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Winning formula: How OU coach Mark Williams became one of the winningest coaches in men's gymnastics history

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Mark Williams

OU men's gymnastics coach Mark Williams watches his athletes perform March 9, 2019.

Mark Williams has a daily routine.

The Oklahoma men’s gymnastics coach wakes up at 5:20 a.m., drinks a cup coffee, arrives to the gym no later than 5:50 a.m., does an hour of morning workout with his team, goes home and walks his dogs, drives back to the gym at 10 a.m., eats lunch at noon, returns to the gym at 1:30 p.m., coaches practice at 1:45 p.m. and finally arrives back home around 6:30 p.m.

“That’s my life,” Williams said with a smile. “I love it.”

Williams, now in his 19th season as OU’s head coach, is one of the most decorated and well-respected coaches in all of gymnastics. He’s won nine national titles (soon to be 10), including the last four in a row, and is leading the Sooners on one of the most historic win streaks in all of sports —114 matches and counting.

So, how is Williams this successful?

“People want to know the secret of Oklahoma gymnastics, the secret of Mark Williams,” said Guard Young, who competed for Williams on the U.S. National Team from 2000 to 2004. “Well, it’s just that the guy is a workhorse. His work ethic is second to none.”

In Williams’ own words, he has no secret.

“I don’t think there’s a secret,” Williams said candidly. “I think there’s a formula.” 

This “formula” has created a winning culture in OU’s program. From his daily routine to the way he sets his lineup each weekend, Williams has perfected every little piece he’s done over his 30-year career. He focuses on how he, and his gymnasts, can improve day-in and day-out, harping on the small details and planning everything to a T. He rarely reflects on the past, keeping his eyes wide open and his goals in mind.

OU is one of the most dominant programs not only in gymnastics, but all of sports. And at 60 years old, Williams is showing no signs of slowing down.

“The consistency of his success is really mind-boggling,” OU athletics director Joe Castiglione said. “When you think about what coach Williams and his team has been able to achieve since we hired him, it’s perhaps one of the most unbelievable sports stories ever.”

“What does the team need? It’s not always about winning. It’s about getting better.”

When Williams arrived at Lyons Township High School in La Grange, Illinois, as a freshman in 1972, he knew he wanted to join the gymnastics team. But when the wrestling coach saw Williams workout, he tried to get the 14-year-old to switch sports.

Williams politely declined.

“I told the wrestling coach, ‘Well, I like gymnastics, so I’m going to stick with that,’” Williams said. “I don’t know enough if I had the mentality to be a wrestler. I wasn’t mean enough.”

From there, he was introduced to Paul Omi, then the head men’s gymnastics coach at Lyons Township. Omi saw potential in the young gymnast.

“He was always a willing learner, and that impressed me about him,” Omi said. “His determination is what stood out. He would set his mind to something, and he would follow through.”

Omi remembers Williams showing up to his first day of practice not having his paperwork with him. Omi told him he’d have to miss practice and to come back when he had it. But Williams wasn’t about to miss practice.

“The son of a gun ran home, got the paperwork, and came back to practice,” Omi said. “The rest is history.”

Williams excelled under Omi, eventually earning a spot on Nebraska’s roster in 1977 under legendary gymnastics coach Francis Allen. He then helped the Cornhuskers win five straight national championships first as an athlete (1977-81), then as a graduate assistant (1982). While at Nebraska, he earned his bachelor’s degree in secondary education, which he credits for the majority of his coaching style.

Williams focuses on detail and precision. He wants his gymnasts to realize their mistakes, learn from them and improve on the next attempt.

“You want to, as a coach, prepare your guys to be in a position to get better. No matter what the sport is,” Williams said. “I don’t always put out our best lineup every single weekend. I try to look at it from the perspective of ‘What does the team need?’ It’s not always about winning. It’s about getting better.”

After a short stint as a high school coach, Williams joined Oklahoma’s staff in 1988. He left to become an assistant for the U.S. Olympic team for the 1996 games after being named the USA Gymnastics Coach of the Year in 1994.

Williams was well on his way to becoming one of the most sought-after coaches in the country.

“He’s just something else. I don’t know how he does it,” Omi said. “I could have never guessed that little boy I knew at Lyons Township would one day turn into the best coach in gymnastics, but I did know he had great determination. And that’s what’s gotten him this far.”

“Don’t think of this as an audition, think of this as your team.”

When Castiglione had to make a new head coach hire for the men’s gymnastics team in 2000, he knew who he wanted. Williams was already on the staff as an assistant and was promoted by Castiglione as interim head coach right before the season.

“I told him, ‘Don’t think of this as an audition, think of this as your team,’” Castiglione said. “We finished fourth. That’s the lowest one of his teams has ever finished. That’s crazy. That’s absolutely unreal.”

