Dealing with evolution in college sports

Minnesota's men's gymnastics team is trying to make a name for itself in a ravaged sport.

Ben Goessling

Look past the splintered wood, beyond the archaic workout equipment, through the fractured legacy.

If you can sift through all that, you’ll realize there’s something going on here, something proud, tucked far away from the bright lights of big-time college athletics and stowed in a musty room in the corner of Cooke Hall.

Maybe you haven’t heard about it yet. But Mike Burns wants to make sure you will.

Burns, who completed his first season as Minnesota men’s gymnastics coach in April after taking over for 33-year coach Fred Roethlisberger, presides over a gym running at full capacity during the first week of voluntary offseason workouts.

That’s a marked change from years past, when many athletes headed home right after school let out and didn’t come back until August.

But like the cracked wood in their gym, the Gophers feel there’s much more value to their team than people realize, they said.

“I look at us as the best-kept secret on campus,” said Burns, who was an assistant at powerhouse Michigan from 1997 until last year. “Maybe we’re not the best yet, but that’s the plan.”

By all accounts, it’s certainly an ambitious plan.

Even though it might be a little too much for Burns to bite off.

Perhaps more than any other sport, men’s gymnastics has been ravaged by the increasing costs of college athletics and the sweeping changes of Title IX. There are only 19 varsity programs left in the country, and Minnesota’s was slated for demolition three years ago. It was saved only by $2.7 million in private donations that kept it, along with the men’s and women’s golf teams, from extinction.

That donation covered three years’ worth of expenses, which are all gone now.

Along with the overwhelming tasks of restoring a team’s pride and a community’s interest, it has Burns napping on his black leather couch after putting in another 13-hour day.

Vacation? Maybe some other time.

Making the most of it

The Gophers’ practice facility in Cooke Hall looks like something of a glorified jungle gym.

The team’s pommel horse, uneven bars and parallel-bars apparatus are in a row on the side of the room closest to the door. The center of the room doubles as a stretching area and a runway for floor exercise passes (the Gophers can’t fit a full floor-exercise mat in the room).

A row of stationary bikes and free weights sits underneath a wood strip that includes a second set of uneven bars and a vault apparatus, and a number of other workout devices are shoved in the corners of the room.

But in an oddly refreshing change from the typical blather about revenue streams and state-of-the-art facilities, you won’t hear the Gophers complaining about their digs.

“I’m completely comfortable here, and that’s what people don’t realize. I won two floor exercise championships training here,” said Clay Strother, a four-time individual national champion at Minnesota from 1999-2003, who still trains at Cooke Hall for a possible 2008 Olympics bid. “I go to bigger facilities with a full floor, and it feels too spacious. Here, everything’s efficient.”

That’s not to say Cooke Hall doesn’t have plenty of warts.

Built in 1934 as an indoor sports building for men, the gym has since seen most varsity sports leave for newer facilities.

The building still serves as the home of the department of recreational sports and the men’s gymnastics team, yet it was cited in a 1996 report by the University’s Facilities

Management as needing up to $328,000 for the removal of asbestos.

“When I first came here, I thought it was a dump. I couldn’t believe it,” junior Kevin Green said. “But coach Burns can get around easily enough, and I’ve gotten used to it.”

And there’s no animosity on Burns’ part toward the women’s program, which has an 18,000-square-foot facility in Peik Gymnasium replete with locker rooms, a team lounge, and rooms designed for video viewing and athletics training.

“If we need to use a full floor, we can always go over there,” Burns said. “(Women’s co-head coaches) Jim (Stephenson) and Meg (Stephenson) have been great about letting us use it.”

Filling the seats

Burns had a little more difficulty, however, in getting the women’s program to share its comfy time slot Saturday nights.

When he arrived at Minnesota, the coach cobbled together a two-page list of goals for the program – and near the top of that list was bumping up the Gophers’ attendance totals.

The problem was his core audience couldn’t make a 2 p.m. Saturday start because it had its own meets.

“I figure our target group is high schoolers throughout the state who compete in gymnastics, and they can’t come at 2 (p.m.), because they’re competing somewhere,” Burns said. “I met with the women’s coaches, and I got a little bit of, ‘We’ve always had this 7 (p.m.) time period, and we’re going to keep it.’ I said, ‘OK, I can appreciate that, and you’ve built it up. But don’t feel like you can relegate me to the crappy times.’ “

But the three coaches worked out their schedules for the next three seasons so only one team will be at home on a given Saturday, and now Burns plans to start his sales pitch.

Green said, “We’ve gone to a lot of elementary schools and done exhibitions for them. Those were a lot of fun, and I think it helps get our name out there.”

Finding the money to do that on a large scale, however, is a little more difficult.

Burns said he has added “about $3,000” from private donors to a scholarship fund that already includes two endowed scholarships (with plans for a third) from former Gophers gymnast Sid Wolfenson.

But he also said he knows a complete endowment of the team’s scholarships is the only way to safeguard it from elimination, and to that end, Burns still has much work to do.

“My goal is to make this program as bulletproof as possible,” he said. “And that’s about a $2 million job.

“A lot of times, administrators just say, ‘We’ll take the easy way out.’ When some older coaches are close to retiring, they worry, ‘If I retire, will they drop the program?’ And Fred had that fear. He’s actually a very wise man for staying around until the program’s future was in better shape.”

A fresh face

But in other ways, Roethlisberger’s time to go had probably come.

After more than three decades at Minnesota – the last nine years of which yielded finishes in the bottom half of the Big Ten – Roethlisberger retired in August, leaving the program to assistant coaches Russ Fystrom and Kyle Zak.

When Burns came, he inherited a program in need of a fresh face.

“I told the guys during my interview that I have two daily goals: I want to laugh out loud every day, and I want to make somebody else do the same,” Burns said. “That may be pretty trivial, but a lot of things revolve around that.”

Burns completed a 7:30 a.m. workout with the team Friday – the product of a challenge from Green – and after one season with the team, he has his gymnasts raving about the squad’s new energy.

“It refreshed a lot of athletes having Mike in here,” Strother said. “Not to take anything away from Fred, but there’s a new fire in a lot of guys.”

Burns, who frequently references books he’s read on management, said that even though the Gophers finished last in the Big Ten this season, they had plenty to be proud of.

“We had a team picnic last Sunday, playing some volleyball, doing the egg toss at the end, that kind of thing,” Burns said. “I’m not one for getting all dressed up and having a big banquet, but Fred never did that. I agree with him somewhat; you don’t want to say, ‘Nice job,’ when you really didn’t do well. But recognition is so critical.”

Burns, who has two years left on his contract, said the team has bid to play host to the 2009 NCAA Championships and he doesn’t think it’s unrealistic to shoot for a title by then.

If that happens, it’s a safe bet his team won’t be the best-kept secret on campus anymore.

“The first kid I brought in to recruit here (Ralph Russo, who committed to Michigan for 2006), I told him we’re about a year away from him coming here,” Burns said. “I told him, ‘Good luck at Michigan, but remember one thing: By the time you’re a senior, we’re going to be kicking your ass.’ “