LOGAN, Utah – Since Aug. 3, 1852, when rowing teams from Harvard and Yale took to the waters of New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesaukee in a two-mile race in the first-ever athletic contest between collegiate teams in the United States, few coaches have been handed the task of building a program from scratch.
The meeting on the water between the Crimson and Bulldogs was 15 years before the first intercollegiate football game between Princeton and Rutgers in 1869 and nearly half a century before Hamline and Minnesota A&M took to the court in the first intercollegiate basketball game on Feb, 9, 1895.
Starting a new program is a process. Baby steps, if you will.
The first step in that process for Clemson came June 17, 2021 when the school announced it would add women’s lacrosse and women’s gymnastics to it offering of intercollegiate sports. The lacrosse program will begin play this fall.
The second, and most recent step for gymnastics came April 26 when Amy Smith was hired to coach the Tigers when they begin competition in 2024.
“We’re fired up to have (Smith) lead our women’s gymnastics program,” Clemson athletics director Graham Neff said when introducing Smith, who has spent the last five seasons as the head coach at Utah State.
“She understands what it takes to win a national championship, and her experience with the ACC, SEC and PAC 12 really stands out,” he added. “She knows college gymnastics inside and out, and has demonstrated the ability to help student-athletes achieve both in and out of the gym.”
The next step in the process lies squarely on Smith’s shoulders as she assembles a staff and works on recruiting.
She appears to be more than ready, able and willing to accept the challenge head on.
“This is an absolute dream come true … to have the trust to start a program of this caliber is an absolute honor,” said Smith, when she was introduced as the first leader of the Tigers.
“Everywhere I turned, there was somebody telling me what an incredibly special place this is and everyone I met absolutely backed that up,” the new Clemson coach added. “The level of support and the buzz about Clemson gymnastics is already off the charts and I cannot wait to keep that rolling and build on that.”
The arrival of Clemson as a women’s gymnastics program also signals a change in the landscape of the sport as the Atlantic Coast Conference will also sponsor a conference championship meet for the first time since its only league championship in 1984 when N.C. State won the title.
Duke discontinued its program after that season and the league stopped sponsoring the sport. Plans to revive gymnastics on a conference level when Pittsburgh joined the ACC in 2013-14 was scrapped when Maryland announced it was leaving to join the Big Ten Conference the following year.
The addition of Clemson will give the ACC four schools that sponsor wrestling and give the league enough members to conduct a conference championship.
“It is so exciting for collegiate gymnastics to bring another Power 5 conference into the mix,” Smith said. “To be a part of that right out of the gate is going to incredible.”
“This entire process so far has had so many moving parts,” said Smith, who plans to complete her move to Clemson by June 1. “This is such a unique opportunity it’s insane.”
Smith sees convincing athletes to join the fledgling program to go smoothly as she fashions her inaugural roster.
“Recruiting has never been easier,” she said. “We have the transfer portal and the pandemic has created many teams that have extra athletes on their rosters.
“It’s a perfect storm and beyond invigorating to get started on building our program,” she said.
Smith believes in the lessons that can be gleaned through athletics and applied by the athletes long after their athletic careers come to an end.
“We will be looking for young women who are adaptable and energetic,” she said. “There are ups and downs that are associated with athletics, but those only prepare you for the challenges that will also be encountered in life.”
Smith sees the school and its location in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains and nearby Lake Hartwell as keys to recruiting.
“What a dream it has been to walk around the Clemson campus,” Smith said. “(Clemson) is a high-achieving institution and has a high-achieving athletic department … and the Clemson community and its campus are both beautiful and provides a triple threat of opportunities. The school and the community are all on board in supporting its athletic programs.”
The school has shown its commitment to the two new sports by announcing plans to spend $27.5 million to build a lacrosse stadium and a 21,000-square foot facility for day-to-day operations and full practice facility for Smith’s squad that will overlook picturesque Lake Hartwell.
Smith led her Utah State team to the championship of the Mountain Rim Gymnastics Conference this past season as the Aggies defeated Boise State, BYU and Southern Utah to capture the conference title for the first time in school history.
Smith’s team advanced to the national tournament where they placed third behind Minnesota (197.825) and California (197.375) in the Norman Regional. USU scored 196.825 and finished ahead of Boise State (196.425).
Utah State finished ranked 25th in the nation this past season to equal its final ranking of the previous season.
Smith was voted the MRGC coach of the year in 2020 after her team finished 7-6-1 on the season, including a win over Boise State to snap a 22-meet losing streak to the Broncos, and posting a winning record for the first time since 1999.
Smith spent one year competing at Oklahoma and was the Big 8 vault champion in 1994 and captured individual titles in vault and floor exercise at the National Invitational Tournament that same season before transferring to UCLA for the final three years of her collegiate career.
While with the Bruins, Smith, a two-team team captain (1996-97) was instrumental in helping the Bruins to the national championship in 1997 and being named all-American on vault and floor exercise that season. A PAC 10 and West Regional champions on vault that season earlier that season.
Smith spent five seasons as an assistant coach at North Carolina (2012-17) and was voted the East Atlantic Gymnastics League (EAGL) Assistant Coach of the Year in her final season in Chapel Hill before taking over the program at Utah State.
She was also an assistant coach at UCLA under legendary coach Valorie Kondos Field (2011-12) after working as an undergraduate coach for Kondos Field during the 1997-98 season.
“I learned so much from her,” Smith said of her former coach. “She was such a master at coaching the person and being able to use gymnastics as the vehicle to prepare them for gymnastics and for life.”
Smith was an assistant coach at Missouri (2007-11) and was charge of choreography for the Tigers in addition to coaching the balance beam. She was also the choreographer at Kentucky (2003-05).
A native of Bismarck, N.D., Ray is a graduate of North Dakota State University where he began studying athletic training and served as a student trainer for several Bison teams including swimming, wrestling and baseball and was a trainer at the 1979 NCAA national track and field championship meet at the University of Illinois. Ray later worked in the sports information office at NDSU. Following his graduation from NDSU he spent five years in the sports information office at Missouri Western State University and one year in the sports information at Georgia Tech. He has nearly 40 years of writing experience as a sports editor at several newspapers and has received numerous awards for his writing over the years. A noted sports historian, Ray is currently an assistant editor at Amateur Wrestling News.