Roethlisberger continues legacy of his namesake

Susan Filkins

The name Roethlisberger and Minnesota gymnastics are synonymous.
Some Minnesotans can remember when former Gophers gymnast Marie Roethlisberger competed in the 1984 Olympics. Even more can recall last summer when ex-Gopher John Roethlisberger made his return trip to the Olympics in Atlanta. But does anybody know about their father?
He is the guy who sits on the side of the gym watching intently, but he is silent. He is the guy who calls himself the “ass kicker.” He is Fred Roethlisberger, coach of the Gophers men’s gymnastics team.
In his 26th year at Minnesota, Roethlisberger has built a program of high recognition and achievement, winning 11 Big Ten championships and coaching 48 individual Big Ten champions.
He has a love and passion for his gymnasts’ continued success, and a bond with them like no other coach.
“I think back to 26 years,” Roethlisberger said. “There are only three guys that if they called me at three in the morning from anywhere in the world that I wouldn’t bail them out of jail. That’s pretty amazing there’s only three in 26 years. I like these guys a lot, I get pretty close to them.”
The Gophers coach is a stern, intense person who does not often crack a smile unless he is joking with his team.
“He is quiet,” Marie Roethlisberger said. “He doesn’t seem like he is real open, but once you get to know him, he is very approachable.”
“The way Fred is, silence is a good thing,” sophomore gymnast Jason Krob said.
There is a more talkative and relaxed side to this coach, though. When he leaves practice for the day, he drives an hour straight east to his 53-acre home in River Falls, Wis., where he transforms into a child at heart.
“I have three dogs with tractors and wagons and all the things I can play with all weekend,” Roethlisberger said. “I can dig in the garden or saw firewood. I like to do all those things. I just like to be outside.”
Roethlisberger said when he decides to retire from coaching in about five years, his next job must have three requirements: to be outside, something with physical labor, and an activity he can do by himself.
His wife Connie Foster, who he met while teaching gymnastics classes at Minnesota, says her husband is definitely more conversational and subdued at home.
“He is always talking about his hobbies,” Foster, his wife of 15 years said. “We have a little hobby farm out here, and he’s into that. He is a pretty intense person regardless of where he is or what he is doing, but he tends to relax a lot more at home.”
Sophomore gymnast Jason Krob would agree. He has seen Roethlisberger’s other side first-hand last summer when he stayed with his coach for a couple of months.
“It is a side that you don’t see in practice,” Krob said. “When he is at home, he is in his garden pulling his tractor around. He is just a really great guy, and I wish a lot of people could know that instead of seeing some rough exterior.”
One thing is for sure though, whether he’s hunting, planting flowers, or giving lectures to his team, Roethlisberger loves gymnastics.
His own career started at a young age when his father took him to the Milwaukee Turners gymnastics club. He immediately fell in love with the sport.
“That was just like going to the candy shop on Saturday morning,” he said. “Because you are having fun, you start developing some skills and actually can do a back handspring or flip and pretty soon before you know you’re in it farther than you can get out.”
Roethlisberger found this to be all too true. After finishing high school, he competed for four years at Wisconsin. Then he went to the 1968 Olympics where he was the second-highest scorer for the United States.
After competing in the Olympics, Roethlisberger retired from gymnastics and took a head coaching position at Wisconsin-Whitewater. Following two short seasons, he was fired.
“I didn’t fit in there at all,” he said. “I was this flaming liberal with sideburns on my ears. The kids on the team called me by my first name and that really irritated everyone. I didn’t quite understand what was happening there until it was too late.”
Not too shaken up by his release, Roethlisberger came to Minnesota to get his Ph.D and became the assistant men’s gymnastics coach to Pat Bird. After Roethlisberger’s first season, Bird took another position and Roethlisberger became the head coach in 1971.
His coaching mentality is focused around the idea that the most important person in the coaching process is the athlete.
“I can give them a map, but it’s up to them to do it,” he said. “They’re the ones themselves that make good gymnasts. I don’t want any of the credit or any of the blame either.”
Roethlisberger’s direction and wisdom of gymnastics has made a lasting impression on his athletes.
“The thing that struck me the most about Fred is how straight forward he is,” Krob said. “He’s not going to tell you lies.”
Freshman Chad Conner said: “Some coaches can be really hard and harsh, but Fred asks us what we need to work on and helps us with that. He is real supportive and shows he has confidence in us.”
“Even if he is pleased he won’t show it a lot, and I think that is the challenge he presents,” John Roethlisberger added.
When it comes down to it, Fred Roethlisberger can say he has developed his own fan club, including his 10-year old son, Gus.
“He’s cool,” Gus Roethlisberger said. “We go sledding, and I help him work. And on my homework problems last week, he got the first one right.”
That pretty much says it all.