Longtime men’s gymnastics coach Fred Turoff watches sophomore Casey Polizzotto practice on the rings in McGonigle Hall on Monday. | Kara Milstein TTN
In December 2013, hours after learning that their team was among the sports Temple would eliminate from its athletic department, members of the 88-year-old men’s gymnastics program didn’t dwell in their grief.
Instead, they headed over to McGonigle Hall for practice.
“We need to keep our heads up,” Evan Eigner, who later transferred to Ohio State, said that day.
On Monday evening, as what meteorologists were calling the worst storm of the winter season crept toward Philadelphia, an early Main Campus closure wouldn’t stop them either – the gymnasts were again in McGonigle, practicing as flurries progressed into a steady snowfall. The remaining athletes from the team – which now operates as a club sport overseen by legendary coach Fred Turoff – are still looking to keep their heads up, seven months after their fight to reverse the cuts proved unsuccessful and Temple officially removed the team from its Division I roster.
“We want to keep this gymnastics program alive,” senior gymnast Michael Bittner said. “Even when I graduate this year, and the freshmen graduate in four, we want people coming here.”
“When we got back here [in Philadelphia] at the end of August, before we officially started training again, we looked at each other and said, ‘We’re not a club, we’re still D-I athletes’” Bittner added. “We have the club title, but we’re going to train like D-I athletes, and try and perform like D-I athletes to the best of our ability.”
Bittner serves as a co-captain of the club along the many returning athletes under Turoff, who now serves in more of an advising role after being at the helm of the program for 38 seasons.
Turoff said the club is now largely run by the team members themselves, which includes four main officers – Bittner acts as the president, Rydzefski as vice president, senior Blaise Cosenza as secretary and junior Grady Cooper as treasurer.
The club has enough money to continue for another four years thanks to a university subsidy, and an additional endowment of $192,000 in donations and fundraising, Turoff said.
“We’re on our way [with fundraising],” Turoff said. “Fundraising is an ongoing thing. … I have to call alumni and let them realize that the survival of this program is very dependent upon them.”
One of the main fundraising events during last summer involved Bill Cosby, a Temple alumnus and former Board of Trustee who has been accused of sexual assault by more than 20 women in the last couple of months. Cosby resigned from the board on Dec. 1, 2014 in light of the allegations.
Turoff said that while Cosby’s case is “a sad situation,” he is happy with the longtime comedian and television actor’s commitment to his program.
“We had him at the right time,” Turoff said. “I don’t know the truth of any matter, and we’ll just have to wait and see if any lawsuits break through and if anything is proven … in the meantime, I know the man helped my program greatly, and was and is a supporter of men’s gymnastics.”
The event raised $13,427 for the club endowment, which still competes in the ECAC, Turoff said. The main difference is that Temple now competes in the National Association of Intercollegiate Gymnastics Clubs, which has dozens of more teams than the 16 squads still remaining at the Division I level.
Turoff said the NAIGC nationals will be held in Philadelphia this year at the Pennsylvania Convention Center from April 8-11, with around 1,000 gymnasts competing from all around the country.
Temple’s “competitive” club – a new designation added because a co-ed gymnastics club had already existed before the Division I program was cut – will look to be competitive at that meet after scoring more than 400 points as a team at the West Point Open at the United States Military Academy on Jan. 16. Last year, the Owls posted a team score of 398.650 at the meet.
Even with the improvement, Turoff said there’s work to be done.
“We still counted 12 falls in the first meet, so that’s 12 points,” Turoff said. “So we can score in the 410s, and in doing so we’ll be competitive with most of the teams in the ECAC … and be competitive with the top clubs in the country.”
One of the events the Owls will have to improve on in particular is the pommel horse. The team failed to post a score of at least 68 on the apparatus at any point last season, which was a mark they met in all of the other five events.
Turoff said the pommel horse is tough for most gymnasts, and that only elite athletes in the sport tend to excel at it.
“Pommel horse is generally a problem until you have the top guys in the country on it who don’t fall off,” Turoff said. “[It’s] the toughest event for men, generally.”
Even with the team’s weaknesses, Eigner, who is Turoff’s son, said he has high expectations for his former teammates for this upcoming season.
“I think that as a club program, they can be the best in the country,” Eigner said. “I think they’re still in the hunt in the ECAC … if they can work on some of the problems they had, including those falls [in the first meet], I think they’ll definitely be in a better position.”
Rydzefski cited the fact that many of the same athletes from last year’s squad returned for this season.
“We haven’t really lost anyone, [and] we’re still training as D-I [athletes],” Rydzefski said. “Everything’s pretty much the same … club is just a lower [level of competition].”
Even with the team being demoted to the club level, Bittner said finding the motivation to improve from last season isn’t difficult.
“This year, because of the club status, we’ve [all] come a lot closer and realize that we want to prove everybody wrong,” Bittner said. “We’re going to show people that we deserve to be here as a D-1 [program].”
Steve Bohnel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Steve_Bohnel
Avery Maehrer contributed reporting.