The accomplishments of the men’s gymnastics program are kept in plain sight.
The walls of the gym in the back of McGonigle Hall are covered in photos of All-Americans, national champions and Olympians.
“It’s kind of mind-boggling,” senior co-captain Scott Haddaway said. “Every day I come into the gym and look at the wall. Sometimes I look at guys I’ve been teammates with up on the wall. Some days I look for a new face and try to think what they went through in their lives. It helps push you to do what you need to do in the gym.”
In its 88-year history, the program has been one of the university’s top performing teams earning more conference titles than any other sport. After the Board of Trustees voted to eliminate the men’s gymnastics team, along with four others, the Owls performed in their last ever Eastern College Athletic Conference Championships last weekend in Annapolis, Md.
Introduced in 1926, it took nine seasons for the Owls to get their first taste of victory. With coach Max Younger at the helm, they won the first Eastern Intercollegiate Gymnastics League title in school history during the 1934-5 season.
Featuring 1936 Olympian Chet Phillips, the team defended its title in the two seasons that followed. Temple recaptured the league title in its 1938-9 and 1940-1 seasons. After a nearly eight-year drought, which included a three-year break due to World War II, an Owls squad featuring NCAA National Champions Bob Stout – a 1952 Olympian – and Joe Bareneto won the first and only NCAA Championship in team history in 1949.
Younger’s run as coach ended in 1955 after 28 years. Alumnus Carl Patterson came in as the program’s third head coach. Patterson became linked with one of Temple’s most famous alumni and eventually trained the team’s current head coach, Fred Turoff, when he came to Temple in 1966.
“[Patterson] made a very favorable impression on Bill Cosby,” Turoff said. “Because when I spoke with Cosby, he had mentioned Patterson’s name several times in conversations. I know that Patterson told him how to do a handspring off a vaulting horse, among other things.”
The Owls went on to win two more EIGL championships in 1963-4 and 1967-8. Shortly after the 1968 NCAA Championship, where Temple finished fourth, Patterson died of a stroke, leaving the head coaching job open for Bill Coco, who coached the Owls from 1968-73.
During Coco’s time as coach, Temple became successful in the regular season (46-11), but failed to claim an EIGL Championship. Coco also had the responsibility of coaching one of the most successful youth women’s gymnastics teams in the country, the Mannettes Girls’ Team in Philadelphia, a team that he founded in 1958. Because of this, he stepped down from Temple’s team after the 1973 season.
At that point, Turoff was asked to be the head coach for Temple. He declined the offer because he was still training for international competition, allowing Dave Thor, one of Turoff’s U.S. national teammates, to take the position.
Thor, a Michigan State alum, coached from 1973-6 before his father died in 1976, causing him to move back to California with his family. Thus, the position opened up for Turoff.
He’s held the position ever since, coaching the team to 18 conference titles – half of which came during the program’s most successful era.
The Golden Decade
The 1990s were good to the Owls.
Temple won nine consecutive conference championships, produced 11 All-Americans, four national champions and seven U.S. national team members.
“That was a terrific period for us,” Turoff said. “I was able to attract some very good gymnasts that helped the program.”
“That was a time I had full scholarships to give out,” Turoff, who now has four scholarships to divide up, added.
Gymnasts like two-time Olympian Dominick Minicucci and All-Americans Bill Roth, Kenny Sykes and Dave Frank were among the ranks.
“I felt really blessed to be there at the time that I was,” Sykes said. “I knew it was a special time in Temple gymnastics history. Not only because I was there living it, but also because I could still talk directly to the alumni that contributed to the longstanding legacy of the gymnastics program, and then at the same time, use that wisdom to continue that tradition.”
Frank didn’t know it at the time, but looking back, he says that the ‘90s were something special.
“It was amazing to be a part of a successful team,” Frank said. “We were almost like a family, a great group of guys, and we all got along. And part of the reason I think we were so good and strong is because we were a close-knit team. We really helped and pushed each other to be even better.”
At the 1990 USA Championships, Bill Roth scored a perfect 10.0 on the horizontal bar – becoming the first Owl to ever do so.
“[Fred and I] started talking about ‘this was off a little bit, and this was off a little bit,’” Roth said. “And when they showed the score I looked at Fred and smirked. I said, ‘Well, it couldn’t have been that bad.’”
But even with all the success through the decade, there was a point where it could have all been taken away.
The men’s gymnastics team is no stranger to the prospect of elimination.
In December 1994, R.C. Johnson, who was in his first year as Temple’s athletic director, proposed the elimination of men’s gymnastics, along with the women’s gymnastics team and baseball.
Former gymnasts said they weren’t going to let that happen.
