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Yoculan shoots for 10th NCAA title in swan song

ATHENS - Suzanne Yoculan is one of the most successful gymnastics coaches in the country, leading Georgia to nine NCAA titles. She is also one of the most controversial figures on the Bulldogs' campus.

Yoculan is retiring after this year's championships at Nebraska, ending a 26-year career with what she hopes to be her fifth championship in a row and 10th overall.

But instead of just answering questions about the meet, the 55-year-old Yoculan once again finds herself discussing her seven-year relationship with Georgia Board of Regents member Don Leebern - who is married. It was the topic of a chapter in the late Rich Whitt's recently released book, 'Behind the Hedges: Big Money and Power Politics at the University of Georgia.'

'I am tired of people making the association between my relationship with Don and my not being a good role model,' she said. 'They don't know what the heck they're talking about. I am tired of that but one thing I don't do, I don't quit, and what people say and do, my mind is not made up by what other people think, so that has not impacted my decision at all.'

Yoculan and Leebern, 70, have lived together in Athens for seven years while his wife, Betsy, lives in Columbus. Yoculan refers to Leebern as her fiance and wears a diamond ring he gave to her.

Yoculan, who is divorced, is pictured in the Georgia media guide with Leebern and her two adult children, Adam and Ali. Yoculan said she doesn't understand the public interest in her personal life.

'When we decided to move to Athens, when we decided to have a house together or whatever, we talked to his family and my family, my children and my mom and dad who live in Athens, and we feel like that's the only people whose business it is,' she said. 'It's my family and my God and I'm comfortable with my decision.'

Their relationship caused a split between Leebern and former Georgia football coach and athletic director Vince Dooley, according to details outlined in the book. The rift included Dooley declining Leebern's request to name Yoculan as assistant athletic director.

Whitt, who died in January, suggested the split may have been costly to Dooley's unsuccessful bid to extend his stay as athletic director beyond 2004. University of Georgia president Michael Adams, who wanted Dooley to stick to his retirement plans, had Leebern's support.

Senior Abby Stack said the book has not been a distraction.

'I think it's terrible that people judge Suzanne and don't even know her,' Stack said. 'They don't know what goes on behind the scenes and they don't know the whole story. The focus right now is not on her relationship with Don.

'We're focused on winning another national championship, not on rehashing a book.'

Yoculan announced her decision to retire two years ago so she could establish a transition to assistant coach Jay Clark. She says it will not be easy to walk away from the job.

'I don't know if I'll like it but I want to find out who I am other than University of Georgia women's gymnastics coach, because it's who I've been for 26 years,' she said. 'I don't think it's healthy for anyone's identity to be what they do.'

Yoculan's mark on the program is dramatic.

Before Yoculan, the average attendance at Georgia meets was about 200. This year's average attendance was 9,727, including sellouts of 10,224 the last three meets, as gymnastics again ranked as the second-biggest draw per competition on campus.

There are more signs of success.

· No gymnast has ever transferred from Yoculan's program.

'I can't imagine anybody transferring from here,' Stack said. 'We have the best of the best of everything.'

· Only three gymnasts in 26 years have left school without their degrees, according to Georgia spokesman Steven Colquitt, who said, 'Those were from the early days' of Yoculan's program.

Nine Gym Dogs made the Southeastern Conference academic honor roll in 2008 as the team had the best grade-point average of any Georgia program for the second straight year.

· Yoculan has coached 38 NCAA individual champions. Her teams have won 16 Southeastern Conference team titles.

· Yoculan now conducts practice in the Suzanne Yoculan Gymnastics Center, which opened last year and includes a 16,000-square-foot practice gym.

· Each of Georgia's scholarships is endowed.

· If Georgia wins this week, it will match Utah, which won five straight from 1982-86, for the longest championship run in the sport and break a tie with Utah for most titles. Georgia and Utah each have won nine championships. The only other programs to win team titles are UCLA, with five, and Alabama, with four.

Yoculan says there's nothing left to accomplish as a coach.

'I need challenges. I'm very competitive,' she said. 'I don't like to do anything I can't be good at, which is why I started golf and quit right away. But from a career standpoint, I just don't have anything left on the list.'

Except for one more ring.

'You'd definitely love to send her out with a win,' said senior Tiffany Tolnay, a 12-time All-American. 'This is her career, her legacy. She created it. She created Georgia gymnastics. She is Georgia gymnastics. To send her out with a championship would be just amazing, an amazing ending.'