D-D Breaux, who nurtured LSU’s gymnastics program from an unsteady beginning to a perennial championship contender that performed in front of sellout crowds, announced her retirement Tuesday, ending the longest coaching tenure in any sport in Southeastern Conference history.

The school announced Breaux’s decision Tuesday morning after she broke the news Monday afternoon to the LSU team. Breaux, who was co-head coach this season with former longtime assistant Jay Clark, will move into an emeritus-type role with the athletic department while Clark continues to run the program on his own.

“I just think this whole last year, ending the way it did with COVID-19 and dealing with it this summer, it will take someone with a younger spirit to bring this team through it,” said Breaux, who has coached the Tigers for 43 years.

“Looking at what we’ve accomplished in gymnastics, it’s time. We’ve done a lot of great things and things have never been better. I think it’s a great time to step away.”

Gov. John Bel Edwards was among those who praised Breaux for her “standard of excellence” and her “unparalleled” career. He and his wife Donna were fixtures at LSU home meets.

“On behalf of the state and of all of us who had the pleasure of witnessing her talented teams take to the floor on Friday nights in a packed PMAC, I thank her for her tenacity, for her commitment to her gymnasts and the university and for her leadership in prioritizing academics and community service alongside athletic achievement,” Edwards said in a statement. “Coach Breaux is truly a legend, and we wish her well in the future.”

Athletic director Scott Woodward called Breaux “an icon and just an incredible representative of our university.

“Working with her first-hand has been a delight and we want it to continue,” Woodward said.

Woodward and Breaux said her new role hasn’t exactly been defined yet, but that he sees her as being a type of ambassador for the athletic department.

“People like D-D are doers,” Woodward said. “We will utilize her in speaking or fundraising or to help us promote what we’re doing inside the department. She still has a ton of energy.”

Clark joined the LSU staff in 2013 and was elevated to co-head coach in May 2019.

A 30-year gymnastics coaching veteran, Clark served 20 seasons at Georgia, his alma mater, where he was head coach from 2009-12.

“For the vast majority of my career I saw her from afar,” said Clark, a four-time national assistant coach of the year, including twice at LSU. “When I came here, I wasn’t all that sure what I was getting into. But she reached out and gave me an opportunity when I sure needed one.

“She’d been here 35 years already but still had the willingness to change and do things differently and still try to improve things with an amazing level of enthusiasm. She wanted to treat me as a partner and feel free to express myself rather than just be a ‘yes man.’ I found that incredibly refreshing.”

Clark is expected to fill Breaux’s vacancy on the staff with a new assistant coach in the coming days. LSU’s other longtime assistant, two-time national assistant coach of the year Bob Moore, will also return for 2021.

A native of Donaldsonville, Breaux took over LSU’s program in 1978 when women competed in the AIAW (Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women), four years before the NCAA began sponsoring women’s sports in 1982.

She became the SEC’s longest-tenured coach in 2019 when she stepped onto the floor of the Pete Maravich Assembly Center for LSU’s opener with California, breaking a tie with late Kentucky basketball coach Adolph Rupp. He coached 41 seasons from 1930-52 and 1953-72.

Breaux was working toward a graduate degree at LSU in 1977 and running a gymnastics program for BREC when the offer came to coach the Tigers, who were making a transition from a club to a varsity sport.

“I had already taken a position to fill in for someone at St. Joseph’s Academy,” Breaux said. “I was sitting on the pool deck in Donaldsonville with my dad and my mother and I said, ‘LSU has offered me a job, but I’ve already signed a contract to teach (at SJA).’ Daddy was like, ‘I think you should try to get out of that contract. What do you want to do?’ I said, ‘I want to coach at LSU.’ He said, ‘Go do it.’ That’s how it started.”

Breaux, 67, finished with a career record of 816-427-7. She was named national coach of the year in 2014 and 2017, the latter also the year of her induction into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame. She led LSU to 35 straight NCAA regional appearances from 1985-2019 (the 2020 SEC and NCAA championships were canceled). The Tigers made eight trips to the NCAA finals among 30 NCAA championship appearances overall. 

Three times the Tigers finished as NCAA runners-up, all to Oklahoma, in 2016, 2017 and 2019. Her gymnasts won 15 NCAA individual titles and earned 266 All-America honors.

On the SEC level, Breaux’s teams won the SEC championship meet four times, including three straight from 2017-19. The Tigers also won the first two SEC regular-season titles, which were awarded in 2017 and 2018 — a championship that Breaux lobbied the conference to create.

Twenty-two LSU gymnasts have won a total of 44 SEC individual titles, with 91 All-SEC honors. Seven have been named SEC gymnast of the year.

Unlike Rupp, Breaux had to fight to keep her program alive. She has often told the story of being called to a meeting with then-athletic director Paul Dietzel, but refused to go for fear he would tell her he was eliminating her sport.

LSU gymnasts first competed in the Carl Maddox Field House, named for the athletic director who hired her, then in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.

Even then, attendance was thin.

For years, the Tigers competed against the backdrop of a large purple curtain to mask empty seats on one side of the arena. Breaux often stood in front of local grocery stores giving away free tickets but often found few takers.

In recent years, LSU has had more than 7,000 season ticket holders and now normally plays to crowds of 10,000 or more. The Tigers practice next to the PMAC in a $12 million facility that opened in 2016, a building that Breaux pushed for years to get built.

Former Olympic gold medalist and SEC gymnastics TV commentator Bart Conner has called LSU’s facility the best in the world.

“D-D Breaux is one of the true icons in women’s collegiate gymnastics,” Conner said. “Her enthusiasm, passion and resilience never wavered, even after 43 years, as she built one of the great programs, not just in gymnastics, but in the history of collegiate sports.”

Despite all her plaudits, Breaux dismissed the idea of sticking around for a “farewell tour” season in 2021.

“I’ve watched other coaches have a farewell tour and I have a lack of appreciation for that,” she said.

“I just came to a point when we had to go home in March (when college sports were suspended) when it was like, ‘OK, I’m going to see if I like this. See if I can do this.’ I was OK with it.

“I’m sad when I think about the ending of an era,” Breaux said. “There were a lot of battles and water under the bridge. But I have a lot to show for my toils, and I’m good with that.”

Email Scott Rabalais at srabalais@theadvocate.com