“We survived it,” former assistant and current volunteer coach Tom Gibbs, who competed with Turoff during the early days of the program, said.
The announcement of Johnson’s proposal was made 11 days before the Board of Trustees had to take a vote. The team took advantage of that time.
“Of course in the time between then and the board meeting, the newspapers and TV got a hold of it,” Turoff said. “Alumni got a hold of it, and there was such an uproar that the board invited us to make presentations to them, which we did.”
Turoff’s team, as well as the women’s team, also took action. The Owls gathered in front of Johnson’s office at 1900 N. Broad St., looking to get a word with him. It worked, despite not getting the opportunity right away.
It was the team’s own decision to do that, not Turoff’s, but it helped the Owls plead their case.
“[Johnson] later did have us come in,” Turoff said. “I was there with a couple of my athletes and he explained his reasons. [My guys] weren’t going to have that, and I wasn’t either. But that enabled us to gather a good head of steam.”
“We were able to mount hundreds of signatures on petitions and Fred was able to do a presentation in front of the trustees and there were some alternatives they were willing to accept,” Gibbs said. “Since that time, he’s been able to raise a lot through fundraising to be more sustainable.”
The proposal of the cuts came in the middle of the team’s run of success in the ‘90s, having won five conference titles before Johnson announced his plan.
Once the team was in the clear and returned to competition, the Owls didn’t miss a beat.
“I looked at the particular team that he wanted to drop that year,” Turoff said. “[That team] had a national champion and three All-Americans on it, which eventually spawned several national champions. [Johnson] picked on a team that was really quite talented. Plus it was a good academic team way back then.”
In 1994, the men’s gymnastics program was in danger of elimination when a first-year athletic director proposed that they needed to go. Twenty years later, the team is in nearly the exact same position.
On Dec 6, 2013, Turoff had a meeting with Athletic Director Kevin Clark. Turoff had received an email the day before that his athletes were to meet in the Pavilion, while he had to meet with Clark 40 minutes before.
“I was worried somebody had gone to a party and trashed the place,” Turoff said. “Or there was a disease going around the department, drugs were being used, things like that.”
With the program coming off back-to-back ECAC titles and accumulating the best grade point average out of all the teams in the school during the past three years, including the best GPA out of any college gymnastics team in the country in 2011, Turoff never expected to hear that his team was being cut.
But the team is in danger once again.
In a February vote, the board reinstated the crew and rowing teams but reaffirmed that men’s gymnastics, men’s track & field, baseball and softball will remain cut. In 1994, the cuts were nothing more than a proposal, as no decision had been reached. Now, they are a reality.
Still, the team said it hasn’t lost all hope.
“We’re doing everything we can to influence public opinion and the opinion of the administration,” Turoff said.
Like in ‘94, the team created a petition in support of preserving the program, but brought modern day strategies into the fold. Alumni created T-shirts utilizing the “Keep Calm” meme with “Keep Calm and Save Gymnastics,” and sent letters to President Theobald and board members.
There is also the Perfect 10 Campaign, which aims to help raise funds via donations of $10 or more for reinstatement. The proceeds are expected go to another Division I gymnastics program if the campaign fails.
A Broken Family
When Turoff took over as head coach 38 years ago, there were 138 collegiate men’s gymnastics programs across the country. Now there are 17.
Collegiate gymnastics has been dwindling for years and Minicucci said he believes that the universities themselves aren’t solely to blame.
“It’s a lack of supervision from the NCAA at the top,” Minicucci said. “They’re supposed to promote amateur athletics and I don’t know how they’re doing it.”
“It’s their job to supervise the athletic directors around the country, and it’s not appropriate to just cut all these smaller programs to boost up and spend money on just a select few,” Minicucci added.
If nothing changes by July 1, the number goes down to 16. But the Owls view themselves as more than just a number.
“It’s our own fraternity, and the fraternity is pretty tight,” Minicucci said. “It doesn’t end when college ends. We trained as kids, many of us knew each other before college and it is a great bunch of people that are important to our lives.”
There is a possibility that the team could stick around as a club sport. But as of July 1, Temple’s men’s gymnastics will end at the varsity level – just short of its 90th anniversary.
“Twenty years later, these are guys that I talk to every week,” Frank said. “We’re still great friends. The nice thing is we always have that bond – the gymnastics, the camaraderie, the teammates we can always look back on.”
“One of the things that’s really upsetting, that really gets to me,” Frank added. “Is that these guys that want to do gymnastics at a college level, if they go to Temple, they’re never going to have that opportunity, that experience my teammates and myself got to experience.”
Steve Bohnel and Nick Tricome can be reached at email@example.com.