One year. That’s what Jay Clark committed to in his mind when then-LSU gymnastics coach D-D Breaux asked him to join her staff in the summer of 2012, shortly after he was let go as head coach at Georgia.
Breaux already had 34 years on the job at LSU in what eventually became a 43-year tenure, the longest run by any coach in any sport in Southeastern Conference history. But she brought Clark in to learn from some of the success he had been part of as a long-time member of the staff at Georgia.
“You’re coming in and trying to fit in, thinking, ‘I’m the guy who got canned,’ ” Clark said. “I was just trying not to make waves and contribute.
“She wouldn’t have it. She came in, closed the door to my office and said, ‘Look, I made you associate head coach for a reason. I’ve been doing the same thing for 35 years, and you’ve been part of a program that has won so many championships. I want you to tell me where you think we need to do things differently.
“I want your opinion, even if you think I don’t want to hear it.’ ”
Clark listened, too, eventually meshing his coaching style and philosophies with Breaux’s and leading LSU gymnastics to its greatest decade: Six NCAA Super Six/Four on the Floor appearances, including three runner-up finishes; seven NCAA individual titles; 159 All-American honors, three SEC championship meet titles and two SEC regular-season championships.
Now, after one season as co-head coach before Breaux retired in August, the job belongs solely to Clark, who leads No. 3-ranked LSU into its season and home opener Friday against No. 14 Arkansas in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center. The meet begins at 7:15 p.m. and will be televised on the SEC Network.
“We are excited to get in the PMAC on Friday night in front of 2,000-plus of our best friends,” Clark said, referring to the limited ticket sales because of coronavirus restrictions. “It will be different, but this team is ready and prepared to start this season.”
After three-plus decades in the sport, Clark is as prepared as anyone could be to start what will be the culminating chapter of his career.
In her new role as an ambassador, D-D Breaux wants to make fans excited about LSU athletics again, hoping they’ll return once vaccinations squash the coronavirus and stadium capacities increase.
Clark was raised in the Atlanta suburb of Roswell, in a University of Georgia family. His parents, brother and sisters all went to UGA. Early on, Clark had dreams of walking on to the Bulldogs football team.
“I was about the most vanilla, average athlete you’ve ever seen in your life,” Clark said.
“That didn’t pan out.”
The itch to be involved with athletics was strong, however, and Clark was drawn to the gymnastics program.
“I had taken classes when I was younger,” he said. “It wasn’t anything that led me down a competitive road in gymnastics, but I knew a little bit. I could do some things in my late teens and early 20s I can’t do anymore.
“My sophomore year in college I got to know some of the girls on the team. I started helping them set up equipment. They’d pay me $50 to set up for a meet.”
After working Georgia’s camps and club program, Clark found an in when UGA assistant coach Doug McAvinn tore a bicep muscle and could not help the gymnasts as they finished their uneven bars routines.
“That was kind of where it started,” he said.
When Clark graduated, then-UGA coach Suzanne Yoculan offered Clark a full-time job. The pay: $5,000 a year.
Meanwhile, Clark did everything he could to make a living. He worked the door at a local bar, mornings at a yogurt shop and summer camps all over the country.
All the time, he was learning the technical aspects of a sport he never engaged in at a competitive level and finding his niche as a recruiter. He helped direct a pipeline of talent that helped Georgia to win nine of its 10 NCAA titles while an assistant, including five straight from 2005-09. One of his recruits was a gymnast named Julie Ballard from Mandeville. She competed from 1994-98, and in August 1999 they were married.
When Yoculan retired after the 2009 season, Clark was promoted to head coach. It was his dream job, but it didn’t have a dream ending. In 2010, Georgia missed NCAA competition for the first time since 1983. The Bulldogs finished ninth in the NCAA championships in 2011 and 11th the following year, leading to Clark’s dismissal.
“It was the most painful experience of my life,” Clark said. “For our family and the way we were entrenched in that community — right down to our kids and their school and our church and a new home we’d bought — to have that just stripped from you in a matter of 24 hours was very painful. Because it was our alma mater, not only mine but my wife’s and my parents and my brother and my two sisters. It was incredibly painful.
“I wasn’t sure I would coach again. I wasn’t sure I would be effective anywhere else. I had only been at my alma mater. I questioned everything about myself, about the whole experience.”
The call that changed it all
After leaving Georgia, the Clarks headed down to Destin, Florida, for an extended vacation. Soon after, Clark and his wife were in New Orleans when he got a call from Breaux.
Breaux correctly anticipated one of her assistants, Philip Ogletree, himself a former Georgia men’s gymnast, was angling to head back to UGA under Clark’s replacement, Danna Durante, mother of LSU senior gymnast Sami Durante.
“She said, ‘I know what’s going on, I know who they’re going to hire over there. I feel like Philip is trying to get over there. I’m making one phone call and that’s to you,’ ” Clark said. “I said I’d be interested. A few days later she asked if I was still in town and could we meet somewhere.
“All I knew about LSU at the time was the ride from the Embassy Suites to the PMAC. I couldn’t have told you a whole lot.
“But Julie being from down here, her family was close, and it was the only opportunity presenting itself at the time. I went, ‘I’ll give this a shot and we’ll see how it goes.’ But I really didn’t know what the future would hold at that point.”
Clark and Breaux met at a seafood restaurant in Madisonville. That led to a formal interview in Baton Rouge and a job offer.
Clark was ready to do the job full speed, but not for long if it didn’t work out.
“In my mind I thought I’d do this for a year,” he said. “I didn’t want to overcommit. I didn’t want a three-year deal. I was still in such a fog over what happened (at Georgia).”
One year turned into two, and three. By then, Clark felt he and Breaux hit their stride as a duo leading the team.
“I had learned a lot from D-D and I think D-D had learned a lot of from me,” he said. “We had sort of merged philosophically and what we were doing day-to-day, what the core values of the program were going to be. That was both of us. I don’t see that changing.”
When Breaux decided to retire, Clark automatically became her solo successor. It finally ended a string of interest from other programs during his LSU years to get him to leave.
“Every year since we’ve been here someone approached him,” said Julie Ballard Clark, who was one of Jay’s assistants at UGA. “He wanted to be a head coach one more time. The timing was great.”
Ready for the next
On the eve of a new campaign, Clark is sitting comfortably on the second-floor outdoor patio of LSU’s world-class gymnastics facility, chatting in sweats and purple and gold-trimmed sneakers.
He seems ready to lead, and to do it his way. He doesn’t feel the need to try replicate Breaux’s famously electric personality, though he didn’t rule out coaching a meet one day in a sequined jacket in her honor.
“The obvious thing that’s going to be different is her personality,” Clark said. “The largeness of that. I can’t do that. That’s not me. I’m hopeful as we go forward and the fans maybe have to be weened off of some of that, that they fall in love with the personalities of our kids and the program itself. If I try to be anything like that, that’s going to be disingenuous.
“I’m passionate. I can get excited with most of them. But coming out of that tunnel, I’m not going to be blowing kisses and waving at everybody.”
Breaux is convinced Clark will do great things, and finally lead LSU to that long-awaited national title.
“He has tremendous knowledge of the sport,” Breaux said. “He talks a lot but he’s also a good listener. When the kids are saying stuff, he really hears what they’re saying. That makes him a very strong coach.”
One who rekindled his passion for coaching gymnastics in a place he never thought he’d be.