A strong leader is often defined by his/her message. And that message is often one that is heard repeatedly by those being led as they look to achieve a collective mentality to drive toward a common end. Consistency with that message, both verbally and by example, is the most effective way in ensuring that message is received and absorbed.
Consistency is at the root of the turnaround of the Kentucky gymnastics program.
If you haven't been paying attention, UK is having its best season in school history. Currently, the Wildcats are rolling on their hottest streak the program has ever seen with three consecutive performances of 196.
UK has reached its highest regional qualifying score, currently sitting at 195.86. They Cats have also moved into the top 20 in the country according to the Gyminfo national poll at No. 19. UK has won the most Southeastern Conference meets (three) in program history, including its first SEC road win since 1999. And the Cats broke the school record against Ball State with a team-high score of 196.5.
After that record performance in Muncie, Ind., Kentucky head coach Tim Garrison was happy, yet still not satisfied.
"We had a good day," said Garrison. "As I have said all year, this team still has more to offer. Stay tuned."
That's been Garrison's feeling all season long. He's seen his program start as an also-ran in the SEC., and now it's on a rapid rise. Still, what the Cats have done last year in his first year and this year, the most successful season the program has seen as a team, isn't the vision that Garrison had when he first took over the program in May of 2011.
His vision is much greater. Why? He's confident in this program and his athletes.
"He's always been intense, but in a good way," said junior Audrey Harrison. "He pushes us and believes in us, and that's why he pushes us so hard because he knows how good we can be. I think he's always been like that."
Harrison has been the prototypical athlete and performer that Garrison has in mind. She's the lone gymnast for Kentucky that competes in every single event. She leads the SEC - which is as dominant in gymnastics as it is in football - with seven all-around titles this season. She's also earned 15 individual event titles this season.
Garrison has praised his junior all season long for her "steadiness" and "reliability," all attributes that align with how he operates. It's been that way for Garrison since day one, and the athletes have taken notice.
"I feel like he's still pretty much the same guy," said junior Kayla Hartley. "He still has what he wants to do and how he wants to do it. He's never changed that."
That's not to say Garrison is afraid to make adjustments. He's not. In actuality, that's what's led to a great deal of UK's success this season.
Garrison has changed up the lineup in each event this season multiple times, tweaking here and there based on performance, not personnel. He's been fair to each and every athlete on his roster, whether she is on scholarship or a walk-on. There are spots to be earned each week, and those who deserve it earn it.
He hasn't only made changes in his lineups, but he's resigned from a position as well.
When Garrison was first entertaining the idea of the UK job while serving as an assistant at Nebraska, he already had a dear friend with close knowledge of the position. A 20-year relationship with assistant Kentucky gymnastics coach Chuck Dickerson, which started back in Texas when they worked together in Houston, gave Garrison plenty of insight to the job and the department. Dickerson had also served as an assistant on the previous staff, so his job security was in question.
"We were actually out at Nebraska at a meet," said Dickerson. "He pulled me aside and said, 'I've got a question for you. I'm thinking about applying for that job. I'd really love you to stay if I take it.' And I said, 'Well I'm not going anywhere unless you don't want me here.' And he goes, 'Absolutely, I want you here.' "
So when Garrison got the job, Dickerson stayed. They then added Mary McDaniel after she spent 20 years as a club coach in Kansas to help coach beam and coordinate dance routines for floor exercise. The combination has been a near-perfect match.
Garrison had been working with both uneven bars and vault performers since he arrived to UK. The Wildcats were finding some success this season on vault, but not nearly to the level that Garrison expected after what he had seen in practice. Just a few weeks ago, realizing that the vaulters maybe needed a new voice and perspective, Garrison removed himself from vault and inserted Dickerson. Since the move, UK has stuck more dismounts than they have all season long. It was a win-win situation in every aspect.
"It made me feel good that he trusted me," said Dickerson of Garrison. "I think he's always trusted me, but it's a matter of he's always done vault at Nebraska and here, so he said to take it over and let's see what happens, and the kids have responded.
"That's how good of a head coach he is. He realized that it wasn't clicking, and not many head coaches would do that. Pride. But we've got to win."
After all, that's what Garrison is all about: results. And now Kentucky is producing them with three straight scores of 196-plus.
Now that Kentucky is showing consistency, the staff is hoping that 196 is no longer an achievement, but a standard they set heading into the future.
"That's what Tim and I talked about," Dickerson said. "We wanted to take our bad days and make them not so bad. And make our good days great days.
"We want an OK day to be a 196.5. On great days, we want a 197.5. And I think we can do that."
Kentucky has no active seniors on the roster, meaning UK will return every single athlete for the 2013-14 season. With additions coming in next season, Kentucky could completely break through to the top of the SEC and make some waves at the national level.
Though the Cats are still completely focused on finishing off their record-breaking season, the staff and athletes alike are already looking forward to next season. But the only way next season reaches the potential they believe it holds is if they finish strong this season to build a strong foundation for the next.
"It's been super exciting," said Harrison, "And I think next year will be even better because we're just gaining people; we're not losing people. I'm already really excited for next year too.
"We have talked about it before. It's just in the back of our minds because we have to focus on right now and this year."
The finish this year will determine how next year begins. If the Wildcats continue to climb, it will give them plenty of momentum going into the beginning of the season next year. In a sport like gymnastics where performances are judged, changing perception is very important, and setting the bar high from outset can change the complexion of an entire season the rest of the way.
The Wildcats started 2013 with their best opening weekend in school history, but even still, UK is looking for a better start to set the tone going forward.
"We talk about it because how you start the season is a little bit how you're judged the rest of the year," said Dickerson. "We started OK, great for us, but not great. We're hitting on all cylinders now, but next year, we need to start how we finish this year with 196-plus on the first day. Then, you're in that top 10 and you stay in that top 10 all year long. Then you're seeded and you've got a wonderful shot."
Garrison wants a shot at the top of the SEC and to make a strong showing at nationals. It's just going to take time. But even Dickerson's not surprised with how quickly his friend has turned things around. It was just a matter of changing the culture, and that change was evident since Garrison stepped on campus for his first day of work.
"I'm not surprised at how quick," said Dickerson. "It was just a matter of getting their mindset correct, and he brought a good, disciplined mindset."
The best quality that Garrison has contributed to that mindset? There's no question about it.
"More than anything, he's greatest quality is consistency; very direct and to the point," said Dickerson. "And that's where he's so good. He doesn't allow us to step back, and we needed that. Consistency, yeah, he's consistent. What you see is what you get, every single step of the way."