How K.J. Kindler built an OU gymnastics dynasty | Conversations with Coach Bob Stoops

How K.J. Kindler built an OU gymnastics dynasty | Conversations with Coach Bob Stoops

KJ Kindler has constructed one of the most dominant programs in college sports. She joins Bob Stoops to discuss her coaching journey and much more.

Sellout Crowd Network

By Sellout Crowd Network

| Apr 2, 2024, 6:00am CDT

Sellout Crowd Network

By Sellout Crowd Network

Apr 2, 2024, 6:00am CDT

 

With 13 Big 12 championships and six national titles, OU women’s gymnastics head coach KJ Kindler has built one of the greatest dynasties in college athletics. On this episode of Conversations with Coach, Kindler joins Bob Stoops to discuss her coaching journey, why “pressure is a privilege” and the 2024 Sooners’ recent record-breaking Big 12 championship performance. 

(This conversation has been edited for length and clarity)

Bob Stoops: You’ve just been dominant. Where did it all start? 

KJ Kindler: My journey wasn’t like everybody’s journey. I was a walk-on athlete at Iowa State University. So I wasn’t really expecting that I would be a big performer for them, but I went, loved the coach. That’s why I chose it. So I went to Iowa State and just worked as hard as I could. I actually became an all-arounder there my freshman year, earned a scholarship for my sophomore year and just had this incredible experience there. Not just with the coach, but also my teammates, everything. And jumping into college sports, especially from a sport like gymnastics, it was very individualized. And the team atmosphere really clicked with me. I loved it. And I was always a junkie, like a gymnastics junkie. 

And so I started coaching when I was an athlete there because back then you could do that to make money, especially if you’re a walk-on athlete. So I spent a lot of time doing a little bit of that and kind of getting my feet wet in coaching with younger girls. And then I graduated in December and my head coach at Iowa State resigned in December. That’s really rare to see that happen.

He had kind of groomed me to take over. He was teaching me a few things in the fall and looking back at it, he was kind of getting me ready to kind of step in as an assistant. So the assistant coach stepped up to head (coach). When I graduated, the next day I had a job, which never happens.

Timing is everything. So I stepped right into that assistant coaching role behind the new head coach, Amy Pyle, and we were a dynamic duo for a long time there. She really didn’t micromanage me. She let me make all sorts of terrible mistakes and let me figure it out instead of telling me what to do. She let me kind of navigate my way. And she was great at some things that I really wasn’t good at. And vice versa, so we were really a good team.

Bob Stoops: So you’re the head coach at Iowa State from 2001 to 2006. While you were there, a mutual friend of ours, Dan McCarney was the head football coach.

KJ Kindler: First of all, he gave of his time, all the time. Like he knew everybody’s name everywhere. Like you’d walk in, he’d know every single person’s name. He’d always address them. He made time for all the sports to meet with them. I found that very familiar. When I came to Oklahoma, you were exactly the same way as Coach Mac.

He paid attention to everything that was going on around him, not just the sport of football. So I felt like he had a really global demeanor in terms of the athletic department and he helped us recruit, you name it. But he also made you feel like you were very important. And I always remember that, especially as a young coach.

Bob Stoops: From 2006 now till the present, you’re the head coach here at Oklahoma and you’ve built a dynasty. What are some of the key things that you really base your program on to be so consistent?

K.J. Kindler: You said the first word — consistency. That’s been the most important thing consistent in everything we do, in our habits. We have a plan A, plan B, a plan C. We’re always prepared. There’s definitely a level of consistency with this program, and I’m not talking about the results as much as I’m talking about the process.

We all know it starts when you’re in preseason workouts and setting the right tone and getting everyone to buy in. That’s far more important than when you start competing. I would also say embracing expectations because I think it’s really difficult to have that kind of pressure. These young women, they have a lot of pressure on them and they have to really embrace the fact that it’s gonna exist.

Patty (Gasso) always says pressure is a privilege and it’s absolutely true. So you have to just kind of wrap your arms around it. Know that you’re going to have fear. You’re going to have anxiety. Those things are going to go through you. How do you handle them? How do you respond to mistakes? 

But I also think passion is so important. Somebody asked me what’s a typical day like. There is no typical day in coaching. You may have a schedule, but every obstacle that pops up every single day is new and fresh and a bigger thing to tackle. And you just always have to be ready for anything. 

