Before retiring each evening, University of Utah women's gymnastics coach Greg Marsden seizes the remote control and turns on the TV set in the bedroom. He frequently tunes in CNN and adjusts the volume upward. Soothed by the amplified drone of voices, Marsden shuts his eyes. Only then does sleep come.
"I need the TV to distract me," says Marsden, 45, of the nightly ritual that began more than 20 years ago. "There's so much going on in my head. Do we have the timing of the meet down? What will be the order of the lineup for uneven bars? Are we ready for regionals?"
He'll never admit it, but Marsden, now in his 21st season with the Utes, has earned a tranquil night's rest. Since women's intercollegiate athletics went from AIAW to NCAA control in 1982, Marsden's teams have won nine national championships, including the last two. Among women's programs, only the University of North Carolina soccer team, with a dozen titles, has achieved more success during that time span.
Though he has two assistants and a phalanx of consultants "putting the pieces of the puzzle together," as he describes it, Marsden attends to virtually every detail. He chooses designs for the leotards that the team competes in, scans photos into a computer to help create a media guide and spends up to an hour before most practices vacuuming the mats on which his gymnasts will tumble. A janitor could perform that last task, but probably not to Marsden's satisfaction.
"We call it Greg's floor routine," says senior Megan Caudle, the 1995 NCAA runner-up on balance beam. "He doesn't just vacuum the floor—he does it in tidy columns, as if he's plowing a field. He's a fanatic for detail."
In gymnastics, a sport that quantifies perfection, Marsden is close to a 10. His career record in dual meets is 315-37-1; including postseason competition, his record of 598-82-1 is the winningest among active women's gymnastics coaches. And Marsden's Utes draw bigger crowds than any other women's sports team in the country. Their 1993 average of 13,164 fans per home meet set an NCAA single-season record for women's sports, and their average home crowd during the past four seasons has been 10,292. By comparison, no women's college basketball team ever has averaged even 9,000 fans for a season.
"Greg is a genius, by far the best collegiate coach in the country," says Georgia coach Suzanne Yoculan, whose teams have won three NCAA titles. "But the perfectionist in him could someday quite literally be the death of him."
"To the best gymnastics coach I know," reads the inscription on a picture from Indiana basketball coach Bob Knight in Greg's office. "Someone got it for me as a joke," says Marsden, "because in the past I've been compared to him."
In 1976 Knight was leading the Hoosiers to a 32-0 record and the national championship; Marsden was a 24-year-old Ph.D. candidate in sports psychology who was teaching in the phys-ed department. When Utah moved to comply with Title IX guidelines that mandated an increase in athletic opportunities for women, Marsden was offered a part-time coaching position, at $1,500 a year, to start up a gymnastics program.
"Seven girls answered an ad I put in the paper for tryouts," recalls Marsden, who had been a college diver at Central Arkansas but had no real gymnastic experience himself. "They all made the team, and somehow we went to the nationals and finished 10th. I realized that we might be able to build something here."