The First Step
The reputation. The expectations. The memories.
New West Virginia University gymnastics coach Jason Butts knows he has big shoes to fill. Only the third Mountaineer gymnastics coach in program history, Butts, appointed by Director of Athletics Oliver Luck on April 26, assumes his new role after rising from the ranks of assistant coach to associate head coach under Linda Burdette-Good, the aforementioned legend.
Butts is in no hurry to close the door on Burdette-Good, who announced her retirement after 37 brilliantly successful seasons on April 3.
“I definitely always want her to be involved with this program, and she’s always going to be on my speed dial,” he laughed, acknowledging that Burdette-Good’s 644 career wins, the most for a WVU coach with a Mountaineer team, are a daunting number to duplicate. “I know I’ll have questions pop up throughout my first season. I want her to be involved in the meets, and I would love to honor her at a home meet once a year. She’s been a huge part of this program.
“Linda’s final message to the team was that she’s always going to be around WVU. She had a great ability to relate to the student-athletes in a maternal way, and I think her legacy will be that she always will be available for the gymnasts any time they want to talk.”
While Burdette-Good’s legacy may be set, Butts’ is just beginning.
Hired in 2006 as an assistant coach, Butts, a 12-year club coach veteran, never imagined he would earn the keys to a top Division I program five years later.
“When I made the jump into college gymnastics, my goal was just to be an assistant coach at a top program,” he explained. “When Linda and I sat down three years ago and spoke about her plans to promote me, she encouraged me to pursue a career as a head coach.”
A gradual transition to head coach was not a stretch for Butts, as he quickly hit his coaching stride with the Mountaineers. The primary bars coach, he has produced three East Atlantic Gymnastics League (EAGL) individual bars champions in five seasons, including 2011 outright victor Amy Bieski. He also has served as the floor and vault coach and helped guide All-American Janáe Cox and Mehgan Morris to individual all-around NCAA Championships qualifications.
Butts’ peers have recognized his hard work twice, as he was named the NCAA Southeast Regional Assistant Coach of the Year in 2009 and 2010.
Yet personal accolades have never meant as much to Butts as the personal relationships he has built with the gymnasts.
“I think I have the ability to relate to the student-athletes,” he explained. “I have their best interest at heart. My main focus is helping them achieve their goals and dreams. I don’t like to make it about the head coach – it should always be about the student-athletes and the program. Most importantly, I want to maintain a good balance between accountability and having fun.”
Accountability is a major sticking point for Butts, and he stresses that the team’s return to the top of the EAGL and the NCAA Championships depend on it.
“Gymnastics is all about structure, and with that structure you have to have accountability,” he says. “If you don’t go through your routine with structure, then you won’t be successful on the competition floor. With a gymnast, you really have to hold her accountable and make sure she is doing her routine and paying attention to the finer details.”
A native of Athens, Ga., Butts grew up in the shadows of the University of Georgia and the 10-time national champion Gym Dogs. He studied the coaching techniques of former coach Suzanne Yoculan and worked for current coach Jay Clark, and he hopes to incorporate lessons he learned from both while at WVU.
“Being around the UGA program, you respect its professionalism,” Butts said. “That program also shares a lot of similarities with what Linda implemented at WVU, especially its strong family values. There’s also an encouragement for every gymnast to develop into a leader by her senior season. Encouraging that type of leadership through all four years should really help us here. Also, the accountability that the program keeps on its student-athletes, as well as the structure that surrounds the program and its training, are all keys I think will help the Mountaineers succeed next season and in the seasons to come.”
Butts acknowledges that all coaching changes come with a few growing pains, but he believes said changes could be the spark to the Mountaineers’ 2012 success.
“I want to put a real hunger in these athletes,” he enthused, after a brief pause. “This is change, and change is good; I want to really capitalize on the change. I want us to really come out and show everyone in the country that this is a Top 10 program – I want to prove that right off the bat.
“If anything, I want these athletes to come out more excited next season because of the change. I want them to have an inner confidence that comes out when they compete. The show is the entertaining part for the crowd, but really the confidence is what I’m looking to display next year.”
Though the Mountaineers lose six seniors to graduation, the return of all-EAGL performers Tina Maloney, Nicole Roach and Hope Sloanhoffer, as well as key multi-event contributors Kaylyn Millick and Chelsea Goldschrafe, help Butts paint an optimistic forecast.
“I want to come out with a bang and immediately be ranked in the Top 18 from our first score and maintain that ranking,” he said, noting that the nation’s Top 18 teams are seeded into the NCAA Regional Championships. “I expect us to vie for the EAGL Championship. I truly think we should be winning that league crown more often, and I know we can. I also want to be knocking on the door of the national championships. I really think next year’s squad can qualify if we are consistent throughout the season, stay healthy and stick together as a team.”
After back-to-back appearances, 11 years have passed since WVU’s last trip to the national championships. Not only does Butts believe the Mountaineers are poised to end the drought, he also thinks WVU is ready to stake its claim as one of collegiate gymnastics major players.
“In the next five years, I would like to see us consistently qualify for the national championships,” he said of his coaching goals. “In order to compete for the NCAA Super Six, you have to consistently show that you can compete at the national championships and field a team that is worthy of being there.
“This is a big play to make, but within the next 10 years, I would like to see us in the top three and absolutely qualify for the NCAA Super Six. That’s my long-term goal – to win WVU’s first gymnastics national championship. Only four schools have won an NCAA title. It’s a big task, but I want to lead the Mountaineers to the finals and bring the trophy back to Morgantown.”
With a list of exciting goals he is anxious to conquer, little doubt remains that Butts will one day carve his own Mountaineer legacy.
Jason Butts, West Virginia University gymnastics
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