Catching Fire: How D-D Breaux’s unquenchable fire turned LSU into a gym school

By CODY WORSHAM | Tiger Rag Editor

 

Editor’s note: This is the cover story for the latest edition of Tiger Rag Extra, on newsstands across Baton Rouge now. To purchase a copy to be mailed to your address, click here

It’s Sunday afternoon, and the Pete Maravich Assembly Center is on fire.

Yes, LSU gymnastics is the hottest ticket in town this spring. More than 12,000 fans have packed the PMAC for this March 5 showdown between No. 2 LSU and No. 3 Florida, the first ever SEC regular season trophy on the line. Before the day is done, the third-largest crowd in school history will watch the Tigers – led by Ashleigh Gnat’s perfect 10 on the vault – post the third-highest score in school history, 198.15, en route to the championship and a 27th straight home win. Before the season is done, LSU will extend that home streak to 28, before heading to Jacksonville for the SEC Championships and returning home days later with the program’s first postseason conference title since 1981. A week later will come the program’s 16th regional championship. (Editor’s note: as of press time, LSU was preparing for the NCAA Semifinals.)

Today, though, the heat here is quite literal. Before the flips come the flames. The team’s catchphrase for the year, in which they will attempt to win the program’s first-ever national championship, is “Dragon Season,” inspired – as all things are in LSU gymnastics – by head coach D-D Breaux.

Breaux noticed earlier in the season her athletes, when they stuck a landing and let out a celebratory scream, looked like, in her words, “fire breathing dragons.” The quip caught on.

It’s just a happy coincidence, however, that towering tendrils of fire welcome each Tiger during pre-match introductions, exploding from the sort of vertical platforms seen in NFL pre-game introductions. The heat they emit in their brief bursts is tangible, a loud explosion of flame felt on the faces of the thousands in attendance.

My, how things have changed for Breaux.

“We used to have a very marginal, zero kind of opening,” she will say the following week at a media session. “(Senior associate athletic director) Mark Ewing came in the office one day and said, ‘I’m tired of the opening. Let’s do something else.’ And I said, ‘Are you willing to invest in that comment?’ He was.

“The next thing you know, we’ve got fire-breathing dragons.”

Today, that fire is all-consuming. LSU’s campus is consumed with gym fever, as evidenced by the program’s third-straight season of record-attendances, a world-class, multi-million dollar facility, and a growing collection of championship banners and hardware.

Once, though, a wildfire that looks as if it may never be contained again was a tiny, flickering flame, nearly extinguished, if not for the sheer will of the original fire-breathing dragon, desperate and determined to keep it burning forever.

 

IT’S 1978. JIMMY Carter is president, Edwin Edwards is Governor, Charles McClendon is football coach, and D-D Breaux is, as ever, defiant.

It is the first year on the job for LSU’s new gymnastics coach, a former gymnast herself – a near Olympian, if not for a knee injury – whose competitive instincts were so finely honed by a large family in a small town that she once attempted to swim across the Mississippi River, and succeeded.

Breaux was never one to take no for an answer, from man or from nature. But, if required, she’d never hesitate to give it.

“They wanted me to coach in the old women’s gym, which is basically condemned,” Breaux, sitting in LSU’s new practice facility, recalls of her first year on campus. “Huey Long, the women’s gym. That desolate, awful place 50 yards from our front door. When they hired me, I said, ‘No, I can’t be in there every day coaching a team. That’s ridiculous.’”

It was the first of many battles Breaux would fight for a sport and a place she loved.

It was the first of many battles she would win, too. 

Her prize was, instead, a corner of the the Field House. Ernie Hill, the Field House director at the time, “carved out a space” for the program, Breaux says. It was small and crowded, shared among the men’s gymnastics squad, intramurals, track and field, and, on rainy days in the fall, McClendon’s football squad.

