NORMAN — Oklahoma men's gymnastics coach Mark Williams' son Cooper has taken over his father's office. Cooper's toys and two puppies are laid about the ground while he gives a play-by-play of what he's building beside his father's large wooden desk in the Sam Viersen Gymnastics Center on the OU campus.
Mark tells his son to go play in the team room, so he can talk about how OU gymnastics became one of the winningest programs of the last decade. But Cooper, even at 5 years old, knows this isn't an order — it's the beginning of a negotiation.
“I'll be quiet,” Cooper said.
“I'm not sure you're capable of being quiet,” Mark said.
The exchange ends with Cooper cleverly entices his father to leave his office for the team room. He probably gets his penchant for persuasion from Mark.
After all, it is Mark Williams who persuaded 2012 Olympians Chris Brooks, Jake Dalton, Jonathan Horton, Steve Legendre and Alex Naddour to compete collegiately at Oklahoma. OU's Fab Five were all selected to the eight-man U.S. Olympic men's gymnastics squad, with two earning spots in the lineup and three traveling as alternates.
Williams also persuaded a group of athletes to believe in him and his philosophy of outworking other teams from the start of his head coaching career. Since 2001, OU has finished in third place or better in the NCAA team championship every season and won five national titles.
His 2003 team finished the season 26-0, and his 2006 team finished 31-0. Each won a national title.
“When you look at college gymnastics, Oklahoma is the place to be,” Dalton said.
During the U.S. Trials last month in San Jose, Calif., Williams coached his gymnasts on the floor, calming everyone's nerves but his own.
“I was living and dying each time one of my guys got up,” he said.
He's normally an even-keel man and doesn't let the highs and lows of watching his athletes compete against the best in the world affect him, but when he arrived home he felt mentally and physically exhausted. But that's also how he's continued to win — exhaustion.
“Kids that are lazy generally don't want to work with me because they know it's not gonna be fun,” he said. “The word's out: You don't come here if you're really talented and you want to be really lazy.”
Men who have attended OU and compete for him understand this. To Williams, it's the only way to compete for championships.
Williams started his career at Oklahoma in 1988. Four years passed before he received his first taste of coaching elite gymnasts during the summer of 1992. OU gymnasts who wanted to make the U.S. team then stayed in Norman and were put through an intensive training system Williams came up with over the course of 14 years of coaching.
“So I actually got my first chance of working with guys kind of on my own program for the summer, which was really fun for me,” Williams said.
He coached Sooners in the 1994 and 1995 World Championships and was asked to be an assistant coach for Team USA's 1996 Olympic team. When Greg Buwick resigned in 1999, Williams was asked to lead Oklahoma men's gymnastics into the new millennium.
“I never ever thought I'd make it to that point,” he said. “I was coaching preschool kids in 1978 at a YMCA in Lincoln, Neb.”
His first order of business was to change the nature of the program. He instituted two-a-day practices during the academic year and made his team's strength training harder and conditioning last longer.
“We're in here at 6:15, 6:30 a lot of mornings,” Legendre said.
Williams' goal was to place a strong, disciplined team on the mat. He wanted to coach a team that was determined to outwork its competition.
During his first year in 2000, OU finished fourth in the NCAA team finals.
“They got pretty excited about being at NCAAs, let alone the team finals,” he said. “The year before they weren't even there.”
Paul Ziert, who coached the Sooners in the 1970s and early '80s marvels at what Williams has accomplished at OU, instilling camaraderie in his athletes long after they've left Norman.
“There's still that Oklahoma pride, that feeling of cohesiveness and caring about each other,” Ziert said. “This team has been magical that way.”
Dalton and Legendre worked out on Independence Day morning. Those are the kind of men Williams said he recruits. Those are the kind of men he's made into Olympians.
“There's no secret formula,” Williams said. “If you're going to be good, you gotta work hard.”