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Cal in Crisis?

June 30, 2010
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CalCalifornia's state budget crisis could soon cut close to home for gymnastics fans. Across the board reductions have been mandated and fans fear that Cal-Berkeley's storied men’s gymnastics, which has won four NCAA titles and produced 11 Olympians, could be among the first sports to go. While no official announcement has been made—and none likely will be until at least the start of 2010-11 school year—Athletic Director Sandy Barbour has acknowledged that no option is off the table, including eliminating sports.
 
“Why it would be a conversation about men's gymnastics, I'm a little baffled," she told the Daily Californian last week. "Campus discussion has created a lot of unrest and uneasiness and concern about a variety of different programs across our 27-sport portfolio."
 
Though Barbour purports to be perplexed, fans of men’s collegiate gymnastics have gotten used to being concerned whenever the specter of sports reduction crops up. Currently, only 17 schools support varsity programs, down from 129 in 1970.
 
"It’s not looking very good for men's gymnastics,” former Minnesota men’s coach Fred Roethlisberger said when his program was dropped, and later resurrected, in 2002. “I keep thinking it will be around in five, ten years because it should be around—it's just such a great sport with so much going for it—but, honestly, I just don't know. I think we're one of those, what do you call 'em? Endangered species."

Success stories like Minnesota, whose program is currently considered secure under head coach Mike Burns, are the exception, rather than the rule. In the past decade alone, Brigham Young, Michigan State, UC Santa Barbara, U Mass, Vermont, James Madison and MIT have all stopped sponsoring men’s gymnastics.

But not since the 1994 dismissal of the legendary UCLA men’s program, which produced half of the gold-medal-winning members of the 1984 men’s Olympic team, has a program as successful as Cal’s been so seriously threatened.

A Berkeley faculty task force convened last year to consult on the Athletic Department’s finances, publicly released a report on June 12, stating that athletic department budget reduction, “should include many or all of the following: significant staff reductions in DIA, streamlining of back-office operations, increased media revenues, increased revenues from ticket surcharges, increased philanthropy, and, if necessary, reduction in the number of teams.”
 
Rumors of Cal men’s gymnastics’ demise first emerged when head coach Barry Weiner retired following his team’s fifth-place finish at April’s NCAAs, a move the coach, now in his 60s, had long been considering after 19 years at the helm. Cal assistant Aaron Floyd had also previously announced he was leaving to pursue other opportunities, essentially leaving Cal coach-less.
 
While Barbour told the Daily Cal the resignations “will not affect discussions of cuts,” a national search has yet to be launched—though the official press release announcing Weiner’s departure said the replacement hunt was “already underway,” rumors are rife that any hire will be done only on an “interim" basis—fueling fears that the program may soon cease to exist. (No coaching positions, for any sport, are among the current athletic department job openings listed on the official calbears.com website.)
 
WeinerWeiner’s last official day at Cal was June 29, but while he is no longer the Bears’ coach, he remains very much committed to the Cal program. “I have retired but I will still be around,” Weiner confirms to Inside.
 
In addition to the significance of Cal’s program on its own—National Team members Kyle Bunthuwong and Glen Ishino are on Cal’s current roster, while former U.S. team member Kyson Bunthuwong still trains at Cal and Team USA’s top ranked international athlete Tim McNeill, 7th at last year’s Worlds, is a product of the Bears' program—many experts predict that if Cal cancels the sport, men’s NCAA gymnastics as a whole could soon cease to exist.
 
The next to fall if this domino theory plays out could be Cal’s cross-Bay rival, Stanford. The 2009 NCAA Champs were haunted by their own cancellation crisis in January of last year, when media outlets reported that Stanford was considering cutting sports due to its own budget shortfalls.
 
“Obviously I’m very hopeful Cal stays around,” Stanford coach Thom Gleimi tells Inside. “They have a fantastic history and are coming up on their 100th anniversary. It’d be nice to see them stay strong.”
 
USA Gymnastics also benefits greatly from the continuation of men’s college gymnastics. With 15 out of the current 17 U.S. National Team members training at, or products of, NCAA programs—that’s 90% of Team USA’s top athletes—Cal’s crisis reverberates far beyond the borders of Berkeley.
 
