More Than Just Gym-nastics
Feb. 12, 2008
by Jeff Smith
Soon after Jim Stephenson was hired as the Golden Gophers' head women's gymnastics coach in 1993, he admitted to then Minnesota women's athletic director Chris Voelz that she hired the wrong person. He was overwhelmed with the position and the fact that being a head coach at a major Division I university called for far more than just training the athletes. There were several other responsibilities and he just felt at the time he was not the right man for the job. In fact, he felt that he wasn't even the best Stephenson for the job.
That is because both Jim and his wife Meg applied for the head coaching vacancy.
Despite Jim winning the job initially, things have since worked out to where the Minnesota administration has provided the Stephensons with their ideal coaching environment, as both have been co-head coaches now since 1997.
The two have spent the past 27 years coaching together and the last 24 as a married couple. As an accomplished gymnast at Iowa State in the early 1970s, Jim moved to the West Coast and founded the Pantheon School of Gymnastics in Rancho Cordova, Calif. Needing another coach to partner with, Jim had used to his Iowa State ties to learn that Meg, who was a gymnast with the Cyclones from 1977-81, was looking to get into the coaching profession. Sight unseen, Jim hired Meg over the phone in 1981 and both were unaware just how special the partnership would turn out to be.
"The partnership has worked out so well in every respect," Jim said. "I brought Meg out to California and we became best friends. Her strengths supplemented my weaknesses."
Meg was quick to quip that his strengths did the same for her.
Together the two put together what they felt was a complete gymnastics program. Not only did Jim serve in the typical male role as a spotter, but he also specialized in the vault, tumbling and the uneven bars. Meg on the other hand had strengths in beam and the floor, while also arranging all the choreography and music that accompanies the routines.
It did not take long for the Jim's venture to find success, however it did take some time for him to learn just how special Meg was to the partnership.
"It finally struck me that my best friend is a woman, and I thought to myself, my gosh, this could really work out," he said.
The two extended their relationship off the gymnastics floor in 1984 when the two married.
Asked if the honeymoon months were tough on the two as they lived, breathed, and worked gymnastics with each other, Jim points out that the closeness they had as coaches made marriage life easy.
"It just developed into a wonderful respect for each other," he said. "We had a caring for each other and a knowledge for each other that you wouldn't get if you were just dating."
The Stephensons soon became involved in collegiate coaching and following their five-year stint in club gymnastics, Jim earned assistant positions at New Mexico and Utah. He helped the Utes' women's program to national titles in 1990 and 1992.
But wherever Jim went, Meg was not far behind.
Technically she served four years as a consultant for Utah, helping out with both the balance beam and floor exercise. Following the success of Utes' 1992 national championship, both Jim and Meg felt it was time to move on and both felt Minnesota would be the perfect fit. So, both applied for the job.
Now, there was a plan in all of this. There was no backstabbing or dirty campaigning. They both knew what they wanted and that was to convince Minnesota to hire them as co-head coaches. But the Gopher administration was hesitant to hire both coaches after a similar situation had not ended the way they hoped, which essentially prompted the vacancy.
So only Jim was hired by Minnesota at that time and he soon realized just how important Meg was to the overall operation.
"I felt like when I left for work I was leaving half of my capability at home," he said. "At the club gym, we had split half the responsibilities. Meg's organizational skills are where a Division I coach needs to be. The part of training your athletes is such a small part of coaching at a university, and that may be where I am good, but she has a lot more capabilities."
Which is why he admitted to his boss that she had hired the wrong person.
Jim was able to bring his wife on as an assistant and the two found success just as quick as they did in their previous stops, including the club level. In just five years, the Stephensons turned Minnesota from a bottom-of-the-conference program to a national power. In 1997, the Gophers earned their first-ever trip to the national championships.
"This was a program we built," Meg said. "We took over a program that was last in the Big Ten and 52nd nationally and took it to second in the Big Ten and 10th nationally in just five years."
Much like their hand in Utah's 1992 national championship earned them a job offer from Minnesota, the Stephensons' turnaround in Minneapolis had the same effect. Following the 1997 national championships, Oregon State came calling with an offer for both Jim and Meg to become co-head coaches at the school. It was everything the two had ever wanted. It wasn't about money for them; it was about the title. Both knew the impact having two head coaches could have in the recruiting process.
When it appeared the Stephensons were seriously considering the Oregon Sate offer, Minnesota changed its philosophies and offered a similar role for them to stay in Minneapolis.
"They knew if they didn't do it, we would leave, but we didn't want to leave," said Meg, who also admitted it was a struggle for her to earn the respect of the administration. "Now it's been 11 years and the team really doesn't think about having two head coaches and it has been embraced by everybody. It is something so natural for us."
Currently the Stephensons are the only husband-wife coaching combination on the college scene that serves as co-head coaches. Both are quick to point out that at schools such as Alabama, Arkansas, BYU, New Hampshire, Oregon State and Utah, there are husband and wife combinations, but one serves as the head coach while the other is an associate.
Success has continued to be the result of the unique partnership as the Stephensons have earned Big Ten Coach of the Year honors in 1998 and 2002. In the latter season the Gophers finished a school-best ninth at the NCAA Championships. The duo has also led the program to NCAA regional competition the past 12 seasons and captured the 1998 and 2006 conference titles as well.
Both Jim and Meg point to their similar coaching philosophies and passion for the sport as the cause of their success over the years. Each is quick to admit that they also speak their minds, no matter how much their opinions may differ.
"I can tell you honestly, we respect each other's opinion so much, we feel the need to know the other's opinion," Jim said. "We feel perfectly willing and free to offer our opinion because there have been plenty of times where we know there is a better idea, so we use it to blend it into the best idea."
Said Meg, "It's more important to be good at what we do than to hurt the other's feelings."
When it comes to recruiting, and that parent is out there hoping that a college coach will foster his or her daughter while she is at college, the Stephensons offer a "mom and dad" type of atmosphere. Both Jim and Meg will hit the road recruiting to make the house calls. They feel it is important for the recruit and her parents to see both head coaches, because they are in a sense, the reflection of the program.
"Minnesota is the first thing we sell, and that is the easy part," Meg said.
"But we also tell recruits that if we walk out of here and you don't like us, you won't like Minnesota," said Jim.
Dealing with high school recruits is one thing, but Jim and Meg Stephenson have also managed to raise two of their own as well. Despite having both parents on the same schedule, doing the same thing, and gone for the same amount of time, the Stephensons feel that have kept their priorities straight when it comes to their 17-year-old daughter Sierra and 20-year-old son Jack.
"Jim and I were raised in families that fostered independence and we have tried to do the same thing," Meg said. "There have been times where it was a challenge, but our children have been understanding and they knew how important this was to us."
Throughout the years it has been clear to the gymnastics community just how well the Stephensons work together. What started out as a sight-unseen phone interview turned into a friendship and ultimately a marriage. It has been the partnership that has lasted 27 years and still remains strong.
Proof that even though the right person may not have gotten the job to start, the right couple has it now.