Everywhere Greg Marsden went on the recruiting trail the past year, all he heard was that Utah was washed up. That one fifth-place finish in the 1989 NCAA Championships had given Utah's detractors great fodder, and they'd used it.
That backfired."To be honest, it helped us when everyone started talking," says the Utah coach, whose team broke the old NCAA Championship-meet record (192.65) by more than two points Friday night at Oregon State when it won a national championship for the seventh time since 1981, defeating Alabama 194.9 to 194.575. It was Utah's first championship since 1986, when it completed an unparalleled string of six straight.
"We felt bad enough, but when we heard that, it really made us mad," said Marsden.
"It's really gratifying for me and the kids to come here and do this and put a stop to the naysayers, our critics," Marsden said.
And they have plenty of willing critics. "I'm a tough guy, a hard competitor," admits Marsden. "I give no quarter to anybody. I've made a lot of judges mad at me, made a lot of coaches mad at me, made a lot of administrators mad at me because I'm intense.
"Maybe it drives me, feeling like I have to prove myself because people dislike me and our program so much. I don't know if it's because we win or because of my personality - probably both," Marsden says.
That the Utes did it in record style, away from home, with Alabama having its highest score ever, was just what they needed.
"A lot of people around the country felt like we were getting hometown scores," says Marsden, "but the three highest scores we got all year were in situations where the judging was as neutral as it could be."
That was at the High Country Conference meet, the NCAA Regional and the finals. The first two were at Utah - scores of 194.5 and 194.95 - but the totals were awarded by panels of judges who hailed from all over the country. In the regional, the panel included only one Utah judge and a few from the Midwest region.
At Corvallis, the judges were from everywhere, and the site was neutral, since Oregon State competed in the afternoon session and placed seventh.
"You'll get a true champion," Nebraska Coach Rick Walton predicted the day before the meet.
"It took a tremendous team to beat us," said Alabama Coach Sarah Patterson.
Nothing, it seemed, could deter the Utes in 1990. There were only eight of them - Kris Takahashi, Jessica Smith, Kristi Pinnick, Missy Marlowe, Shelly Schaerrer, Kristen Kenoyer, Tracy Richard and Amy Keller - so no one could afford an injury. Everybody thought they had a chance to beat them, since they were down, but nobody did - except Alabama by .15 point in Alabama when Utah had several people sick.
"At that point, I think we all knew we could do this," said Marsden.
They had the highest score in the country week after week, and Marsden often said he felt the team was in control, not him. Team members, however, talked of how hard their practices had become this season, saying it helped. They learned tough skills, became consistent with them quickly and went on to new things to keep accelerating the scores.
They were all hungry.
It actually began the day after Utah got home from the '89 finals in Georgia, as the shock was still setting in.
"I can remember sitting in the room the next day, very discouraged, and hearing the kids talking about dedicating themselves to this, that that didn't happen again," says Marsden.
"I had to get my name out of the gutter," says Schaerrer, who'd fallen on three of four events at Athens but came through like a champ on all four Friday at Corvallis. She was the top scorer in two events - bars (9.875) and floor (9.85) - and finished second to Alabama's Foster in the all-around with 39.225. Schaerrer's mark upped her own school record set at the regional by a tenth.
Everything was primed until Utah's first competitor of the meet, Marlowe, the Olympian, rolled out of her first vault and sat down on the second for a 9.2 score. "We knew we had to get it down," said Kenoyer. "It added pressure to us all, but sometimes that's better."
"It made us realize what we had to do, that no one could hold back," said Schaerrer.
Utah reminded itself in every event, suffering a fall early, leaving no room for mistakes. There were two falls on beam. One had to count, cutting it close.
"If we ever deserved to win, it was (Friday) night because everyone had to come through," said Schaerrer. "The whole night was just so full of pressure."
It came down to Schaerrer's floor exercise, the final routine of the night. Alabama had gone into the final rotation on vault trailing Utah by .55 point, and the Tide uncorked a 49.05. That cut Utah's lead enough that Schaerrer needed 9.5 to tie the final score. She didn't know what she needed, just that it had better be big. She threw a 9.85, and Utah had shut the mouths of the naysayers.