BEFORE RETIRING each evening, University of Utah women's
gymnastics coach Greg Marsden seizes the remote control and
turns on the TV set in the bedroom. He frequently tunes in CNN
and adjusts the volume upward. Soothed by the amplified drone of
voices, Marsden shuts his eyes. Only then does sleep come.
"I need the TV to distract me," says Marsden, 45, of the nightly
ritual that began more than 20 years ago. "There's so much going
on in my head. Do we have the timing of the meet down? What will
be the order of the lineup for uneven bars? Are we ready for
He'll never admit it, but Marsden, now in his 21st season with
the Utes, has earned a tranquil night's rest. Since women's
intercollegiate athletics went from AIAW to NCAA control in
1982, Marsden's teams have won nine national championships,
including the last two. Among women's programs, only the
University of North Carolina soccer team, with a dozen titles,
has achieved more success during that time span.
Though he has two assistants and a phalanx of consultants
"putting the pieces of the puzzle together," as he describes it,
Marsden attends to virtually every detail. He chooses designs
for the leotards that the team competes in, scans photos into a
computer to help create a media guide and spends up to an hour
before most practices vacuuming the mats on which his gymnasts
will tumble. A janitor could perform that last task, but
probably not to Marsden's satisfaction.
April 1, 1996
"We call it Greg's floor routine," says senior Megan Caudle, the
1995 NCAA runner-up on balance beam. "He doesn't just vacuum the
floor--he does it in tidy columns, as if he's plowing a field.
He's a fanatic for detail."
In gymnastics, a sport that quantifies perfection, Marsden is
close to a 10. His career record in dual meets is 315-37-1;
including postseason competition, his record of 598-82-1 is the
winningest among active women's gymnastics coaches. And
Marsden's Utes draw bigger crowds than any other women's sports
team in the country. Their 1993 average of 13,164 fans per home
meet set an NCAA single-season record for women's sports, and
their average home crowd during the past four seasons has been
10,292. By comparison, no women's college basketball team ever
has averaged even 9,000 fans for a season.
"Greg is a genius, by far the best collegiate coach in the
country," says Georgia coach Suzanne Yoculan, whose teams have
won three NCAA titles. "But the perfectionist in him could
someday quite literally be the death of him."
"To the best gymnastics coach I know," reads the inscription on
a picture from Indiana basketball coach Bob Knight in Greg's
office. "Someone got it for me as a joke," says Marsden,
"because in the past I've been compared to him."
In 1976 Knight was leading the Hoosiers to a 32-0 record and the
national championship; Marsden was a 24-year-old Ph.D. candidate
in sports psychology who was teaching in the phys-ed department.
When Utah moved to comply with Title IX guidelines that mandated
an increase in athletic opportunities for women, Marsden was
offered a part-time coaching position, at $1,500 a year, to
start up a gymnastics program.
"Seven girls answered an ad I put in the paper for tryouts,"
recalls Marsden, who had been a college diver at Central
Arkansas but had no real gymnastic experience himself. "They all
made the team, and somehow we went to the nationals and finished
10th. I realized that we might be able to build something here."
Marsden, a bachelor at the time, began a monomaniacal quest to
build a dynasty on the Salt Lake City campus. He devoured
technical books on the sport, attended clinics and sought out
gurus. "Greg was never afraid to say to an older coach, 'Hey,
you know what you're doing, help me, teach me,'" says Ute meet
director Anne-Marie Jensen, who has been involved with the
program since its inception. "But he became so narrow-minded,
like gymnastics was his life. But then, it was his job and his
Along the way Marsden polished the Knight routine. He kicked his
athletes out of practices, berated judges, even pulled his team
off the floor to protest an official's call.
"Greg can be hot-headed," says his wife, Megan, a former Ute
gymnast. "People make comments like, 'He's such a jerk,' but
they don't look at what he's fighting for." Yoculan says she
knows what Marsden's motivation is: "When you get to know Greg,
you realize that everything he does is for his athletes."
In January of 1993 Marsden found himself in a dispute with the
National Organization for Women. A billboard (How many
collegiate women's teams rent their own billboard space?) that
showed team member Aimee Trepanier clad in a black leotard was
causing rubbernecking delays on I-15. The local NOW chapter and
YWCA thought the billboard, which gave the phone number to use
for ordering season tickets, was too provocative.
"Ten championships and that was the first time we ever made the
front page of The Salt Lake Tribune," says Marsden. "The facts
are, gymnasts have fantastic bodies and they compete in leotards."
Bowing to the protests, university administrators pulled the
billboard. Marsden responded last summer by accepting an
invitation to help promote a local arts festival. Wearing a pink
tutu, he appeared on the same billboard in the same pose under
the heading WHAT IS ART?
"I've never respected authority for authority's sake," says
Marsden. "I teach my athletes to be the same way." It's no
surprise, then, that the Bob Knight of gymnastics was once
kicked out of practice by one of his athletes.
In 1986 the Utes lost a meet at Oregon State, and the following
afternoon Marsden, whose gymnasts are familiar with what they
call his "funky" moods, wore a scowl to practice. "Why don't you
just leave?" team captain Lisa Mitzel told him. Marsden
bristled, but Mitzel did not bend. "If we came into the gym in a
crappy mood, you'd throw us out," she said. "Why don't you get
Stunned, but aware that Mitzel was correct, Marsden went home.
"That's the wonderful thing about Greg," says Dr. Keith
Henschen, the team's sports psychologist. "He sets his standards
so high, but he's only human. And he recognizes it."
In April 1981 the Utes won the AIAW championship, their first
national title. Marsden was 31. When he arrived home, alone, he
set the trophy on the kitchen table and wept. "Bawled like a
baby," he says. "I'd reached the pinnacle of my career, and I
realized that I had nobody to share it with. It was the best and
worst night of my life."
In fact, Marsden had fallen in love with someone that season,
but he was keeping it to himself. Megan McCunniff was a freshman
on the team, and when Marsden scheduled her last among his
one-on-one evaluations two weeks after the season ended, she
trembled in fear.
"Greg had recruited me sight unseen as a favor to a friend, and
we had fought a lot that spring," she recalls. "I thought that
he might be wondering whether I'd be happier someplace else."
Instead, the coach told his athlete that he was in love with
her, and that he did not know how to resolve the situation.
"That's Greg," says Megan, 33, "always hitting an issue head-on."
The couple decided, after discussions with Megan's parents and
Utah's athletic director, to start dating later that summer.
They wed in June of 1983, after Megan's junior year, and,
luckily for both, neither's career suffered. In Megan's final
two seasons under Greg's tutelage she won three individual
titles and set an NCAA record for the highest score in the
all-around. Utah was national champion all four years she
competed. Megan is now associate head coach for the Utes, and
she and Greg have two sons, Montana, 7, and Dakota, 4.
Greg does not joke about having fallen in love with one of his
gymnasts, nor excuse himself for such a serious breach of
coaching ethics. "My life has been a series of mistakes, I
guess," he says, "and while that one was the best mistake I ever
made, and we can rationalize it all day ... bottom line, it was
the wrong thing to do."
The good news is that Marsden now has someone with whom he can
share his triumphs. Megan even puts up with his habit of leaving
the television on all night. Well, most of the time she does. On
a recent February night she couldn't tune out the droning voices
and the eerie blue light of the TV, so she repaired to the
living room sofa. Her husband didn't miss her very long: By four
a.m., he was up, out of the house and at the Utah athletic
offices, preparing for a meet at Michigan that was still a day