Williams went to work right away after being named the interim head coach in 2000, implementing changes he felt were needed within the program by having early morning workouts that didn’t focus solely on gymnastics, but instead just strength and conditioning. He also hired three international coaches from China, Japan and Russia.

“I tried to pick their brains. Those are the three best gymnastics countries in the world,” Williams said. “I don’t know if I’ve ever had an original thought. I’ve taken it all from the people that are way ahead of their time and doing things that are just amazing and trying to bring to bring it back to Oklahoma and create an environment here that sort of emulates what some of the best programs in the world are doing.”

Williams won his first national championship in just his third season as head coach, leading the Sooners to a 28-1 record. His career took off from there, winning a second title in 2003 and becoming a personal coach for the U.S. Olympic team for the 2004 games in Athens.

Young, who won a silver medal at the 2004 Olympics and was an assistant at OU for nine years (2000-05, 2011-15), says Williams is a players’ coach. He spends countless hours in the gym with his athletes, wanting to see each of them reach their goals individually.

“He knows how to maximize everyone’s potential,” said Young, who is now the head coach of the Brigham Young University women’s gymnastics team. “He’ll make just an average gymnast great, and he’ll make a great gymnast even better. He just has the uncanny ability to get the most out of every single one of his athletes.”

Williams keeps an abundance of notes and records in his office. Young remembers Williams often referring to past notes or schedules he made years prior to help his current team.

“We would be sitting in the office in a coaches meeting and he would say, ‘You know what, this team that we have, it really feels like the team in 2002 when we won a national championship.’” Young recalled. “And then he goes to his filing cabinet and pulls out the training schedule from 2002, slaps it down and says, ‘OK, let’s try to emulate something that we did back then.’

“It’s unbelievable to have that sixth sense of what his team is like.”

This kind of outlining and preparation is what has made Williams so successful not only at Oklahoma, but nationally, as well.

“That’s something Mark is great at: Planning and getting these guys ready for where they need to be. That’s a big aspect of being ready to compete at the highest level,” said Jake Dalton, a former OU gymnast and U.S. national champion. “But he also, and maybe more importantly, understands how to build a team. He knows who fits best where and what’s best for the team.”

Williams has won national titles in 2002, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2008, 2015, 2016, 2017 and, most recently, 2018, posting a remarkable .928 winning percentage as a head coach. He’s a nine-time national coach of the year and an 11-time USA International Team coach. Many say he is the Nick Saban of men’s gymnastics. But that’s backward.

Nick Saban is the Mark Williams of football.

“You can’t ever predict something like that, no matter how clairvoyant you think somebody might be — there’s absolutely no way one can predict something like that,” Castiglione said. “What he has been able to do and make this the true destination for gymnasts is beyond words.”

“It’s kind of fun to have a little chaos, too.”

Williams went on his first vacation last year. He and his wife, Susan, went to Hawaii. It was an adjustment for Williams, who never splits from his daily routine.

“It was worth it,” Williams said. “But the first few days it feels uncomfortable not being in the gym and knowing there’s things to do with the guys. But then, about a week in, you’re like, ‘I could get used to this.’”

Fortunately for Oklahoma, Williams returned from his lone vacation. In 2019, he’s led the Sooners through another magical season, building on his past success in hopes of leading Oklahoma to a fifth straight national championship. He says it’s been a long journey to get to where he is today, but it won’t be something he reminisces on until he retires.

“It started by putting days on top of days, and then weeks on top of weeks, and now years on top of years,” Williams said. “I don’t sit back and appreciate it very often. Look at my daily schedule — there’s always the next day. There’s always the next meet. That’s why I’m diligent about my schedule because there’s so much to do. If I sit back and evaluate all that we have done as a program, it will distract me from what has to be done and to continue to do what we do.”

Williams wears two watches, an Apple Watch on his right wrist to make sure he doesn’t miss any texts from his wife, and a FitBit on his left wrist to make sure he hits his exercise goal for the day.

For Williams, it’s just another way to stay on top of things.

“I’m 60, and I’m still a little obsessed with tracking fitness,” Williams said, laughing. “I’m trying to battle the age syndrome, you know?”

Williams doesn’t know how much longer he’ll coach — likely until he physically can’t. He continues to find happiness in the gym, coaching gymnasts he adores. There isn’t much discord in his life. He says his two dogs — an Australian shepherd mix and a golden retriever — combined with his four cats, keep him on his toes. And for him, that’s all the chaos he needs.

“It’s kind of fun to have a little chaos, too,” Williams said with a grin. “But not too much." 

George Stoia joined The Daily in the fall of 2016 as a sophomore and has covered the soccer team, both men's and women's basketball, as well as the football team for the past three years. He graduates in May 2020.

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