“Anytime anybody was in there, it was a ruckus,” she recalls. “You put 2,000 kids in there at night, everyone around a different court, and there was the gymnastics equipment on the side. Anytime there was a track event, we had to pick up all the equipment, pick it up, put it back down. It was quite an effort.”

Consider that anecdote a microcosm of the first half of the D-D Breaux era at LSU, now in its 40th year. Early on, she spent half her time carrying the torch for the program, with figures like Hill, board member Laura Leech, coordinator of women’s sports Pat Newman, and Assembly Center director Bill Bankhead helping fan the flame, and the other half of her time preventing obstructors from smothering it.

She drew strength from her fellow coaches, Pat Henry in track and Jinx Coleman in women’s basketball, among others, and fought battles on two fronts: bias of sex and of sport.

“Depending on who you were fighting with that day (determined) what the battle was,” she recalls. “Questioning the value and the worth. ‘This is being forced on us’ – that was a huge perception to overcome. All of a sudden, we have women’s sports in the top 10 nationally, and it was sheer hard work. No one was greasing the skids for Jinx Coleman. Here she is taking the team to the AIAW finals. The gymnastics team’s in the top 10 every year. Our track team, our newest team on campus, is winning national championships. Pat Henry wasn’t going to be denied.”

Nor was D-D Breaux. Squeeze in long hours with a small budget, little to offer in the way of scholarships, and less to offer in terms of facilities, and it’s a wonder the gymnastics team even managed to show up for meets, much less win them.

But win, they did. Breaux’s teams have finished third or better in every NCAA Regional, minus one, since her tenure began in ’78. They’ve finished in the top 10 nationally 26 times; the top five, five times. The success started early; maybe too early. It outpaced support and set expectations well above resources.

“The hard part was, we started being excellent,” Breaux says. “In 1981, we were an outstanding team, and you come back from the national championships, and you’re told you can’t have a full time assistant coach. Alabama, Florida, Georgia are building up their programs, hiring multiple assistant coaches, building new training centers, and we’re losing ground.

“And you get a phone call that we’re going to drop the sport.”

Oh, that phone call. It proved winning wasn’t always enough, something Breaux learned the hard way. Despite racking up wins right and left, Breaux was forced twice to fight off cancellation of the program. Then LSU athletic director Paul Dietzel eyed Breaux’s team as a cost-cutting area.

Once again, the power of a fiery ‘no’ breathed from the mouth of a dragon.  

“I had a phone call come from across the street,” Breaux recalls. “I had an office in PMAC. I got a phone call from the woman who was our primary women’s administrator. She said, ‘He’s going to call you to come across the street. Don’t come across the street.’

“He called me, and I said, ‘No sir, I’m not coming across the street.’”

Instead, Breaux went to see Bankhead, whom she says “gave LSU gymnastics its start, both men’s and women’s.” Bankhead got on the phone with board members, boosters, and even the chancellor.

“He made some phone calls, and we began to wage a battle,” Breaux says. “And we won.”

 

IT’S 2001, AND D-D Breaux can finally stop counting.

More than 15 years later, Breaux will still recall the number of days Joe Dean was athletic director at LSU like a mantra. She will also recall the day Skip Bertman took over as the day everything changed for LSU gymnastics.

Rather than fighting against the sport, LSU began to fight for it.

“There were 14 years, six months, three days of very, very difficult administration,” Breaux says. “And then Skip became athletic director. And it took on a different conversation.”

Breaux and Bertman were close long before his rise to the sixth floor of the athletic administration building. Both were program-builders, long-tenured titans of their sports at LSU. Both were fueled by competition, a supernatural desire to beat, both opponents and odds. Both bled purple and gold, and shed much of it along the way in battles for their championship-level squads.

“He was an athletic director who understood what coaches needed to be successful,” Breaux says. “I would go to Skip if I needed something. The administration would say, ‘I’m not going to buy that for you.’ I’d go to Skip, and he’d buy it out of his foundation.”

