The complex history of college gymnastics in Texas

By Ian LeWarn | April 16, 2024
The complex history of college gymnastics in Texas

Without a doubt, Texas is one of, if not the, largest market for collegiate sports in the United States. In 2022 alone, the Lone Star State’s 17 public NCAA Division I programs brought in a staggering $932 million in revenue – more than multinational corporations like Harley-Davidson, H&M, and Macy’s. Texas is also home to some of the country’s most successful teams, with the same 17 programs having a total of 117 NCAA team championships between them. This kind of success and profit is simply unheard of in other American sporting markets, but it’s yet to trickle down to every NCAA-sanctioned sport.  

Division I gymnastics is one of the fastest-growing NCAA-sanctioned sports, with the 2023 National Championship being the first gymnastics meet in the ESPN era to average over one million viewers – over a 10% increase in viewership from the 2022 edition. The growth of the sport as a whole has led to a litany of new programs, including smaller Division III teams like Simpson and Greenville, along with sporting powerhouses like Clemson. However, despite this upward trajectory, none of Texas’ Division I programs have jumped on the lucrative opportunity to be the Lone Star State’s premier program, leaving Division II Texas Woman’s University as the state’s only NCAA-sponsored gymnastics team. That being said, it has not always been this way, and looking into the past of NCAA gymnastics in Texas might reveal a lot about its potential future.  

Texas in the early days of NCAA gymnastics

The first mention of college gymnastics in Texas predates the sanctioning of gymnastics as an NCAA sport in 1982. The 1976 Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) gymnastics championship saw Rebecca Wright, an individual representing the University of Texas at Austin, tally an all-around total of 31.95, which was good for 63rd place. One year later, Houston Christian University (known at the time as Houston Baptist University) became the first collegiate gymnastics team in Texas. Hutch Dvorak’s Houston Christian Huskies were very successful at the Division II level, even reaching a first-place ranking among Division II programs ahead of the 1990 Division II Women’s Gymnastics Championships. 

The late ‘70s and early ‘80s were a fruitful time for collegiate gymnastics in Texas, with three new programs being established in the span of two years. The first of these teams is likely the most familiar to current gymnastics fans: Texas Woman’s University. TWU’s program started as a club team in 1978 under Fred Kudlac, but it quickly moved up to the NCAA Division III level in 1982. Alongside the TWU Pioneers came the inception of teams at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) and Texas State University (at the time known as Southwest Texas State University). While little information about the UTEP team is known outside of a few scattered meet results, the Texas State Bobcats, led by Darlene Schmidt, have a much more storied history. The Bobcats were the most successful Texan program of the ‘80s, reaching as high as third at the 1984 Division II National Championship. 

The late ‘80s signaled the beginning of the end of the NCAA gymnastics dynasty in Texas. In 1986, two years after their bronze medal performance, the Texas State program was controversially cut after making the Division II championship in three of the previous five seasons. This decision made national news in light of the Supreme Court ruling in Grove City v. Bell which stipulated that programs receiving federal funding, rather than institutions, would be subject to Title IX regulations. In the real world, this made Title IX rules regarding gender equality in sports essentially unenforceable, as very few college athletic teams directly received federal funding. While this decision was quickly reversed with the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1987, it was too late for the Bobcats, who became the first casualty of the Texan gymnastics purge. 

Only four years later, Houston Christian University faced a scandal that put its successful team in jeopardy. While many violations were cited in the case against the Houston Christian program, perhaps the most damning was a round-trip plane ticket to Spain purchased for a member of the men’s gymnastics team – a violation of NCAA regulations regarding programs funding athlete travel. This investigation led to the suspension of head coach Dvorak, citing his compliance with unethical conduct, along with a three-year probation program. These sanctions evidently wrought havoc upon the athletic department, eventually leading Houston Christian to leave the NCAA entirely for 21 years, instead competing in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) from 1990 to 2011. 

While the late ‘80s and early ‘90s were a time of turmoil for many, for the Texas Woman’s Pioneers, it was the start of a new era of success. Nikki Vrla became TWU’s first All-American in 1987, followed by Monica Ramage’s USA Gymnastics national floor title in 1992. Just one year after Ramage’s floor title, TWU won its first USAG national team championship, starting a four-year championship title run, along with additional titles in ‘98, ‘00, ‘03, ‘06, and ‘08. Kudlac retired in 2011 as a bonafide coaching legend, being named NCAA Division II Coach of the Year ten times throughout his career. Lisa Bowerman, Kudlac’s associate head coach, was named Texas Woman’s University’s second-ever head coach.

