching experience at the time they were hired. The one exception—Maryland’s Brett Nelligan—took over the role from his father, Duke Nelligan, who led the Terps for three decades. 

Conversely, the bottom five head coaches all boast objectively impressive credentials as gymnasts but had comparatively little coaching experience before stepping into their present role. All five had less than a decade’s worth of experience coaching at the college level and none had coached at the club level. It’s worth noting that each of their programs have made considerable jumps in the rankings within the last two years, and those upward trajectories seem likely to continue given the number of highly touted recruits on deck for their respective 2024 seasons. 

Still not convinced? Compare the only two active head coaches who’ve led programs to an NCAA championship, KJ Kindler and Bev Plocki. It took Kindler eight seasons at Oklahoma to claim a national title compared to 31 years for Plocki at Michigan. 

Both enjoyed moderately successful NCAA gymnastics careers during which they earned three individual berths to regionals each. However, Kindler had 14 years of coaching experience—including a five-season stint leading Iowa State—before stepping into her role at Oklahoma. Plocki, on the other hand, had one year of experience as an assistant coach at West Virginia before taking the helm. 

Not to put too fine a point on it, but “famous former gymnast” often carries a disproportionate amount of weight in the hiring process compared to “coach you’ve never heard of who’s put in years climbing the ranks.” Most athletic directors would never consider hiring a head coach who had neither significant coaching experience nor an impressive athletic resume. However, there seems to be a willingness to ignore a lack of coaching experience if a candidate meets a certain threshold of athletic success and name recognition, and understandably so—who wouldn’t want an all-time great representing their program? 

So, back to the original question: Do the best gymnasts make the best head coaches? Not necessarily. Prior experience coaching gymnastics—not doing gymnastics—is the most reliable factor for predicting a candidate’s success as a head coach. That said, there’s no reason that a highly successful former gymnast can’t be an effective coach provided they put in years honing their craft. 

The upcoming season will be a good test for this hypothesis as three former NCAA standouts—Aja Sims-Fletcher, Ashley Miles Greig, and Casey Jo Macpherson—will be making their debuts as head coaches. 

  • Pittsburgh’s new head coach, Macpherson, is a former elite and eight-time All-American for Arkansas. She spent the last 10 seasons coaching at Missouri, and previously coached at Western Michigan and Arkansas. She’s also a 2019 graduate of the NCAA Women Coaches Academy. 
  • First-time coach Miles Greig has taken the helm at Iowa State. The 2006 Honda Award winner is one of college gymnastics’ all-time greats, earning four NCAA titles, 15 All-America honors, and 11 perfect 10s during her time at Alabama. She also had a successful elite career, including earning team bronze and qualifying to vault finals at the 2001 world championships. Most recently, she’s worked as a gymnastics commentator and analyst for ESPN. 
  • Sims-Fletcher is leading Talladega—only the second HBCU to sponsor women’s gymnastics—in its inaugural season. Like Miles Grieg, she was a standout at Alabama, earning three All-America honors. Despite being the youngest of the trio, Sims-Fletcher has a surprisingly robust resume that includes roughly five years’ worth of coaching at the rec, club, and collegiate levels.  

If the patterns hold, Macpherson will have the most successful debut season while Miles Greig may struggle to find her footing. Sims-Fletcher’s position as a first-time head coach for a brand new program has limited historical precedent, so the measures of “success” for her season will be much different than those for Macpherson or Miles Greig. Whatever the final results, it will be interesting to see what trajectories their programs and coaching careers take over the next few years. 

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Article by Claire Billman


  1. It will be interesting to see how Carly does this year as Utah’s new HC. Carly was both an elite and college standout in TWO sports – gymnastics AND pole vault

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