It’s fair to say that 2008 has been a good year for Head Coach Cliff Gauthier.
His team finished 11th at the NCAA championships. He passed the 700-win mark for his career at the College of William and Mary. And the Tribe earned the National Academic Team Champions honor (an award given by the College Gymnastics Coaches Association) for the fourth time in Gauthier’s career.
“It was an awesome year,” Gauthier said. “It was one of those teams that just achieved. I don’t think, with our personnel, we could have done better than 11th at the NCAAs.”
While the wins and honors are certainly special to Gauthier, he likes to focus on the Tribe’s mission: “To use the medium of gymnastics to help people improve the quality of their lives by teaching them how to grow and to learn more about who they are.”
After 35 years of coaching at the College, Gauthier still holds fast to that philosophy.
“The mission is the driving force of our team,” Gauthier said. “If all the guys buy into this and are comfortable with it, we’ll be quite successful.”
The mission includes a commitment to excel, work hard, help teammates, maintain the integrity of competition, and stay focused in the classroom. To truly excel, Gauthier expects his athletes to blend together the different aspects of their lives, whether those are athletic, social, academic or familial.
“Rather than just calling it ‘balancing ‘all those aspects in your life, I like to refer to it as ‘blending’ because they all work together,” Gauthier said. “If you’re having trouble in your classes, it’s going to boil over into the gym.”
It’s that “blending” that has allowed his teams to be so successful. Gauthier has coached All-Americans on both the NCAA and the USAG (a competition for non-scholarship teams) levels, USAG and league championship teams, and, most recently, the top academic team in the nation.
It’s the Tribe’s fourth title since the award’s inception in 1991. During that 17-year span, the College has placed inside the top 10 a total of 15 times. It’s also taken runner-up honors on four occasions.
“You can’t beat the national team champions [award],” Gauthier said. “It shows a completely sustained effort for all the guys on the team for an entire school year.”
When Gauthier and the team talked about expectations for the 2008 season, the national academic title was part of the discussion.
“I thought we had a chance to do it,” Gauthier said. “We do push that. We really do.”
His team — composed of athletes that Gauthier hand-picks for possessing both athleticism and a “love for learning” — responded to that early season chat and focused on competing at high levels in both the gym and the classroom.
“We worked really hard last year,” junior Derek Gygax said. “Last year, everybody got in this mindset and we were just going [with] everybody working together and helping each other out.”
The Tribe’s camaraderie can be traced to the recruiting trail.
“Right off the bat, a lot of guys get eliminated simply because they just want to be an athlete or they can’t afford the effort it takes to excel in the gym,” Gauthier said. “A lot [of athletes] will just try to cash in on their athletic ability to go to school as a short-term investment. What I’m trying to get is guys that look at going to college as truly the real investment.”
Gauthier’s recruiting efforts land athletes who also value academics. That approach certainly helped the Tribe edge past Ohio State University with a cumulative GPA of 3.421 to the Buckeyes’ 3.415. The College also beat out the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University and the University of Michigan for the title.
“Cliff will definitely get on us if our academics start going down,” sophomore Matt Holmes said.
Last year, that wasn’t the case. Thirteen of the 19 guys on the roster were first- or second-team academic all-Americans. First-teamers needed at least a 3.5 GPA, while the GPAs of second-team members fell between 3.2 and 3.4999. Since 1991, the College has had 91 scholar-athlete honorees.
“It takes a lot of leadership from within the team,” Gauthier said. “I can’t force that on the guys, but I can help create the atmosphere. Then it’s up to them to take advantage of it.”
His 2008 senior class (Devin DeBacker, Andrew Hunt, Aaron Ingram and David Locke) led the way with the highest combined GPA of the classes and numerous USAG and conference awards.
“I’m just really proud of the guys on the team,” Gauthier said. “It was just phenomenal.”