The question was a variation of the question “Where do you see yourself-in-five-years?” the one that almost every potential employer asked for at the time.
“Where do you think you can go on a five-year term here?” Arizona state officials asked Jay and Jess Santos in 2016 when the pair were interviewed for the position of head gymnastics coach.
This was a tricky one, as the ASU program was struggling, hence the vacancy. The previous coach had been placed on administrative leave that spring, then fired. The Sun Devils were ranked 51st in the nation out of 84 teams, and the new coach would inherit a roster with one senior and no juniors.
“We were really hesitant to commit to doing much, just because of where it was,” Jess said. “It was a bit scary to set up at first.”
“You guarantee the world,” Jay said, “and a few years later people say, ‘Well, you said you were going to do this and that. “”
John Spini, who retired in 2014 after 34 years of coaching, spent decades proving gymnastics could succeed at Arizona State. But his immediate successor, René Lyst, lasted less than two years, and the program was in a precarious situation.
The Sun Devils went 2-22 in double games during his tenure, finishing last in the Pac-12 both years.
Thus, the Santos did not guarantee the world. They charted a methodical, but not bold, path that would lead the Sun Devils back to competitiveness in the Pac-12 and national top-20 rankings.
“At the end of the day,” Jess said earlier this week, “we accomplished almost everything we set out in this five-year plan.”
ASU is one of four teams tied for the Pac-12 Regular Season Championship and is ranked 15th. In their last two home meetings, the Sun Devils beat UCLA for the first time since 2001 and handed California their first loss of the season. ASU will conclude its regular season at home on Friday against No. 1 Oklahoma and No. 21 Boise State.
“I would say this team is resilient,” said gymnast Jada Mangahas. “We went through a lot of adversity, injuries and unknowns. We pushed everything. We are all one big family.
It starts at the top with the Santos. During their interview with ASU, the couple made it clear that it was a forfeit, even though Jay was hired as head coach and Jess as assistant.
Last summer, Jess was promoted to co-head coach, giving the couple equal billing, which was only fair, since their duties were equal.
Not all spouses can work together in the same building, let alone side by side, but that’s common in gymnastics. Of the eight Pac-12 programs, four have husbands and wives as coaches.
“I think we really complement each other,” Jess said. “It helps that we both have a pretty big skill set. We can intervene for each other. If he’s gone for a day and I have to go coach bars, I know exactly how he teaches, what he says, why he does it.
The couple, who will celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary in June, met in 2007 during, unsurprisingly, a junior Olympic gymnastics competition in Indianapolis. They had a mutual trainer friend there, and at different times Jay and Jess sat on either side of the friend.
“And we’re watching gymnastics for the next 10 hours,” Jess said with a smile.
They became friends, saw each other at events across the country, and started dating.
Jay was an assistant at Iowa State at the time and Jess was at the University of Pittsburgh, which meant a long-distance romance and the start of a coaching alliance.
Nightly phone conversations often included “exchanges of ideas,” Jay said.
After two years, Jess joined Jay as an assistant at Iowa State and they learned that they enjoyed working with each other. They both moved to the University of Illinois, then eventually to eastern Michigan, where Jess was Jay’s assistant, then to ASU.
“I think it’s a really good dynamic,” Mangahas said. “They lead to different events. They have very good personalities that go together. Jess is calm, cool and collected. Jay is very excited. They build each other.
Their two sons, Cooper, 7, and Mason, 4, are often on the show. Mom and dad having the same schedule is a blessing on some days, a challenge on others. It works when they’re both free and they can say, “You take this kid and I’ll get this kid,” Jay said.
But if one parent is busy, it usually means the other is too. Jess’s parents came over from Maryland to watch the boys when ASU was on the road. And the home meetings that start at 7 p.m.?
“We have a pretty good babysitter call line at this point,” Jess said.
It’s not easy sometimes, but it works. And it works for ASU. The Santos have built a team with talent, depth and intelligence – seven of the 17 gymnasts are at Barrett Honors College.
The group also has courage. After some disappointing performances in January, the team leaders called a gymnasts-only meeting. The theme was that gymnastics is a team sport and every athlete’s daily focus should improve, Mangahas said.
“Immediately I saw a change,” she said. “Everyone in training was so determined, so motivated and so ready to go.”
February’s performances were “very different” from January’s, Jay said.
That got the Sun Devils excited about what they could accomplish at the Pac-12 Championships on March 19 in Utah and NCAA Regionals later this month.
“I’ve seen the incredible things they’ve done with this program,” Mangahas said, “and I think it shows what great coaches they are, able to bring a program back to where it was there. years and years.”
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