Kinsey Clark scales the uneven bars at the far end of the LSU gymnastics training facility. She reaches the high bar, takes two swings and dismounts with a back tuck, sticking and saluting her dad, Jay, sitting off to the side.
Next is a post-practice workout with strength coach Earl Chevalier. Ten-year-old Kinsey joins the 15 Tigers gymnasts in various calisthenics and drills. Her mom, Julie, and older brother, Cole, are away on a school trip.
“She’s stuck with me,” said Jay, LSU’s associate head coach. “Came to the office with me this morning. Normally, she doesn’t get to hang out and practice like this, but today I let her do it.”
This new facility, officially christened two days earlier with a ribbon-cutting, is home. Kinsey was 6 when her family moved to Baton Rouge from Athens, Georgia, where the Tigers travel for a 3 p.m. meet Saturday against the No. 11 Gym Dogs. She recalls little of the place where her mother and father met, were educated and, eventually, ascended to the top of the collegiate gymnastics world.
Named the successor to legendary Georgia coach Suzanne Yoculan after 17 years as her assistant, Jay inherited a five-time defending national championship program that finished no higher than ninth in the NCAA championships while he was in charge. Julie was his assistant.
He resigned in 2012 with two years remaining on a five-year contract, ending a 25-year relationship with his alma mater from which he found a passion for a sport that he’d never actually competed.
“My life has never been something that I thought would have occurred the way it has, most of it really, really positive, some of it very painful,” Jay said. “But it’s been a great situation, it’s a great ride. I’m very happy here now, these people have been amazing to us. It’s where I want to finish my career.”
‘It just never ended’
Lexie Priessman approaches Jay after practice. Both slouch on a mat, exhausted from Mardi Gras camaraderie, coupled with the facility’s grand opening. McKenna Kelley soon joins. Kinsey requests the two babysit her whenever it’s next necessary as Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” blares from an iPhone.
The two freshman gymnasts are among the best in the world — both all-around champions at the venerated Nastia Liukin Cup in their elite careers. Kelley’s a renowned tumbler, and Priessman’s already a mainstay in the middle of Jay’s bars lineup.
That kind of athleticism lured Jay into gymnastics as a 20-year-old Georgia undergraduate.
He yearned to be involved in Bulldogs athletics and had friends on Yoculan’s team. A football, basketball, baseball and tennis player in high school, he took gymnastics lessons as a youngster but knew little else about the sport that still ached for attention in a football-crazed conference.
It began innocuously — moving mats, setting up Stegeman Coliseum for home meets and teaching the little he did know about the sport.
“Sort of became more of a hobby than anything,” Jay said. “And it grew from there.”
Physical therapy school was his goal, but he wasn’t accepted on his first application. Yoculan approached as his graduation neared, offering a full-time position. It paid around $5,000.
“Yeah, I’ll do it a couple years and I’ll try to go to PT school again,” Jay said. “And it just never ended. I was making ends meet, working at a yogurt shop. I worked the door at a bar at night. I did everything I could to survive for several years, then it began to grow.”
‘He’s an open book’
Recruiting gymnasts begins early. Myia Hambrick, now an LSU sophomore, started getting letters at 12. Jay recruited Hambrick, Jessica Savona and junior Ashleigh Gnat while he was still at Georgia.
“I didn’t really want to go to Georgia,” Savona laughed. “I knew that for a fact, and he’ll hold that to the grave.”
Jay wasn’t heavily recruited out of high school — just a few letters from then-Division I-AA schools. But he watched two football friends — eventual Auburn and Ohio State commits — get courted by big-name schools and took note of the tactics.
With no such aggressive recruiting in gymnastics, and as Jay continued to learn technique, he found a way to immediately impact the Gym Dogs. Yoculan gave Jay free rein on the recruiting trail, naming him recruiting coordinator in 1998.
This was before NCAA rules regulated gymnastics recruiting. Jay recalled making home visits wearing a shirt bearing the name of a recruit and decorating hotel rooms on official visits. Among his most influential signings in Athens were Olympians Courtney Kupets and Courtney McCool.
At LSU, he’s lured an under-recruited Hambrick to campus and was the architect of the program’s first No. 1 recruiting class in history this season, featuring Kelley, Priessman and 2012 Olympic alternate Sarah Finnegan.
“He really reaches out to you and makes sure you’re comfortable,” said Hambrick, a Temple, Georgia, native. “He doesn’t push a decision; he gives you what the school’s about, what the program’s about. He’s really honest; sometimes people aren’t too honest about what kind of scholarships they have or how many, but he is.”
ESPN the Magazine named him the ninth-best recruiter in college athletics in 2011. He came to LSU a year later.
“He will tell you himself he’s an open book, and he’s that way with everyone he recruits,” Gnat said. “I think that people recognize the genuine heart and just actual good guy he is. You’re attracted to a coach that’s going to be that way even before you’re committed to a school and you’re going to be with someone who is genuine and down to Earth.”
‘He wasn’t finished yet’
The family customarily visits their Destin beach house for two weeks after gymnastics season. Circumstances necessitated the Clarks stretch the vacation to three weeks in 2012.
“I didn’t know if I was going to coach again,” Jay said. “It was a very painful time for Julie and I both. When you go through something like that, you think ‘Well, maybe I need to make a career change.’ ”
D-D Breaux called days before the family left for the beach. Jay was in Mandeville visiting Julie’s family. Breaux suggested the two meet at a restaurant along the Tchefuncte River. They ate shrimp cocktail and discussed a move to LSU.
“He looked at some opportunities in the private sector,” Breaux said. “But he wasn’t finished (in gymnastics).”
The conversation continued in Destin. Once they returned home, Breaux brought the family to Baton Rouge twice.
“I was trying to see if over the long haul, ‘Could we win a championship here and could the same kinds of things I witnessed happened at another place, could they happen here?’ ” Jay said. “My conclusion was, ‘Yes, I could.’ ”
Clark was hesitant in that first season. Breaux eagerly asked for his opinion. It would have been irresponsible of her not to, she said, given his success.
The open dialogue and shared ideas were a foreign concept to Clark.
“Every once in a while, I’d go in his office and close the door and say ‘Look, if I didn’t want your opinion, I wouldn’t ask for it,’ ” Breaux said. “The situation he was in before as an assistant coach, it wasn’t that kind of shared responsibility.”
“OK, I get it,” he would say.
Now communication is seamless. Jay interjects ideas, whether strategic, gymnastics thoughts or ways to enhance fan experiences, like the team’s new pyrotechnic introductions in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.
Jay’s returned to Stegeman Coliseum once as a Tiger — the second meet of the 2014 season. Difficult emotions permeated that went unacknowledged. He remains indebted to the institution for giving him his start.
“But at the end of the day,” Jay said, “it’s a competition and I’m at LSU now.”
His gymnasts keep the same demeanor. Savona said there was chatter in Jay’s first season when Georgia came to the PMAC, but since then, the competition on the floor has become the focal point.
Breaux borrowed a term from LSU football coach Les Miles.
“There’s a little bit more angst in that want,” Breaux said of the trip. “Just because I’m very, very proud of what Jay’s done at LSU and what we’ve done together at LSU with this team.”