When Mark and Rene Cook arrived at Arkansas in the spring of 2001, they had a daunting challenge ahead of them — building a women’s gymnastics program from scratch.
There was no facility or equipment or leotards — or even gymnasts to wear them — when the Cooks took the helm of the newbie program.
“We had to help with the design of the building, order leotards and go out and recruit our first class and convince them to come somewhere with not even a building in place,” co-head coach Mark Cook said. “We had to educate community about gymnastics, too. No one here had really ever seen a collegiate gymnastics meet or even a high-level gymnastics meet in this state. It was unique.”
The husband and wife duo had previously coached Stanford, where they led the Cardinal to a pair of Pac-10 championships and two top-10 NCAA championship finishes in four seasons. Mark Cook’s biggest concern when they left Stanford was keeping up that level of competitiveness.
The Cooks gave new recruits a chance to make history, and accomplish firsts for the program with every small feat.
“In the beginning we were on top of every single detail with the program, and that built a great foundation,” co-head coach Rene Cook said. “That’s what we told the original class, ‘You are the foundation of what we’re trying to build, and we don’t lay the foundation correctly nothing is going to come of it.’ “
Dana McQuillin, who became the Razorbacks’ first NCAA qualifier in 2005, was a member of that first fresh-faced class.
“I was drawn to the program because it was new and a chance to make our own traditions,” McQuillin said. “I was an average-good gymnast, and there are a lot of good gymnasts in the field, so this was a chance to make my stamp on the college scene.”
The Razorbacks officially began competition in 2003, finishing the season ranked No. 41 in the nation.
“I remember the very first competition and all the anticipation of running the meet,” Rene Cook said. “Again, no one here had been associated with gymnastics at all. It was a totally foreign concept to everyone. To see it come to fruition with such a great crowd, that was certainly memorable.”
Since that first competition, the program has grown by leaps and bounds. In 2004, the Razorbacks qualified for NCAA Regionals. Two years later, the first recruiting class helped Arkansas upset UCLA in the NCAA South Central Regional, advancing to NCAA Championships for the first time in program history.
“The team in the fourth year actually upset UCLA at home here to make the national championships was unbelievable,” Mark Cook said. “For that team to earn that reward after giving that leap of faith was almost surreal.”
“[The first class] ended their career going to national championships — a storybook ending to their careers — so it was definitely fulfilling for that class,” Rene Cook said.
Over the first nine years of existence, the program has earned eight NCAA Regional bids, won two individual crowns, made five NCAA championship appearances, reached the NCAA Super Six (team finals), finished in the top 10 three times and produced 28 All-America selections.
In 2011, Arkansas won the NCAA North Central Regional, tied for ninth in the nation and set school records with seven dual-meet wins and four road wins.
“When you stand back and look at it, it really is amazing how many times our team has competed at NCAA Championships and how many All-Americans we’ve had in 10 years,” Mark Cook said.
Even more impressive is the competition the Razorbacks have faced while building the program. SEC teams are perennial contenders at nationals, and Alabama and Georgia have combined for 15 team titles since 1982, including six since Arkansas joined the group in 2003.
“It’s a lot more competitive environment than it was 20 years ago as far as the playing field. It is more rewarding to know what we’ve done in spite of all these other strong programs,” Mark Cook said.
“When we started, the coaches made sure we were competing against some of the top teams in the nation,” McQuillin said. “I think that attitude that although it might not be right now we were going to be among the best teams. They instilled that in us right from the beginning.”
This year’s team continues with the tradition of firsts for the program. The Razorbacks opened the season with back-to-back scores of 196 for the first time in program history. They also jumped to No. 1 in the overall team rankings, topping the previous program high of No. 3. Arkansas is 6-0 with victories against No. 8 Florida, No. 12 LSU, No. 17 Auburn, No. 19 Arizona, No. 23 Kentucky and No. 25 Iowa.
“This is the calmest team we’ve had so far,” Mark Cook said. “We’re going to have our challenges this year, there are still going to be some breakthroughs … but this team is very poised and confident. This is the most talented team we’ve had on paper as far as their skill level, difficulty and execution.”
Arkansas — the only NCAA school to add women’s gymnastics since 2003 — celebrated its 10th season by recognizing members of the inaugural team at the meet against LSU on Jan. 20 and honored the class at the men’s basketball game versus Michigan last Saturday.
“The time has flown by,” Mark Cook said. “The first four or five years went a little slower because we were in building mode. There was so much to do. Now, it seems like in the last five years since we’ve gotten our system and policies in place, things have flown by.”
“We still haven’t accomplished everything we want to accomplish,” Rene Cook said. “We’re still trying to recruit girls that want to make history with us and be a star here.”