Not only did Bertman give Breaux the backing she needed, but he hired excellence everywhere, she says. The word Breaux uses is “accountability.” Areas of work once overlooked began to merit serious monitoring. Substandard was no longer the standard.

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“There were 14 years, six months, three days of very, very difficult administration,” Breaux says. “And then Skip became athletic director. And it took on a different conversation.”

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“You had Nick Saban here, who was doing absolutely excellent work,” Breaux says. “That was the mantra. That was where we should all strive to be, like that. Skip gave us the will and belief that could happen.”

There was still catch up to be played, though. Other SEC programs had begun investing in gymnastics long before LSU. Under Bertman, that changed.  Marketing efforts increased. So did recruiting budgets. Breaux, who began her career by selling tickets outside of Winn-Dixie in the rain, now had a department promoting her program. Thousands began attending meets regularly.

She began by building a world class staff, adding Bob Moore in 2000 and Jay Clark in 2012.

“It’s not like any other staff in America,” Breaux says. “We have over 100 years of gymnastics experience. What Jay brings to the program with his experience, what Bob brings to the program with his knowledge of vaulting…I can’t say enough great things about the staff. “

Then, with Joe Alleva’s help, she built a world class facility. The squad had long outgrown its corner. It needed a home, and Alleva knew it, because Breaux told him.

“When Joe Alleva came, he had a real vision,” Breaux says. “He had a real eye for what these facilities should look like, how beat up and worn down a lot of our facilities were. You talk for years and years and years about what we need for a facility, how second-rate our facility was, it wasn’t a safe training place. He started to listen. He started to hear.

“The next thing I know, we’ve got approval from the Board of Regents, approval from the Board of Supervisors, and this project has grown legs. Joe allows me to go out and try raising money for it, Tiger Athletic Foundation wraps this thing into the bond issue for the renovation of Tiger Stadium, and we were on the fast track.”

Breaux undersells just how much of a role she played in selling the practice facility, a 38,000 square foot gem that Olympian Bart Conner has called the greatest practice facility in the world. She was on-site every day, tailoring every corner to her needs, and selling every space to her boosters. Names adorn every section of the 18,000 square foot practice area, with sponsorships of vaults, beams, floors, and offices lining the walls.

Fifty yards isn’t far, but the physical distance between the decrepit old women’s gym Breaux shunned and the front door of the palace she built shows just how far the program has come.

“I could never get any traction,” Breaux says. “It was always fighting to survive. Now, I look at the traction we have, our feet are firmly planted on the ground.

“When I first came, I was driving a van. Now, we have charter busses and charter airplanes. We’ve gone so far.”

 

IT’S 2017, AND Sydney Ewing is, for three seconds, LeBron James.

Ewing, a senior All-American from Lafayette whom Breaux calls “one of the best gymnasts we’ve produced out of Louisiana,” is in the middle of her floor routine when she busts out a 1-foot, 8-inch shorter version of King James’ famous “Silencer” – two high-steps with the legs, two simultaneous push-downs with the arms, and two hard pounds of the chest.

This team has swag. This team is on fire.

“The thing about this team is, we don’t have to do a whole lot to get them fired up,” says Breaux. “They are very passionate about LSU and this team.”

They’re just as passionate about Breaux, the ouroboros who gives them that very passion. Chat for even just a minute with Ewing, Gnat, or Shae Zamardi – the team’s three seniors, undoubtedly the most successful class in program history, with attendance and scoring records unmatched by any other before them – and you’ll see the passion they receive from and return to their coach.

“She’s just such an amazing role model and leader,” says Zamardi. “She’s my idol. I look up to her so much, and I think everybody else does too in Louisiana.[perfectpullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]“We say it every day: the pride and tradition of the LSU Tigers will not be entrusted to the weak or the timid,” Breaux says. “If you’re weak or timid, you’re not going to survive around here. I know that from my own personal experience. They live that. They cannot be the exception to the rule. They have to be the example to the rule.”

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“She gives the program purpose. I think that’s why people want to become part of it.”

