Empire of the tiger: LSU gymnastics icon D-D Breaux roars on

From the balcony of the 2016-built LSU Gymnastics Training Center, D-D Breaux oversees a state-of-the-art practice space and an unmatched legacy on campus. Photo by Jeannie Frey Rhodes.

The ominous rattles came on suddenly—first the windows releasing that nervous flinching sound of a hurricane’s reach pressing against old glass, then the cabinets with their sharp ceramic gargle shaking dishes loose to spill out and crash onto the floor below.

Another blowout.

In the late 1960s, a massive fertilizer plant was built just a few hundred yards from Sara Breaux’s family home in quaint Donaldsonville. Every so often, chaos, and collapsing kitchen appliances, would ensue.

The avid gymnast and tiny beast on the beam known to everyone since birth as “D-D” was just 16, but she didn’t like what was happening in her backyard. She decided she’d had enough.

Breaux rallied school friends and neighbors to make signs and protest in unison outside of the plant as her “ecology group” as she called it.

“Nixon is committing sewer-cide!” one of her banners blared.

Eventually, Breaux outlasted the scandal-ridden president, of course, and she and her friends stood up to a powerful industry. The owners of the fertilizer plant agreed to settle by purchasing the affected land surrounding its property at a handsome price, allowing the Breauxs to move to a larger, safer plot “down the bayou.”

This was Breaux’s first fight and her first victory.

It would not be her last.

D-D Breaux motivates her gymnasts and inspires them to be the best they can be in competition as well as in school. During team meetings—outside of the gym—she spotlights the weekly accomplishments of individual gymnasts and gives other teamates the chance to chime in on the accolades. Photo courtesy LSU.

The sea of red brake lights is what did it. Five years ago, Sara Pollock was behind the wheel and trying to exit campus after a home gymnastics meet at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center when she was overcome with emotion. Pollock wasn’t getting anywhere, but the line of stacked bumpers in front of her proved just how far her mother D-D had brought LSU gymnastics across four decades. Long gone were the days when staff curtained off large sections of the arena to hide the empty seats.

“The first time we had to sit in traffic on our way home from a meet, I started crying,” recalls Pollock, whose husband proposed to her on the floor at an LSU gymnastics meet. “I called Jewel [D-D’s other daughter], and she was about to call me. We both felt it. All I could say was, ‘We need contraflow!’”

D-D Breaux was just 25 years old in 1978 when she was asked to helm a Title IX-created program that was little more than an afterthought on the LSU campus. The women’s team was evolving from a club sport to a varsity sport then, budgets were low, and practices were held in musty corners of the Huey P. Long gymnasium. “I had to convince people for every single thing I wanted,” Breaux says.

On a chilly November morning, Breaux wears a black LSU hoodie with a couple championship rings on her fingers, looking through schedules, marketing materials and plans as she bounds around the glass-encased conference room sitting atop a sweeping staircase and looking out onto the spectacular training facility below.

“We sit in here every day thinking, ‘What can we do?’,” Breaux says. “I really believe that if you are asking the community to accept you, your team and program, and to celebrate these athletes’ performances, you have to do everything you can do with everything you’ve got.”

Breaux feels her team did just that last season. The group finished behind only an Oklahoma juggernaut by a razor-thin margin.

“If you’re second, and you’ve done absolutely everything you can do, there are no regrets,” Breaux says.

It’s a measured perspective not lost on her assistant and former LSU Tiger gymnast Ashleigh Clare-Kearney.

“D-D is all about building not just athletes but women who stand up for themselves in a world that doesn’t always make it easy to do so,” Clare-Kearney says. “She’s so passionate about the sport, the school and our state, and that’s something that’s very important for these young women on our team and the ones in the stands to see.”

Breaux has molded generations, but she doesn’t seem to like dwelling on the past. She tells her current athletes about the program’s rocky rise to prominence not to reveal unforeseen layers of herself and her story, but to push them to be better, to remain positive in the face of adversity, to never let up.

“Consistency wins,” is her favorite motto. It’s something she learned from her mother and years of training in the gym herself.

As a child, and one of eight children, Breaux’s parents would drive her from Donaldsonville to Baton Rouge for gymnastics practice.

“There was a whole lot of sacrifice there,” Breaux recalls. “For that I have to be humbled. Can I let all that sacrifice, time and support go unused?”

In college, Breaux attended Southeastern Louisiana University because LSU did not yet have a gymnastics program. There, she was ranked as a Top 15 gymnast in the country and led the Lions to a runner-up finish at nationals. Only a severe knee injury could keep the aggressive athlete who had swum across the Mississippi in her teens from competing at the Olympic Trials.

When her athletic career ended, her coaching career began.

Breaux continued in gymnastics as a national judge while earning her master’s degree from LSU. Locally, she put on clinics and began working with BREC to establish an age-group program for Baton Rouge gymnasts. It was then that LSU asked her to lead the new women’s program. Three years later, Breaux and her Tigers were SEC champions, but years of questionable support and pressure-filled seasons followed as Breaux worked toward her goal for the sport at the state’s flagship university.

“It was a great opportunity to grow something,” Breaux says of the job. “It wasn’t easy, but you know, don’t tell me no. I can wiggle my way through maybe, but don’t tell me no, because I’m always going to fight for a yes.”

LSU volleyball coach Fran Flory calls Breaux tenacious.

“She has no fear and she sees no obstacles, only opportunities,” Flory says. “Her methods and responses are sometimes a bit excessive, but that simply demonstrates her passion for all of us. There will never be another woman or member of our department who will impact women’s athletics in a more significant way.”