A lone program in the Lone Star State

Bowerman’s tenure as head coach has been similarly successful to Kudlac’s, with the Pioneers winning back-to-back Division II titles in 2017 and 2018. Bowerman also oversaw the Pioneers as they etched new program records on every event and in team competition. Bowerman’s tenure has also seen the growth of many successful coaches who have since moved on to Division I programs, including Temple head coach Josh Nilson, LSU assistant coach Garrett Griffeth, and Denver assistant coach Stephen Hood.  

Currently, the fight to spread gymnastics in Texas is being spearheaded by the College Gymnastics Growth Initiative, a subsection of the Women’s College Gymnastics Association. The CGGI is made up of many college coaches across the country, but for Texan-native and Auburn assistant coach Sara Carver-Milne, the push is more personal. Looking back on the onset of her own college career in Alaska, Carver-Milne recalls her parents, “[putting] a teddy bear in my hand at the airport and saying enjoy your trip.” While Carver-Milne’s move from Texas to Alaska is perhaps an extreme example, many gymnasts experience the same phenomenon on a smaller scale. While Carver-Milne has coached everywhere from Brown to Auburn, she still holds her home state close to her heart, noting, “If there had been an opportunity in Texas, I would have jumped at it in a heartbeat.”

On a broader level, Carver-Milne detailed the processes used by the CGGI to try and entice athletic directors into considering gymnastics, including data-driven presentations and inviting athletic department officials to meets. The CGGI has also worked with clubs to see if they would be interested in hosting a new college team, much like Clemson did in its inaugural summer season before its facilities were complete. Carver-Milne mentions that all of the seeds are in place for a Texan team – “it’s just a matter of finding the right people that are ready to pull the trigger and make it happen.”

Texas-sized dreams for the future

Currently, almost half of the senior elite national team resides and/or trains in Texas. While Texas has always produced a litany of elites, the rate of highly talented gymnasts coming out of the Lone Star state is higher than ever. As Carver-Milne puts it, “You can almost guarantee when you go to Texas [to recruit] that you’re gonna have plenty to pick from.” Unsurprisingly, like many of gymnastics’ innovations over the past decade, this trend can at least be partially attributed to Simone Biles. In 2014, Simone’s mother Nellie opened World Champions Centre in Spring, Texas. The prospect of training with Biles, along with the coaching prowess of Cecile and Laurent Landi, immediately attracted a formidable force of gymnasts to train at WCC. One of the gymnasts who made the move to WCC was 2023 world team member and 2025 Arkansas commit Joscelyn Roberson.

Roberson, a native of Texarkana, Texas, right on the Arkansas border, did not always imagine herself as an Arkansas Razorback. This was in part due to her Texan heritage, stating, “My small town rivalry has always been Texas and Arkansas. So I was like, ‘I’m never gonna go to Arkansas.’ Despite this rivalry, Roberson quickly fell in love with the school upon visiting and meeting head coach and Olympic gold medalist Jordyn Weiber. However, Roberson also acknowledges that a Division I program in Texas could have totally changed the game when it came to her recruiting journey.

Roberson remarked, “Honestly, [Texas] would’ve been my number one going in.” The SEC and Big 12 are both hotspots for Texan gymnasts, boasting 21 and 14 Lone Star athletes across eight and five programs, respectively. It’s not hard to imagine many gymnasts like Roberson choosing programs within these conferences, like the University of Texas at Austin, Texas A&M, Houston, or TCU if given the option. As Roberson puts it, “A lot of us also want to stay here and compete for our state because we grew up here.” This sentiment was echoed by Carver-Milne, who noted that “[the CGGI] has reached out to a lot of former Texas gymnasts that have stated specifically, they would have loved to have stayed in Texas if there was a Division I program.” While this may seem like a sensical thought process to fans and athletes alike, it has evidently yet to permeate the agendas of athletic directors across the state. 

This isn’t to say there are no choices available for Texan gymnasts looking to continue the sport in college. Outside of Texas Woman’s, a handful of Texan schools have club gymnastics teams. Despite the lack of scholarship opportunities, club teams at schools like Texas A&M and Baylor University attract many talented athletes, though mostly at the Xcel Platinum level, which translates to around Level 5-7 of the USAG Development Program. That’s compared to the Level 10 and elite competitions familiar to many NCAA scholarship hopefuls.

To date, Texas contains some of America’s (and the world’s) most successful gymnasts and gymnastics clubs. Obviously, the interest and talent are there, leaving only bureaucracy in the way of the formation of a Texan Division I gymnastics dynasty.