How do you replace a legend? What steps do you even begin to take to fill the void left by someone who is the gold standard in your line of work? It’s a question that has been on Jay Clark’s mind ever since he was tasked to take over for D-D Breaux as head coach of the LSU gymnastics team in August.
It goes without saying this wasn’t just your routine coaching change. Even outside of Baton Rouge, Breaux doesn’t need much of an introduction.
The longest tenured coach in SEC history amassed more than 800 wins for LSU. The Tigers finished in the top 10 nationally for 31 of Breaux’s 43 years in charge of the program.
So, how does Clark hope to continue that legacy? Well, ironically, by not trying to be D-D Breaux.
“If I wind up trying to be D-D Breaux, I will find myself failing in a lot of areas,” Clark says. “She’s part of a group of coaches of that generation that I would call the warrior class of our profession. This palace of a gym that I’m sitting in is a testament to her career and everything that she accomplished and contributed.”
Now, that isn’t to say Clark plans to abandon Breaux’s building blocks. On the contrary, it seems he is aiming to mirror, rather than mimic, Breaux’s approach.
After all, he has spent the past seven years learning under her tutelage as the unofficial “head coach in waiting.” Prior to his arrival in Baton Rouge, Clark spent 22 seasons at University of Georgia in Athens, working his way from an assistant coach/recruiting coordinator up to head coach—a title he held for four seasons.
“I was in a place where I wasn’t sure whether I even wanted to coach again,” Clark says about the end of his time as the Bulldogs’ coach. “But anybody that’s been around D-D very long knows that she doesn’t take no for an answer on a lot of things. It just felt like maybe something special could be done here. It would be an opportunity to see if the things that we had seen work in [Georgia], could some of those principles be applied here and help D-D achieve some of the things that she really wanted to see come to fruition?”
But it wasn’t just Breaux’s coaching successes that drew Clark in.
He constantly repeats descriptors like “energy” and “passion” when referencing his predecessor, adding that the standard of excellence she set within the program hasn’t faded even if she isn’t around quite as often.
It was announced during Breaux’s retirement that she would be retained by LSU Athletics as an ambassador for the school and gymnastics program.
“I’ve learned that if you don’t bring the energy, you can’t expect the people around you to do it,” Clark says. “That’s one thing that D-D did every single day was bring a level of energy that was contagious and infectious around here. It’s something that we really focus on trying to bring every day when we’re in practice and training for something that we feel very passionately about. We feel like we have an obligation to our fans at this point to really continue what we’ve built in recent years and to try to take that next step.”
The team isn’t shy about what that “next step” is, either.
After finishing four of the past five seasons as national runner-up, the Tigers are itching to get over the hump and grab the program’s first national championship.
“Obviously, that’s definitely our end goal,” says senior Christina Desiderio, a talented beam and floor performer. “But we preach just taking one step forward every day. If we do that, I think we definitely have the ability to win the national championship, for sure. I think the sky is really the limit with this team. We just have to keep focused and stay determined.”
LSU is bringing back a ton of talent from last season’s strong squad, as well as a loaded incoming freshman class that includes two former U.S. national team members and three Junior Olympics competitors.
Clark says this year’s group is deeper and more competitive at each event, which has led to some healthy battles within the team.
“Last year, the biggest issue we had was lack of depth, and that really was born out of injury to a large extent,” says Clark. “Knock on wood, at this point we’re in a good situation from a depth perspective. That creates a competitive environment. You know the old ‘iron sharpens iron’ mentality that there’s a little bit of one-upsmanship that goes on in the gym from time to time, and it’s exciting. We’re in a much better place right now—believe it or not—in November  than we were this time in November last year.”
Among those returning talents is sophomore Kiya Johnson, who racked up 22 event titles, three All-America honors and multiple SEC Gymnast and Freshman of the Week awards in her debut season in purple and gold.
Growing up comes quick in the world of collegiate athletics. As a former standout freshman herself, Johnson has already begun taking on more of a leadership role this year to help the new crop of five freshmen get adjusted to the daily rigors of life as a college gymnast.
It’s a big adjustment in itself that has only been amplified with COVID-19 impacting just about every aspect of daily life. For example, workouts that would normally wrap up in two hours can now take four because of safety precautions and disinfecting protocols that must be done before a new group can begin their work.
“We had to make some adjustments in the way we train and how we rotate events and who we group them with,” Clark says. “We had to consider what contact tracing would look like, based on how we train. If you’ve been training with somebody, it should be somebody you already live with rather than cross-contaminating multiple living spaces and those things. It’s been challenging, but I think our kids deserve a lot of credit with how they’ve modified their social behavior and done a relatively good job of heeding the protocols that we had to put in place.”
To help ease the transition into these new arrangements and maintain some sense of normalcy, the team has transformed what is normally its “entertainment area” in the gymnastics facility into a study hall spot.
Desks were set up so student athletes can safely knock out their schoolwork, attend virtual classes or enjoy a meal on campus and around their teammates. This has helped maintain team camaraderie while providing a more structured routine with easier, quicker access to the gym.
“It was a little challenging at the beginning when we all got back on campus to just get back into the swing of actually doing gymnastics,” Johnson says. “We were all sent home and places were closed, so we couldn’t train or workout or anything. It’s been a weird transition, but I think we’re handling it well. It’s a pretty big [freshman] class, so if any of them need any advice on anything, or any help with anything, we try to just be there for them and help them through it, so that they can feel ready and prepared.”
One of the few disappointments for the team entering the season is that they won’t have a fully packed PMAC crowd cheering them on for home meets. The new SEC-only schedule will feature eight total meets, starting Jan. 8 against Arkansas.
It’s still not known how many fans will be allowed inside the PMAC, which is considered one of the best college gymnastics environments in the country. When it’s rocking, it’s one of the most vivacious atmospheres in the sport, averaging the fifth-most fans in the country.
Even still, Clark had a powerful message for the Tiger faithful.
“We ain’t dead, and neither are you,” Clark says with emphasis. “We know that you’re there. We feel it. We see it in our social media interactions. Rather than dwell on what we can’t do and what we don’t have, I want to focus on everything that we’ve built, and everything that we still have. While we may be limited in terms of how many at one time can be in there, there’s going to be fans in there … and I expect them to be as loud as they can possibly be. The fan base of the LSU Tigers is the loudest and proudest in the country. And it doesn’t matter what the sport is.”
Clark and company certainly don’t want to get ahead of themselves, but they also know something special could be in the making moving forward.
And no matter what successes come down the line, Clark emphasized that it will all be because of one local legend.
“Whenever we get over the hump and win this first national championship, it’s going to be about D-D Breaux in a lot of ways,” he says. “I think the whole sport owes her a debt of gratitude for the time and the persistence that she showed and the tenacity that’s innate in her and her personality.”
This article was originally published in the January 2021 issue of 225 magazine.