Suzanne Yoculan Leebern is aware of this purported narrative: After nine years of retirement, she wanted to coach again. But to do so, the GymDogs’ architect needed someone else to be the figurehead. So she tabbed her greatest pupil, Courtney Kupets Carter, the most decorated collegiate gymnast in the sport’s history, to be Georgia’s new head coach. Meanwhile, she would call the shots in the background.
To Yoculan Leebern, this notion is preposterous. And to those who buy the narrative, she wants to set the record straight.
“I didn’t have Courtney come in here so I can manipulate Courtney and be in charge,” Yoculan Leebern said. “If I wanted to do that I could have had (athletics director) Greg (McGarity) hire me as head coach and I could have got my salary back, and probably bigger. I’m not old. I could’ve been the head coach if I wanted.”
And that last part is quite likely.
Yoculan Leebern became Georgia’s head coach in 1983. She led the GymDogs to 10 national titles. She is a legend in the gymnastics community. Given the accolades, yes, Yoculan Leebern could have probably taken her old job back upon request. She just doesn't want it. As a volunteer assistant this season, Yoculan Leebern missed the Utah meet to take an annual family trip to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.
She wants to help and be involved. She doesn’t want to be in charge.
Following last year’s decision to dismiss Danna Durante after five seasons, Yoculan Leebern said she consulted McGarity about a replacement. She recommended Kupets Carter. After getting the job, Kupets Carter asked Yoculan Leebern if she wanted to be a volunteer assistant. Since the two talk regularly anyway, she agreed to do so.
But Yoculan Leebern insisted she does not want to be a head coach again. She’s more than happy with what she accomplished. It’s time, and has been, for someone else to lead the GymDogs.
“Of course, I want to help Courtney any way I can,” Yoculan Leebern said. “But I don’t want to come in here and overshadow her in any way. And that hasn’t happened. She runs this place.”
Yoculan Leebern has served as a sounding board in Kupets Carter’s inaugural season as a head coach. Having competed for Yoculan Leebern, Kupets Carter’s practice structure is similar to what she experienced as a Georgia gymnast. She has implemented many of the same things, such as individual meetings and weekly group sessions. She has added her own stamp as well when it comes to daily planning.
When Kupets Carter is assisting a specific area at practice, Yoculan Leebern’s energy is exhibited on the other side.
“I’ll be on beam and I’ll see her over at floor, and she’s chasing them around the floor, yelling, ‘Get your head up,’” Kupets Carter said. “She’s fully invested in what she does, whether it’s head coach or volunteer coach.”
As a volunteer, Yoculan Leebern said she wants to stay out of the way. Multiple times during a 50-minute interview she emphasized this isn’t her team.
For nine years after her final season in 2009, Yoculan Leebern witnessed the Georgia program she built to great heights slip. The 2009 campaign was Georgia’s last national title. The last SEC championship came a year prior in 2008. Yoculan Leebern said that “on paper,” Jay Clark, who replaced Yoculan Leebern after the 2009 season, should have worked as a head coach. He was her longtime assistant who had a great rapport with the women on the roster. But after three years, his time at Georgia came to an end.
Danna Durante took over for the next five seasons, which didn’t see the GymDogs make a serious run at a national championship. While Georgia made the Super Six three times, Durante's squads never finished higher than fifth. Yoculan Leebern said she saw Georgia lose its identity during this span.
“We have to reestablish our culture,” Yoculan Leebern said. “It’s who we are. We have to have a coach here who embraces the Georgia tradition. I think during that period of time that was so hard. Sitting in the stands and people saying it’s just not the same. We’re not even talking about winning or losing. It’s just not the same. I think people already feel it is better and great. That’s what I hear.”
This sesaon, Georgia is 4-9 overall and ranked 18th in the nation with an RQS of 196.515. The GymDogs are set to compete in the NCAA Regional Saturday in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, with a trip to the 12-team national championship meet on the line. Of the six teams competing – No. 6 Alabama, No. 7 Michigan, No. 18 Georgia, No. 22 Missouri, No. 23 Illinois and No. 36 Central Michigan – the top two will advance to the NCAA Semifinals in St. Louis.
Ultimately, Yoculan Leebern wants to see the program she built – “from 200 to 10,000 fans,” as Kupets Carter said – return to the elite level she had it rolling at. And that is why she recommended Kupets Carter for the job. She believes Kupets Carter, who she coached from 2006-09, is the best person to bring Georgia back to national prominence.
Yoculan Leebern said she will hang around as a volunteer assistant for as long as she’s needed for the reemergence to take place. Once the program is in the shape it once was, she will step away, moving from the floor to a seat for a second time.
“It’s so I can sit in the stands, be happy and I can watch Georgia thrive,” Yoculan Leebern said. “And I can watch Georgia get back to its grass roots and get our fans, and our alumni, supporting our program again with that heart and soul we always had. That’s why I’m in here right now. I’m in here as long as I’m needed, as needed, and possibly less next year.”