Co-founder of UA gymnastics program to retire

By: Tom Murphy
Published: Wednesday, April 10, 2019
Arkansas coach Mark Cook cheers his athletes Saturday, Jan. 5, 2019, during the Razorbacks' meet with No. 2 Oklahoma in Barnhill Arena in Fayetteville.
Photo by Andy Shupe
Arkansas coach Mark Cook cheers his athletes Saturday, Jan. 5, 2019, during the Razorbacks' meet with No. 2 Oklahoma in Barnhill Arena in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE -- Mark Cook, the Californian who was a co-founder of the University of Arkansas gymnastics program, announced his retirement Tuesday after 17 seasons with the Razorbacks.

Arkansas wrapped up the season last weekend with a third-place finish in the afternoon session of the NCAA Baton Rouge Regional, failing to advance to the super regional. The Razorbacks went 9-18 overall and had their first winless SEC regular season with an 0-7 record.

Mark Cook glance

Mark Cook

Age 65 (Birthdate: Jan. 2, 1954)

Alma mater Cal State at Chico

Bio UCLA assistant coach (1995-97), Stanford head coach (1998-2001), Arkansas head coach (2002-2019)

Noteworthy Led Arkansas to 16 consecutive NCAA regionals, 8 NCAA championship appearances and 2 Super Six showings. … Top finish was No. 5 in 2009. … Voted SEC coach of the year in 2008, 2016 and 2018. … Coached two NCAA individual champions: Katherine Grable at Arkansas (vault and floor exercise, 2014) and Larissa Fontaine at Stanford (vault, 1998). … Had a 36-12 record in four years as head coach at Stanford and was named Pac-10 Coach of the Year in 2001. … Has a career coaching record of 278-307-6. … First inductee into the Diablo Valley (Calif.) College Hall of Fame (2014). … Was team captain at Diabolo Valley in 1974 when he placed third in the junior college state championships.

Cook, 65, met with UA Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek and sports administrator Chris Pohl, a senior associate athletic director, to discuss the decision after the season concluded.

"Mark Cook is the only coach we've ever had," Yurachek said. "He started the program. This is his baby from start to finish. It was a tough conversation that Chris Pohl and I had with him when he told us he was going to step away and he thought this was the time for him. I can't thank him enough for the job he's done."

Cook and his then-wife Rene Lyst were hired to start the Arkansas gymnastics program in 2001, and the team began competing as an all-freshman squad in 2003. The duo built a team that earned an NCAA regional berth the next season and made its first NCAA Championships appearance in 2009.

Cook, who was voted SEC coach of the year three times (2008, 2016, 2018), led the Razorbacks to 16 consecutive NCAA regionals, eight NCAA Championships appearances and two NCAA Super Six appearances. The Razorbacks' best national finishes were fifth place in 2009 and sixth place in 2012.

"The University of Arkansas has been a part of my life for nearly two decades, and after much thought I have made the decision to retire as head gymnastics coach of the Razorbacks," Cook said in a statement released by the UA. "It has been the opportunity of a lifetime to grow a program from infancy and see our student-athletes compete for and win individual conference and national championships at Arkansas."

The Razorbacks had trouble breaking into the top half of the SEC throughout its 17-year history. After the 0-7 mark against the SEC this year, Arkansas bounced back to finish fifth at the SEC championships and qualify for its 16th consecutive NCAA regional.

"We did get blanked in the regular season, and that was very frustrating, you know," Cook said last week. "But at the end of the day at the SEC championships, we got a little bit of a reprieve, so it shows that we're capable of competing."

Cook shared head coaching duties with Lyst through the 2014 season and has been the solo head coach the past five years. His career record, including a four-year stint at Stanford, is 278-307-6.

The Razorbacks have produced eight top 10 finishes, 24 first-team All-Americans, nine regular-season All-Americans, 38 All-SEC performers, two SEC gymnasts of the year (Jaime Pisani 2012, Katherine Grable 2014), and three SEC freshmen of the year (Amanda Wellick 2014, Paige Zaziski 2015, Sarah Shaffer 2018).

Cook competed collegiately at Diablo Valley (Calif.) College and at Cal State at Chico before starting a coaching career that included a stint as one of the top club coaches in the country at the Clovis (Calif.) Academy of Gymnastics. As an assistant coach at UCLA in 1997, he was part of a staff that led the Bruins to their first NCAA title.

The list of candidates to replace Cook begins on his staff, with associate head coaches Jaime (Pisani) Armbrust and Garrett Griffeth. Armbrust is a former All-American who competed on both the 2009 and 2012 teams that participated in the NCAA finals.

Griffeth, a University of Georgia graduate (2010) with a master's degree in sports management, has experience on the club and college levels.

Other former Razorbacks in the coaching profession who are potential candidates are Casey Jo (Magee) MacPherson and Samantha (Cortez) Snider.

MacPherson was a standout on Arkansas' 2009 fifth-place team who earned eight All-America titles during her career. She has been an assistant coach at Missouri, coaching the balance beam and assisting on the floor exercise, for the past six seasons.

Snider, a 2008 UA graduate, was on staff at Arkansas for six seasons before taking the head coaching job at Pittsburgh in 2017. She just completed her third season at Pitt with a 9-19 record.

Yurachek said he would lean on Pohl and other colleagues in the industry to start a head coaching search on the heels of hiring men's basketball Coach Eric Musselman.

"There aren't as many programs as there are in basketball, so you've got to kind of dig and find most likely some really good assistant coaches or some head coaches that are looking to move from their institution for the excitement of coming to Arkansas," Yurachek said.

Sports on 04/10/2019


Have a comment on this story? Join the discussion or start a new one on the Forums.