OU gymnastics: K.J. Kindler has loads of success, four national titles and one big unmet goal
NORMAN — K.J. Kindler came to Oklahoma with lots of goals.
Needless to say, she's achieved tons of them.
The OU women’s gymnastics coach has transformed the program over the past decade-plus. She demanded better facilities and additional funding, then went out and showed what could be done with them. She turned the Sooners into a national power, winning four national team titles and upsetting a national hierarchy that didn't often allow in newcomers.
And yet, one of Kindler’s hopes and dreams remains a work in progress.
“One of our goals as a staff was to build Lloyd Noble Center,” she said.
Build it into a huge advantage for the Sooners, that is.
While Kindler and Co. have taken serious strides in that direction — crowds of over 4,300 at the Sooners’ first two home meets would’ve been a season’s worth of fans before she arrived — they aren’t there yet. They’ll have a chance to take another step Saturday morning when Denver comes to town for a top-10 showdown.
No. 1 OU vs. No. 6 Denver.
Such a matchup would sellout in several locales.
In Norman? Probably not yet.
“That’s what fans may not understand — outside Norman, that’s the environment we’re going to every weekend,” Kindler said. “We saw 10,000-plus at Alabama. We’re going to those places, Florida, Utah, etcetera.
“Utah has gotten 14, 15 plus.”
She paused, then clarified just in case she wasn’t clear.
“Fifteen thousand fans,” she said. “For me, that’s the step in our program that we haven’t quite reached and that we want to get to.”
OU’s biggest home crowd ever came last season against UCLA. It was a No. 1 vs. No. 2 showdown. It was a rematch of the national championships from the year before. It was a star-studded event with OU's Maggie Nichols and UCLA's Katelyn Ohashi.
And fans responded. Arena workers said the crowd of 10,177 was the largest they’d seen for any event during the entire academic year, including a country music concert.
Kindler decided to push for similar crowds this season by carrying over some of what was done for that UCLA dual. First came the removal of the massive curtain that had long covered the west side of the arena. She figured planning for a smaller-than-capacity crowd likely meant that’s what the Sooners were going to get.
Removing the curtain has improved the experience for everyone.
“With the banner, it really kind of limited seeing all the events from the side,” Kindler said. “Now, there is more space.”
It also changed the vibe on the competition floor.
“The energy felt better and more full,” Kindler said. “You were kind of surrounded a little bit more.”
Still, the Lloyd Noble Center has yet to rise to the level of what is seen at the Huntsman Center when Utah competes. Or Alabama’s Coleman Coliseum. Or Florida’s O’Connell Center. Or Georgia’s Stegeman Coliseum. Those places are packed. Sold out.
That’s a huge validation to the gymnasts and a significant advantage in competition. But it’s every bit as big for recruiting. Having a chance to compete in a hyped environment is a draw for recruits no matter the sport — women’s gymnastics is no different.
The fact Kindler and her staff have been able to recruit the best even though OU hasn’t had those seam-busting, ear-splitting crowds is a testament to the other things they’ve been able to sell. National titles and top training are no small thing, but imagine if Kindler could walk a recruit into a packed arena, too.
Even though this is her 14th season at OU, she isn't giving up hope that a sellout is not only possible but also something the Sooners could do regularly.
“We gain new fans all the time,” she said. “Once they come, they have such a great time, they want to come back.”
Packing the Lloyd Noble Center is a huge goal, but don't put it past K.J. Kindler. Going big has become her thing.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or email@example.com. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK or follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok.