Yesterday, less than 96 hours after Dana Duckworth unexpectedly stepped down as head coach of the Alabama Gymnastics team, UA Athletic Director Greg Byrne announced her replacement: ‘Bama alum Ashley Priess-Johnston would be the next skipper of the program.
To say that everything about the Tide’s coaching loss-and-search-and-replacement has been irregular would be a grotesque understatement. From Dana’s abrupt departure, to the unseemly haste in which she was replaced, even to the hire itself, it seems as though the Administration is giving Alabama fans the mushroom treatment: Keep them in the dark, and feed them manure.
Before we delve into this too much, let me make something crystalline: none of this is meant as an attack on Ashley Priess-Johnston. She could be the second coming of the Pattersons, and it would not matter one whit to valid criticism that the process and manner in which she arrived has been absolutely terrible.
Yes, it is fair to question her thin resume that includes a lack of head coaching experience, and some generally bland non-Suni Lee results coaching Auburn’s balance beam.
But that is not the point. I’m willing to give her the benefit of the doubt to win us over. Others may not.
And, sure, in a vacuum, it seems an acceptable hire for a program not accustomed to being in the nation’s elite. But it would be willing blindness to ignore that it certainly hasn’t excited fans, that on paper it doesn’t get Alabama one step closer to returning to the nation’s best, nor that it is a step up from Coach Duckworth in potential or experience.
Belated, beloved Cecil Hurt would always ask this question of new hires: “Did Alabama get the best coach it could?”
Those are all fair game...and I’ll let others make their case. Again, this isn’t about Coach Priess-Johnston.
No, the real issue is the process in which she arrived back at the Capstone; it’s one that belies a larger attitudinal issue and a seeming obliviousness within this iteration of Alabama administrators — Byrne simply doesn’t seem to understand the passion involved around Alabama gymnastics on one hand, and on the other doesn’t particularly seem to care about Women’s sports in general.
As long as they aren’t hemorrhaging money or embarrassing the school, underachievers can stay in perpetuity. Sign-and-forget it. Occasionally-win-and-extend. That has been the MO. There just seems to be very little investment here (And no one who’s looked at Coach Kristy Curry’s decade-long tenure of mediocrity could make a serious case to the contrary).
So, what did passionate Alabama fans get by way of a coaching search? Well, Greg Byrne did not leave this campus all weekend, for starters. The very night Duckworth left, he was chilling at the Joe. And that’s where he was on Friday as well. Saturday and Sunday, he was at Rhoads, watching softball be mercifully euthanized. The University of Alabama jet did not leave its Northport hangar. Nor did any coaching candidate come to visit campus, tour the facilities, or be sold on the job.
All we have is an assurance that Greg spoke with Sarah Patterson about Dana’s replacement and (shockingly) it landed on another Patterson assistant.
In short, we very much have the appearance of Gymnastics doing the same thing that Football attempted for two decades: patronage hires, family hires, legacy hires. It’s how Alabama landed on Duckworth, and that seems to be how Gymnastics has now landed on Priess-Johnston. A quick call to Sarah from a dispassionate athletic director, and that’s all it takes for a “search” now, apparently.
Greg Byrne didn’t hop a charter and make Jordyn Wieber say no. He didn’t fly Mizzou’s Shannon Welker into Tuscaloosa. He didn’t publicly court Kentucky’s Tim Garrison. For that matter, in the realm of assistants with no head coaching experience, he didn’t hire one from a far more successful program. Nor is there evidence he pursued long-established assistants with a sterling track record as development coaches and recruiters. For that matter — as I’ve seen argued in online gym — he didn’t even hire the hottest Auburn assistant, or pursue the ‘Bama alum with the better demonstrable results as an assistant: Geralen Stack-Eaton, now helping to turn Minnesota into a Big 10 power.
Would any of those names have been better (whatever that means?) Who knows; I’ll let others fight over that. Should they have been part of a meaningful search process? Absolutely. Then, if Coach Priess-Johnston was who the Tide landed on after a deliberative, meaningful search, so be it. But that is not how she arrived, and it is not how the “search” is being sold. Per Byrne’s press release, a few calls to Sarah was what it took and that what it he is trying to sell us on.
“Just trust me” stops working on people when we’re children…for a reason. And passionate fans being sold that as the basis of a hire is going to leave a bad taste in a lot of mouths, and doubly so if it doesn’t succeed.
It was that process that is insulting to accomplished assistants who’ve long-labored for one of these rare openings. It was that process that is insulting to diehard fans, who’ve sunk their money and and time and love into the program for decades. But perhaps most insulting is the chutzpah with which administration supposes it can slap Coach Patterson’s name on a lazy, disinterested hiring process and afford themselves political cover for it.
Coach Patterson’s name is not sword, shield, and cudgel.
Nothing about this “search” indicates that administrators were steering this particular ship…or that they even particularly cared. We know when something is rotten in Denmark. And while women’s athletics may be very low on the administration’s list of priorities — somewhere between root canals and replacing Coleman Coliseum — it is decidedly not to the countless fans who have made Gymnastics a destination, nor to the girls already on the team, nor to those who have just committed to the program.
Because though the hire may prove to be a great one at the end of the day, the process sure as hell stunk. And, in fact, we want it to be awesome. We want a dominant gym program and to meaningfully compete for a national title. People want a reason to inflict Coleman Mausoleum on their children.
People get upset (and they are upset), because they care. When no one bats an eye at this type of thing, then you should worry. For the opposite of love isn’t hate; it’s indifference.
But the process itself was lazy and disinterested, at best — and you know it. And, at worst, it’s the type of cronyism we’ve seen around these parts for decades — often to disastrous effect.
Let’s hope this proves to end differently.
Best of luck to Coach Priess-Johnston. No one wishes her anything but success.