Photos: New LSU gymnastics facility unveiled Saturday _lowres

From left, LSU coach D-D Breaux and her mother Betty Breaux, Gov. John Bel Edwards, senior associate athletics director Eddie Nunez and LSU president F. King Alexander during the unveiling of the new LSU gymnastics training facility, Saturday, February 6, 2016, in Baton Rouge.

To step into LSU’s gymnastics practice facility is to pay a visit to D-D Breaux’s imagination.

It took years for her to get the $12 million facility, to figure out what she wanted it to have and discard what she didn’t. Years of pressing, urging, arm-twisting and persistent, unflagging demands from folks to help raise the money to get it built.

It exists because Breaux willed it to be there.

“They did not build this because they wanted to build the men a nice gymnastics center so they had to build one for the women,” she said. “They built this as a stand-alone training center for women’s gymnastics at LSU. Nothing else was built at the same time. This was a commitment by the department, by the Tiger Athletic Foundation and many, many boosters, one brick at a time. Every time I would go to talk to a TAF group, I would say, ‘Bricks are 33 cents apiece, and I intend to build this one brick at a time.’ ”

At times, Breaux would find herself at those TAF functions looking out at a sea of puzzled faces.

“They’d look at each other and say, ‘Are we building a gymnastics facility?’ I’d be like, ‘You talk among yourselves. This is going to happen.’ ”

In 2016, it opened.

“When (former LSU Board of Supervisors chair) Laura Leach, who fought a lot of battles with me and for me — when she walked in the door at the grand opening and burst into tears, I knew this was a monumental achievement,” Breaux said. “You look at all the names of all the people who contributed to this. To making this happen.”

It all happened because of Breaux, though. LSU’s gymnastics program still exists because of Breaux, who wouldn’t allow it to be eliminated like the men’s program was back in the 1980s.

Breaux protected the program until it finally began to thrive, with eight trips to the NCAA Super Six (it has since been reduced to four teams) since 2008 and a total of six Southeastern Conference championships.

LSU now competes in front of 10,000 to 13,000 fans for every home meet in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center — meets that are a mix of aerial barnstorming and Cirque de Soleil.

“Enthusiasm,” Breaux said. “Enthusiasm. You talk about something enough, it’s going to happen.

“That enthusiasm and intensity sometimes offends people. But I expect my athletes to have that same intensity and enthusiasm and exuberance about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. You’re doing it for LSU and for yourself and your family, so give it all you’ve got. I don’t want a half-effort. I’ve got a lot to show for it.”

Breaux has a lot to show for it. More than 800 victories and 35 straight NCAA postseason appearances — a string that would have run to 36 had spring college sports not been canceled by the coronavirus pandemic. A program pushed forward by the force of her determination.

And now, she is stepping away. Still enthusiastic, still feisty, but wise enough after 43 years as LSU’s coach, longer than anyone has ever coached any SEC sport, to know that threading a path through the pandemic and beyond is something best left to younger folks.

“This whole COVID thing has made me realize it’s going to take a younger spirit to maneuver and zigzag through what coaches are going to have to do to make it work,” Breaux said.

Not that this was a quick-trigger decision.

Breaux brought in Jay Clark to be her assistant coach in 2013 after he was pushed out as head coach at Georgia. She wanted him to join her as co-head coach for the 2020 season, with the idea that he would take over full-time in her place someday.

Tuesday was someday.

“Jay has been an incredible recruiter,” Breaux said. “To be a good recruiter, you have to be persistent and have the same repetition over and over and over. Having Jay join our staff when he did and being able to be a fabulous recruiter, that has made all the difference in the world. To make him co-head coach and now head coach, I have all the faith in the world that he’s going to thrive.”

Breaux does not plan to pull any strings. She has ideas of whom she would like to see fill her slot on the staff as assistant coach, but she insists that will be Clark’s decision. But as she moves into an emeritus/ambassador-type role with speaking and fundraising in her future, she won’t be too far away.

If she has advice for Clark, it is to keep pushing, keep promoting. Keep fighting and never take the wins and the titles and the huge crowds for granted.

“You never get used to it,” she said. “If you get used to it, you’re going to get on your heels. If you get on your heels, someone is going to get in front of you.”

She might be retiring, but the woman who once swam across the Mississippi River as a teenager (the current carried her two miles downstream) is still feisty.

Unlike a lot of coaches, perhaps most coaches, Breaux made her program what it is. And she is leaving on her own terms, a rare feat indeed.

“I feel 43 years is enough,” she said. “My accomplishments and what we have achieved in LSU gymnastics, it’s much better than when I found it.

“I think the program is going to continue to get better and they’re going to plant their flag at the top of the mountain. And I will feel that I will have made a contribution to that. LSU winning a national championship in gymnastics has always been a dream. And I think that will come true.”

That national championship eluded Breaux, whose Tigers finished second to Oklahoma three times in 2016, 2017 and 2019. LSU came the closest of all last year, when all else being equal, the Tigers could have claimed the top step on the podium if just one Sooners gymnast had stepped out of bounds on the floor.

But national titles are not the only way to judge a coach. Certainly not the only way to judge Breaux. Her legacy goes way beyond that. Which is why, even after coaching 43 years, for many she is leaving far too soon.

"I believe every coach should retire with people wanting more," Clark said. "That will be the circumstances here. A huge portion of the fan base will be clamoring for her to not to have left."


Email Scott Rabalais at srabalais@theadvocate.com