Opinion: Jay Santos rightfully earned his Pac-12 Coach of the Year award

After just two seasons, the ASU gymnastics head coach has unexpectedly turned his team around

Just two years after moving to ASU from Eastern Michigan University to coach ASU gymnastics, head coach Jay Santos has already made his mark on the Conference of Champions by receiving the Pac-12 Coach of the Year Award

Santos led the Sun Devils to a complete turnaround of a season. Last year, ASU placed last in the Pac-12 Championships after a disappointing season, going 3-10 and 1-5 in the Pac-12. The 2017 and 2018 seasons were both slated as rebuilding years by fans and competition, alike. 

That wasn't how Santos saw it. 

Instead, this year the team had its best finish since 2014, finishing at No. 23 and reaching as high as No. 11 earlier this season.

The success of the squad this year should be credited to Santos. No other coach in the conference is more deserving of the COY accolade. With help from assistant coach and wife, Jessica Santos, he created a culture change at ASU gymnastics. 

Roughly one year ago, the coaching duo told The State Press they would be focusing on bringing in a team aspect to the sport, while ensuring each individual athlete reaches her full potential. 

Although a difficult task, it is safe to say that Santos is responsible for finding that delicate balance and therefore deserved recognition for his efforts. 

The Sun Devils skyrocketed up the rankings since their No. 41 NCAA finish last year. This season, they won big meets against ranked opponents and even earned their highest team score since 2016. They placed sixth overall in the Pac-12 Championship, an impressive improvement from last year's run. 

Advances like this don't happen without a great coach's direction. 

The team proved itself by qualifying for regionals for the first time in four years and going on to finish in third place. After beautiful performances by each athlete, freshman superstar Cairo Leonard-Baker stood out and qualified as an individual all-around gymnast for the 2018 NCAA Championships. She then received the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year award. 

Statistics and records are not the only evidence of a good coach. Santos has brought confidence and energy back to the team. Quinton Brown, senior exercise and wellness major, executive member of the 942 Crew and ASU gymnastics super fan, said he has watched the squad grow over the last few years. 

"The biggest improvement that I've seen is the competitiveness," Brown said. "Coach Jay is the type of coach that everyone wants to compete for. Him, along with the amazing staff he has built around him, are going to do great things here at ASU."

The Sun Devils ultimately did not finish as high as other teams in the conference. However, that is not what the Coach of the Year award is about, according to Kathryn Kudravi, professor of practice for the Cronkite Sports Knowledge Lab. 

"Usually when people are thinking about coach of the year, they're thinking about wins and losses," Kudravi said. "They think 'Did the team improve over the past year? Was there a dramatic move? Did they go to the bottom of the rankings to the top of the rankings?' When they do, that's usually a sign that something clicked with the team and the coach." 

The award is more than just a well-earned title. The award, along with Baker's Freshman of the Year award, is a reflection on the overall success and cohesion of the team as a result of Santos' coaching ability. 

"It shows that they bought in and they believe in what the coach or manager is telling them," Kudravi said. "It should feel like a team award. It means every thing you've fought for and practice and worked so hard for has paid off, and people recognize that."

No other team in the Pac-12 has exemplified this more than ASU, and Santos deserves the most credit for his dedication to establishing the Sun Devils' newfound success. 

Reach the columnist at kcdoyle2@asu.edu or follow @kellydoyle06 on Twitter.

Editor’s note: The opinions presented in this column are the author’s and do not imply any endorsement from The State Press or its editors.

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