Financial turmoil threatens future of Gophers men’sgymnastics team

by Ben Goessling

If you run into Minnesota men’s gymnastics coach Fred Roethlisberger between now and the team’s 100th anniversary celebration Saturday, you better have a couple hours to spare.

As Minnesota prepares to honor a century of gymnastics with a meet against Illinois at the Sports Pavilion, Roethlisberger has become the team’s unofficial historian, compiling an exhaustive collection of records and artifacts while taking anyone within earshot on a trip down memory lane.

“(Looking through the team’s history) is like watching old World War II movies; it’s just fascinating,” said Roethlisberger from behind the mammoth pile of pictures and papers on his desk in Cooke Hall. “I’ve been over to the University Archives six or eight times, and I end up thumbing through their stuff for two or three hours.”

Then, he added with a glow in his eyes, “This is so cool.”

It’s almost enough to make Roethlisberger forget about the last nine months, about the preparations he made for a celebration that wasn’t supposed to happen, about how his team will celebrate its 100th season without knowing if its 101st campaign will come to pass.

Ever since men’s gymnastics – along with Minnesota’s men’s and women’s golf teams – was targeted for elimination on April 11, 2002, Roethlisberger’s team has spent almost as much time pounding the pavement as the pommel horse. The athletic department is looking for $2.7 million to keep the three endangered sports in existence through 2005.

With eight days remaining before the Feb. 1 deadline, the teams are rapidly approaching that total, powered by a pledge from an anonymous donor to match any contribution toward saving the sports. The teams are less than $100,000 away from their goal.

But even if the programs are saved, Minnesota’s men’s gymnastics team still faces a future filled with uncertainty.

Only 20 varsity men’s gymnastics programs remain in Division I athletics, down from 82 in 1982. Minnesota is one of just six schools in the Big Ten with a men’s gymnastics team.

The rapid elimination of men’s gymnastics nationwide has left some questioning the validity of the sport’s existence at the University. Only four of the 16 athletes on this year’s team hail from Minnesota.

John Roethlisberger, a three-time national all-around champion at Minnesota and three-time Olympian, said the need for fundraising won’t go away even if the

program is saved at the University.

“It’s a fact of life, and it’s going to be for a long time,” he said. “We need to do some things to raise the popularity of the sport at the high school level and increase the community’s awareness of the program.”

Senior Clay Strother, a two-time defending national champion on both the pommel horse and floor exercise, agreed with John Roethlisberger’s sentiments and said the program needs to become more proactive about ensuring its future.

“The important goal is to raise money for ourselves, to diffuse some of the stress on the athletic department’s budget,” he said. “We need to make it less likely that the program will be discussed for elimination in the future.”

For his part, Fred Roethlisberger has maintained confidence in his program’s future that is simply the stuff of blind faith.

It is a resolve that stems from surviving three decades of elimination rumors and close calls, and the coach, now in his 32nd season at Minnesota, continues to believe his program will be around for another 100 years, even though it might be on the chopping block again as early as 2005.

“I’ve been through (the threat of elimination) three or four times before,” he said. “In 1971, I was offered a $4,000 compensation package, and I held out for $5,000. The program could have been dropped that day. We’ve been there before, and I know we’ll be OK.

“I just have a faith that (the program) will continue. If we’re the last place on earth that has this sport, it’s still a quality item.”

While pausing to reflect on the centennial his team will commemorate this weekend, Roethlisberger allowed himself to dream.

“It would be so cool to have people here in 2103,” he said, “showing weird pictures and telling stories about old coach Roethlisberger.”

But Roethlisberger’s dream will undoubtedly face more financial obstacles before it becomes a reality.

And the next one might only be two years away.

Ben Goessling welcomes comments at [email protected]