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A final bow: Rhonda Faehn leaving Florida to join USA Gymnastics

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Rumors have swirled all week that Florida would soon lose a national championship coach. But this one leaving is a bit of a surprise.

Faehn is fourth from right.
Faehn is fourth from right.
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Florida gymnastics coach Rhonda Faehn has resigned her position to take a job with USA Gymnastics, Florida announced in two releases early Friday.

Faehn, 43, informed UF administrators of her decision to move on Thursday and told her team in an emotional meeting Friday after the squad posed for a national championship team photo.

"It was incredibly hard," Faehn said. "I absolutely love Florida and what the University of Florida stands for. At the same time, I really feel there is another plan for me. I’m still going to be doing what I love and hopefully making an impact on the lives of a lot of athletes who will be representing our country."

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"The University of Florida has provided an opportunity of a lifetime for me, my family and our student-athletes and I am so grateful. I couldn’t have asked for a more rewarding and supportive atmosphere to do what I love.

"This amazing opportunity with USA Gymnastics provides a new and different way for me to impact young lives. I will always love the University of Florida and will treasure my time here. But my passion and excitement for Elite gymnastics is pulling me a different direction and the timing is right for me and my family. I want to have a positive influence on the athletes and coaches that will represent our country at the highest level."

"I would like to thank the Florida administration, my staff and all my current and former student-athletes for helping to build such an amazing tradition of excellence. I know the program will continue to thrive and I will always be a Florida Gator."

The move comes on the heels of Florida's third consecutive national championship in gymnastics, an impressive feat matched by just two other programs in the history of the sport.

Faehn is the most successful coach in Florida's gymnastics history, leading the program to 10 Super Six berths, and steering her team to the only three national championships in program history. Only one other Florida program, Mike Holloway's men's indoor track program, has won three consecutive national titles.

And Faehn had hit her stride in recent years: Florida has landed the nation's No. 1 recruiting class in five of the last six cycles, and subsequently flourished over the last four years, with Gators gymnasts Kytra Hunter and Bridget Sloan combining to win three of the last four individual all-around national titles, and two of the last four Honda Awards given to the sport's athlete of the year. Florida gymnasts have earned 11 of the individual event national titles awarded in the past five years.

The decision to leave for USA Gymnastics, the governing body responsible for the country's Olympic gymnastics program, makes sense for a coach at the top of her profession, with little new left to accomplish at the collegiate level — a lower level of the sport than than Olympic and Elite competition, and one that Faehn competed on in her own career, which included a place on the 1988 U.S. Olympic team.

Faehn is also tight with former USA Gymnastics National Team Coordinator and all-around gymnastics Svengali Béla Károlyi, having been coached by Károlyi in the 1980s. Márta Károlyi, Béla's wife, has been the National Team Coordinator since 2001 — and the U.S. women's gymnastics team won gold in London in 2012 for the first time since a team with multiple Károlyi protégés topped the podium in Atlanta in 1996.

Both Károlyis are old for the sport, however: Both are 72, and Béla largely works as a commentator. USA Gymnastics will eventually need new blood to lead it, and Faehn is about as good a candidate for the top chair as any gymnastics coach in the world.

The USA Gymnastics statement that announces Faehn's hiring as "Senior Vice President of Women's Program" hints at that possibility, noting that she "will provide overall leadership to the women’s program, including supervision of the national team program alongside National Team Coordinator Martha Karolyi."

"Rhonda brings an incredible background to this role", said Steve Penny, President of USA Gymnastics. "Our women’s program has seen tremendous growth and success over the years, and Rhonda’s experiences as an athlete and coach will be valuable assets in this role. She has outstanding relationships with many of our national team staff and coaches, along with an exceptional understanding of what it takes to succeed at the highest level of the sport."

For Florida, though, Faehn's departure is deeply bittersweet, as athletic director Jeremy Foley captures in his statement.

"I have such mixed emotions right now. Of course, I’m happy for this wonderful opportunity for Rhonda. She will continue to make a difference in young athletes' lives with USA Gymnastics, just like she’s done at Florida.

"But also there is sadness. Rhonda came in here 13 years ago, sharing our vision that Florida could be a national contender. She went to work and made that vision a reality. And in the last three years, she taken this program from nationally prominent to national champion. She’s done an absolutely spectacular job.

"Rhonda, her staff and her student-athletes have represented this program and this University with such spirit, class and integrity. We cannot thank her enough for all she has given the University of Florida. We wish nothing but the best for her and her wonderful family as they begin this outstanding opportunity."

Faehn, hired by Florida in 2002 from an assistant coach position at Nebraska, was one of the best hires of Foley's career. She trails only Holloway (whose men's teams have won five national titles between indoor and outdoor track) among Foley-hired coaches for national championships won at Florida. Her three titles ties the three won by women's tennis coach Roland Thornqvist, and notably outpaces the two won by Billy Donovan and Urban Meyer.

And finding her replacement could be quite difficult for Florida. Successful gymnastics coaches at the collegiate level have tended to stay with programs for dynastic runs, which had helped produce the static elite stratum of the sport — just four programs had won national titles before Florida broke through to become the fifth in 2013, and each of the four (Alabama, Georgia, UCLA, and Utah) has had a head coach reach 25 seasons with the program.

Faehn, who would likely have been no different, leaves after her 13th, and though she took Florida's program to historic heights, and leaves it in about as strong a position — with Sloan, the nation's best returning gymnast, about to enter her senior season, and plenty more talent both on the roster and in the pipeline — as possible, even the lure of an elite program with phenomenal support from Florida's highly-regarded administration may not allow the Gators to snag a coach on her level.

Simply put, few such coaches exist.

And yet that's why even a diehard Florida gymnastics fan can't begrudge Faehn for leaving in this way: She goes out on top of this level of the spot, and with Florida poised to vie for more titles in the future. And she's headed to the top level of the sport, and perhaps positioning herself for the single most prestigious job in all of gymnastics. This is a brilliant coach looking for a new challenge, and seizing a fantastic opportunity — and what she was able to do at Florida set her up for it.

Other coaches have, no doubt, seen that. One will take up the mantle from Faehn and, with luck, have success in continuing the Gators' roll.

But there will never be another Rhonda Faehn. She set the Gators' standard as high as it could possibly be.

For that, I have to thank her, and wish her well.