“You watch all these programs go down and it's definitely frustrating that there are less opportunities for kids coming up to continue their careers,” says Oklahoma coach Mark Williams who has trained athletes for eight World Championships and two Olympic teams while at OU, including half the ’09 World squad. “You almost feel helpless as to what will stop the trend. It's impacting, I think fairly severely, the Olympic effort we have as a nation. We continue to chip away at the pyramid that creates those athletes that represent the U.S. and eventually it's going to collapse.”
 
Unlike the women’s program, where athletes tend to retire in their early 20s, a male gymnast’s college years are often their most successful, and few top level athletes have succeeded in balancing school and training without the benefit of NCAA competition. Olympic all-around champ Paul Hamm, along with twin brother Morgan, abstained from collegiate competition and later took a break from full-time training to complete their degrees. Both graduated from Ohio State, where they also made competitive comebacks with the help of the Buckeye’s college facility and coaching staff. Many top male gymnasts who elected not to go into the NCAA have not finished college even years after their competitive careers are complete, either by choice or circumstance, and across-the-board statistics back up the difficulty of getting a degree when college is postponed. The longer higher education is delayed, the less likely a college degree becomes. Without the option of NCAA competition, U.S. male gymnasts could face an agonizing choice: Stay in the sport and go for the Games or forego training in favor of an education and goals beyond gymnastics?
 
That’s just one of the scenarios Cal’s alumni, many of whom have gone on to fantastic career success outside the sport, hope to prevent. Calling themselves Cal Gymnastics Forever, they’ve launched a website and Facebook group, as well as an online donation page, in hopes of persuading Cal administrators of the program’s value, on and off the podium.
 
“Nobody is really sure what’s going to happen,” says alumni representative Andrew Hampy, now a successful film and commercial producer in San Francisco, where he co-owns and runs ShortKid Productions. “But the fact that they’re [only looking for] an interim coach—that automatically raised a red flag to us. Our goal is to preserve Cal men’s gymnastics, not only for this period right now where we think the program could be in jeopardy, but to really get serious looking at the long term goal of making the program more self-sufficient. We’re looking for short-term solutions, but we also want to present a business plan to move forward.

“We’re about two weeks into this, and so far the response has been really overwhelming and supportive,” Hampy says of the effort’s status. “I think everyone really gets it. It’s not just, ‘Uh-oh, Cal’s in trouble.’  Everyone sees that this is a lot bigger than just one team.”

Another of the program’s most vocal supporters is David Kruse, who along with Hampy was a member of Cal’s 1997 National Championship team and is now a well known physician specializing in sports medicine, who has worked with the U.S. National Team.
 
“I firmly believe that my experience as a student-athlete at Cal facilitated my admission to medical school, propelled me through my medical training toward a career in sports medicine and has subsequently opened many doors of opportunity,” Kruse wrote in an open letter he shared with Inside. “The Cal men’s gymnastics program gave me the opportunity to earn a degree from an institution of excellence, and my Cal family welcomed and guided me during my transition as a freshman from a small beach town in Florida. In addition, the team allowed me to grow as a leader and enabled me to realize my potential in sport.”
 
Hampy hopes to connect Kruse and Josh Landau, a member of two Cal Championship-winning teams and now a top orthopedic surgeon in San Diego, with Barbour for a face-to-face meeting.
 
“We want to present our case preemptively,” Hampy explains. “Show her our business plan and what we’re doing before we get too far down the path. We want to present solutions, not just talk about a problem.”

“Once they make an announcement it would be too late,” Weiner agrees. “Hopefully we won’t need any help, but maybe this is the time, when we have so much alumni support, that we can work on getting an endowment for the program.”
 
Whatever happens, the Golden Bears are not going down without a fight. “Our goal is to do everything in our power to keep our status as an NCAA sport at Cal,” Hampy insists.
 
Hampy is asking gymnastics fans to send letters of support and donation pledges to: Cal Gymnastics Forever
, P.O. Box 1762
, Oakland, CA 94604 or via email to: calmensgymnastics@gmail.com. For sample letters, more information or to find out how to donate directly online visit: www.calgymnasticsforever.com.

Photo of retiring Cal coach Weiner and logo courtesy Cal Golden Bears

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