“We feed off of her,” says Ewing. “Honestly, she brings so much energy every day, even in practice. She’s truly the face of this program, and I’m so thankful to have been able to work under her.”

Ewing grew up around the program. She remembers being in the stands as a 7-year-old fan, seated among three or four thousand fans and thinking how massive of a crowd that was. Before she arrived at LSU, she says, maybe five people were ever watching her compete at any given time at club meets. That includes mom and dad.

Now, LSU regularly draws thousands. The program established a new attendance record for the third straight season, with more than 10,000 fans on average taking in the hottest sport on campus.

“When I first got here, we were over there in the track facility, in the little corner,” says Zamardi. “Now, we’re in this amazing facility – the greatest facility in the world. And it’s all because of D-D, and her hard work, her pride, her enthusiasm for the program.

“Even the fans. I remember my freshman year, my first competition, there weren’t that many fans. The lower bowl was filled, maybe. This year, you have to fight to get a seat in the PMAC, because it’s always full.”

Gymnastics is now a household sport in Baton Rouge. Breaux is a celebrity around town, and so are her athletes. Once nearly-anonymous figures easily capable of hiding in crowds – being 5-foot tall helps – LSU’s gymnasts are now brand names across the city.

“We’re on billboards now,” says Ewing, with ample astonishment, as if she still cannot believe it. “People send me pictures of billboards with our team on it. It’s just like, ‘Wow.’ LSU gymnastics is important at LSU now, within its athletic department. I’m sure there’s been a time when people didn’t even know LSU had a gymnastics team.”

That time is long gone. Led by Gnat, the SEC Specialist of the Year and the nation’s top-ranked vaulter, the Tigers have their most realistic shot of a national championship in 2017. They finished runners-up in 2016; by the time you read this article in print, their fate will have been decided.

Gnat says they would love nothing more than to give Breaux the national title she’s long coveted and deserved. But she’s well aware, as are her teammates, Breaux has given them far more than even a championship could ever repay.

“It would mean everything,” Gnat says. “The way we respect her and honor her, I hope we can do that every single day in our practices. But the way we compete, the passion, the energy, the pride, those are all things that come from her and stem from her personality and they expand into the athletes.

“That’s an attribute all great coaches have. She has pressed on us about how enthusiastic we are going to be – not just when we compete, but when we practice. She brings the energy, and we have to match up to that level.”

Meet Breaux once, and you’ll understand exactly what Gnat means. Breaux sets the tone of every conversation. She owns every room. If you’re going to compete for her – hell, if you’re going to interview her – you better bring your A+ game every second you’re in her sights. “Nothing great can be achieved without enthusiasm,” Breaux often reminds her athletes. It’s a motto she lives and transmits. It’s contagious. Touch it, and you’re likely to light up, too.

“We say it every day: the pride and tradition of the LSU Tigers will not be entrusted to the weak or the timid,” Breaux says. “If you’re weak or timid, you’re not going to survive around here. I know that from my own personal experience. They live that. They cannot be the exception to the rule. They have to be the example to the rule.”

Just like their coach. If anyone knows anything about being exceptional, it’s Breaux. She is one year from matching Adolph Rupp as the longest-serving coach in SEC history. Breaux has not just been excellent; perhaps, even more impressively, she’s been durable. She’s thrived; but first, she survived.

She’s won championships. She’s produced All-Americans, yes, but doctors, lawyers, therapists, executives, mothers, coaches, and community servants, too. She’s built a facility the likes of which the world has never seen. She’s built a program worthy of inhabiting it.

Breaux started with a fire in her heart, not sure how far it would take her, or how far she would take it. Four decades, countless battles, and thousands of lives touched later, it only burns brighter.

Dragon Season isn’t over yet. After 40 years of burning, it’s only getting hotter.

“People always ask me, ‘How much longer, D-D?’” Breaux says, and her eyes light up. “What do you mean, how much longer? It’s never been better!”

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