You’re always navigating something new and something different. So I think the passion has to exist. You have to wake up with purpose every day knowing “I’ve got this list of things to do but there’s gonna be curveballs left and right.” That’s why I love coaching because there’s nothing boring about it.

Bob Stoops: I love what you said, and I agree totally. The passion, the energy, and I see it watching your women perform.

I had Patty Gasol on just a few weeks ago and I love her team, how much joy and passion they have competing. When you embrace it that way, you’re going to perform better. I always told my players the same thing. Enjoy the fight, enjoy the challenge.

Talk about your husband, Lou Ball, one of your top assistant coaches, and Tom Haley. Talk about what they bring to the table.

K.J. Kindler: So our staff has been together 18 years. This is like wind blowing because in our sport, as I’m sure in a lot of sports, it’s hard to keep consistency on your staff. You have people moving on to higher positions. I guess he could go somewhere else, but he doesn’t want to, which is great. 

Bob Stoops: Well, you got a little advantage that your husband is one of them.

K.J. Kindler: Here’s what’s great about it. You might say you’ve been together so long. You know how each other clicks and that’s all true, but we all bring something very different to the table and we all challenge each other. Even after 18 years, I know what they’re thinking and sometimes I need to hear those other arguments and those other points of views. 

Lou definitely brings a sense of calmness to our staff. He’s the more reasonable person, the more logical person. Tom really motivates our team. He has really unique ways to motivate them. He does it on a daily basis. 

I’m kind of the one who ties it all together. I do think working with women, it’s important for them to have a really strong leader, someone they can look up to. I would never ask them to do something I wasn’t willing to do myself,

Bob Stoops: You’re coming off the Big 12 championship where you just set a record for points. Let’s talk about your upcoming schedule and then about your gymnasts.

K.J. Kindler: Yes, so I took a deep breath when you said that because what they’ve done is pretty mind-blowing even to me. That wasn’t an expectation we ever set and that certainly wasn’t something we were striving for, but for them to achieve that under our roof at the LNC was pretty cool. But these women are amazing. This team is the team chemistry. 

You mentioned joy before and that’s something we always mention in the locker room. This is something brought on by the players. They want to show people, “This is why I love doing this. It’s hard to prepare for, but this is what I was made to do and I’m going to enjoy every minute of it.”

We have some great athletes. Jordan Bowers, I bring her up because she just tied Maggie Nichols’ all-around record here at Oklahoma, which who knew that was ever going to be touched? Maggie Nichols (was) one of the best NCAA gymnasts in the history of the sport and an incredible athlete.

Bob Stoops: And Jordan had a 10 in the vault, bars and floor, right?

K.J. Kindler:  Yes, and that’s just mind-blowing. You see moments when players have that euphoric game, where nothing can go wrong. That’s kind of what happened for Jordan. Nothing was going to go wrong for her. She was in a great headspace and ready for no ready for anything. And so she just had one of those nights and she got engaged the next day. I guess it was just the best weekend ever for her.

And then we have Audrey Davis who really is the heart of this team. She’s our starter on several events. The starter is that dependable person, is going to nail it every time. Everyone trusts them, everyone believes in them. She’s just been a remarkable example for our whole team. 

And then we have a couple of other all-arounds, Catherine Lavasser, who’s taken on a lot more responsibility this year, added the all-around and again, a leader by example, 100%. And Faith Torres, just a sophomore. She made All-American in the all around, which I thought was really exceptional, but she’s most improved. She has just skyrocketed, worked hard. And honestly, if anybody’s got joy, it’s her.

Bob Stoops: And she had a perfect 10 on the floor, I believe, right in the championship.

K.J. Kindler: Yeah, her first one ever. So like how could it come at a better time? 

Bob Stoops: What’s coming next?

K.J. Kindler: Heading to Ann Arbor, Michigan. And we are the one seed, the overall one seed in the tournament. We’ll be going to Michigan where Alabama will be the two seed there and Michigan the three seed. There will be eight teams there. So we have to kind of fight our way through it. Have to be in the top two in both of our sessions to move on to Fort Worth, which is where the semifinals and finals will take place. 

We know how tough this is. We’ve competed at Michigan consistently over the last decade. So we know the area of the arena. We’ve seen Michigan and Alabama this year. So definitely kind of know what we’re up against.

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