Sarah Mitchell has known Breaux since Mitchell was 9 and training under the LSU legend at camps. For Mitchell, Breaux has gone from coach to friend to family over the years. She’s constantly inspired by the way the coach can move a room.

“After she gives a talk, people are ready to run through a wall with her, to fight for things, to build something bigger than themselves,” Mitchell says. “And that’s just at a Rotary luncheon and places like that.”

Breaux lives in the moment, skips in the moment, bounding from challenge to challenge with an accelerating verve. Sometimes that challenge is a deadpan room, others it’s a stern judge sitting right across the mat.

Years ago Breaux disagreed with a judge to such a degree that she threw a clipboard at him to illustrate the intensity of her protest.

“No one really made note of it back then, but now it would be ‘D-D is out of control’ and on TV and social media,” Breaux says. “There’s a different temperament now. And the judges know when they give a wrong score, so I just have to barely raise a finger now, and they know I disagree. Our fans know, too, and that’s what’s exciting—they really have really come to know the sport.”

Breaux is a grandmother now, but that hasn’t mellowed her any. It just means she has young boys to face in tackle football. Some of her student-athletes call her what her grandchildren do: “Doo-Dah.” “Only when they get brave,” Breaux retorts.

“’Never’ and ‘quit’ were not in the vocabulary in our household,” says Jewel Fourrier, Breaux’s oldest daughter and a Realtor. “That’s still a value I cherish and attribute to her. She instilled that in us.”

Growing up, Breaux often had her daughters Jewel and Sara at the gym or out in the community promoting LSU gymnastics with her. For many seasons they would hand out free tickets together in front of local grocery stores. Their Valentine’s cards for school weren’t heart-shaped or pink, they were gymnastics schedules.

“[D-D] was a working mom, but totally different than a lot of working moms,” Sara Pollock, now with Tiger Athletic Foundation, recalls. “She was a pioneer. And she really believes you have to work something into existence.”

Despite her demanding schedule and her unending focus on process and detail, Breaux’s charisma shines through. She always makes time for high-fives and pictures with fans.

“She doesn’t take her position for granted because she worked so hard to get it,” Fourrier says.

When asked about her coaching legacy, Breaux defers. It’s not a head coach’s game anymore, she says, describing her team’s position as a perennial contender as the result of a healthy ecosystem of support, including co-head coach Jay Clark, assistant Bob Moore, Clare-Kearney, the staff and administration.

“It was me beating the drum for a long time,” Breaux says. “But now I have a pep band with me.”

LSU football coach Ed Orgeron famously—and simply—celebrated this year’s win over Bama with a ham sandwich, chips and some SportsCenter, but Breaux doesn’t relax like most. Even on vacations, she can be intense, Mitchell says.

Breaux goes on mind-clearing jogs around the neighborhood or the LSU Lakes almost daily.

She takes care of her mother who has Alzheimer’s, but when she has time, Breaux likes to get sweaty caring for her backyard garden. “I’m very particular about my tropical plants,” she says.

When she really wants to get away, she retreats to her camp near Grand Isle, and juts out into the fingers of the Gulf in her Hobie for some kayak fishing.

“The stillness, that quiet, that’s the beauty of the kayak,” Breaux says. “And when you’re in it, you’re at the same level as the fish, the raccoons, the pelicans. You’re connected with everything.”

Breaux doesn’t mind getting her hands dirty. In fact, she searches for chances to do so—be that by winning over a large crowd of strangers wholly uninitiated in her sport or clashing with her buttoned-up superiors.

In the 1990s, she fought and won a deal for her and several coaches to receive automatic one-year rollover contracts. Many on the LSU Board of Supervisors didn’t think the proposal had any chance of getting done.

“The confidence the administration has in our program now and the go-get-it attitude of TAF has made a huge difference,” Breaux says.

The immaculate and nearly 40,000-square-foot multi-level LSU Gymnastics Training Center opened in 2016, after Breaux helped fundraising for years. With its large arched windows and 18,000 square feet of training space, the building sits right next to the PMAC where Breaux once had to wrestle for practice space.

“This place doesn’t happen if you have a bag over your head,” Breaux says. “It happens because you have a vision.”

Former LSU board member Laura Leach acknowledges that what looks unapproachable to most is just the kind of thing Breaux runs headlong toward.

“She’s always been an optimistic fighter,” Leach says. “The joke was that D-D had her finger in my ribs forever. But she made the board aware of things that needed to be improved. And it was all done with safety in mind. Most people don’t think about those things, but D-D does.”

Now in her fifth decade at LSU, Breaux is known affectionately as the “Dean of Coaches,” and former LSU athletes from all sports call, text or drop in on her, in many cases long after their own mentors have moved on. “When they come back, they remember me, and they know I’m still here,” she says.

That endurance has made Breaux the longest-serving tenured coach in SEC history, regardless of sport. And it was this same gymnastics legend, clad in a #10 Breaux football jersey and fighting off a cold, who stood tall, fist aloft in a purple sky, leading the student section in cheers during the LSU-Texas A&M game in Tiger Stadium.

“She’s outlasted a lot of athletic directors at LSU,” Mitchell says. “D-D is a real tiger, in every sense of the word.”

Like her favorite gymnastics event as an athlete, Breaux’s career in coaching has been a true balancing act.

For 42 years the energetic leader has blended big vision bravery with small-town grit, and nimble politicking with unmatched tenacity. In doing so she has built an empire from mere embers and still, after all these years, maintains a strong grip on the torch.

Twice in her tenure, during long-ago seasons of “no positive support,” Breaux considered coaching offers from other universities. Ultimately, she chose to remain a Tiger and not back down.

She, and a new generation of student-athletes and Tiger fans, are thrilled she did.

“I love my job,” Breaux says. “But I like a good fight, too.”

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