Couple’s passion, trust built program

Jim and Meg Stephenson have coached together for 32 years.

Women's gymnastics head coach Meg Stephenson and assistant coach Jim Stephenson speak with their team after they finished competing in an in-house meet Saturday, April 13, 2013, at Peik Gymnasium. This season the Gophers qualified for the NCAA championships for the first time since 2002.

Amanda Snyder

Women’s gymnastics head coach Meg Stephenson and assistant coach Jim Stephenson speak with their team after they finished competing in an in-house meet Saturday, April 13, 2013, at Peik Gymnasium. This season the Gophers qualified for the NCAA championships for the first time since 2002.

Nickalas Tabbert

Jim and Meg Stephenson sat between the stacked tumbling mats and the spring-loaded floor apparatus in Peik Gymnasium on campus Saturday afternoon.

Gymnastics practice had just ended, and the excited cheers and laughter from the women on the team had fallen silent. Only the sound of the air vents surrounded the coaches.

The gymnasts were preparing for their first trip to the NCAA championships this weekend in Los Angeles. Meg and Jim were preparing for their third trip in 21 years at Minnesota.

This season marked the 32nd that Jim and Meg have been coaching together. They have helped build the women’s gymnastics program from the ground up using trust in each other and a shared passion for gymnastics.

Their accomplishments speak for themselves — 18 consecutive NCAA regional meets, two Big Ten championships, a share of the first-ever regular-season title earlier this year and the program’s only three appearances at the NCAA championships.

“This is a team we built,” Meg said. “When we took over, we were on a mission, and we have just been literally blessed with athletes and their families over the 20-plus years.”

Both Stephensons have spent time as head coach of the program. Jim served as head coach for 17 years beginning in 1993, when the couple first moved to Minnesota. Meg joined him as co-head coach in 1997, a title they shared for 13 seasons.

When health problems forced Jim to become a volunteer assistant prior to the 2010 season, Meg took the sole title of head coach. Jim primarily helps out in practice now.

A call, a ring and a title

Jim and Meg were successful gymnasts at Iowa State but not at the same time. Jim was a two-time national champion and earned All-America honors in 1973. Meg later was a team captain for two years.

They met over the phone in 1981. Jim was looking to add a coach to the gym where he worked in California. Meg had just graduated from college and was looking for a summer job.

She planned to work at a club in Wisconsin that Jim’s friends from Iowa State owned and managed. But when Jim called looking for a coach, Meg shifted her plans to go to California.

The two decided to open their own gymnastics club, the Pantheon School of Gymnastics, a year later. They coached 98 individual state champions, two national Junior Olympic champions and seven state team champions in six years.

Jim and Meg married in 1984. Jim said he realized she was his best friend while working side-by-side with her.

“It just seemed like the perfect situation,” he said. “We saw the world from the same vantage point on so many things.”

Meg said she originally planned to marry her college boyfriend but changed her mind when she met Jim in person.

They sold the Pantheon in 1987 when they decided they wanted to have kids.

“We just knew the time commitment of owning your own club made it really tough to spend enough time with your kids,” Meg said.

Their plan was to both apply for the head coaching job at Minnesota in 1993 and then split the title. Meg said multiple programs had used spouses as coaches, but none shared the title of head coach.

“Most of our experience had been sharing that role and getting our parts of that role identified,” Jim said. “We’re better like that, and we wanted that again.”

The plan failed because the University administration feared another husband and wife coaching combination. The job had become available that year because the previous head coach and her husband reportedly gave the team a video tape that contained sexual activity.

Jim was given the head coaching job, and Meg settled for a job as an assistant coach.

Shortly afterward, Jim told then-women’s AD Chris Voelz she picked the wrong Stephenson for the job.

Within five years at Minnesota, the Stephensons transformed a weak Big Ten gymnastics program into an NCAA championship contender. Minnesota qualified for its first-ever NCAA championships in 1997 and finished 10th.

Following that season, Oregon State offered the Stephensons the co-head coaching job they wanted.

The Stephensons returned to Voelz to ask for the same at Minnesota.

The request worked, and although Minnesota offered less money than Oregon State, the Stephensons wanted to stay with the program they had built.

On the same page

Jim and Meg make a suitable husband-wife coaching team because they complement each other. Jim is specialized in the power and strength of tumbling and vaulting, while Meg is better with the dance presentation and artistic part of performing.

Assistant coach Jenny Hansen said the Stephensons are good coaches because they know each other’s strengths.

They also know what each other is going to say or think.

“I think as coaches we really trust each other,” Meg said. “We really kind of feel like we came through the same mold, so to speak, mentored the same way in our coaching.”

That pays off when the Stephensons recruit athletes on the University campus.

“We have used our husband-and-wife relationship to make it a family atmosphere,” Meg said. “We’ve done that on purpose.”

Jim can no longer recruit off-campus since he is a volunteer coach. Meg travels with assistant coaches Hansen and Louie Johnson.

Meg often includes her entire staff in program decisions, from recruiting to managing the team’s budget, to reinforce her coaching methods.

“She is constantly getting their input, which I think is a really healthy leadership technique,” Jim said.

Any one of the four staff members could do a full interview of a recruit, Jim said, because they’re all on the same page.

“We’ve been very committed to laying our philosophies out on the table,” he said. “Our expectations, our own personal accountability — everything’s out on the table. And everybody on the team knows all of that stuff.”

The recruits know that, too, he said, which produces a comforting environment for development inside and outside of the gym.

“They’re more than just gymnastics coaches,” said Hansen, who competed for Jim and Meg from 2000-03. “They’re kind of like your second parents.”

A continued commitment

Jim had to step down as head coach prior to his 18th season. Years of performing and spotting gymnastics tore both of his biceps and weakened his upper body.

“Both shoulders were just trashed,” Jim said.

He had three surgeries performed within six months, effectively ending his ability to catch gymnasts flying through the air.

“I was really worried about him when we first did it because when you’re the spotter, you have a relationship with the athlete,” Meg said. “You’re very involved in the learning because you’re [physically moving gymnasts].”

Jim said it was tough to leave the spotter’s role because it was “a nice responsibility” and he was everyone’s security blanket.

But backing away allowed him to talk with multiple gymnasts about multiple skills.

“I’m a lot more effective now,” he said.

Jim also was able to dedicate more of his time outside of the gym. He provided illustrations for the best-selling book “Championship Gymnastics: Biomechanical Techniques for Shaping Winners” by Dr. Gerald George, which focuses on performance techniques.

“I felt then I was also contributing internationally to the sport as well as still being in here for the part of the job that I really enjoyed so much,” Jim said.

Johnson took over for Jim as the team’s primary spotter. He said the transition has been smooth for both men.

“Jim has taken me under his wing,” he said. “Jim is really easy to work with.”

Jim and Meg plan to finish their careers at Minnesota. They’ve had a few interesting offers throughout the years but nothing appealing enough to take them away from the Gophers.

Meg said they’ve received support from the families of past gymnasts since qualifying for the 2013 NCAA championships. That support has made them want to keep working hard to maintain the program’s success, she said.

“It makes you feel like, ‘why would you want to do this anywhere else?’”