The curtain officially closes Saturday, at the end of the NCAA men’s gymnastics championships. After the scores are tabulated and the trophies handed over at Maturi Pavilion, the Gophers’ 118-year run as a varsity program will be over, cut by an athletic department wrestling with a budget deficit.
So how is coach Mike Burns feeling this week?
“I’m really charged up!” he gushed. “This is a really, really exciting time. I wake up every day with a huge level of purpose.”
The university still plans to eliminate men’s gymnastics, men’s tennis and men’s indoor track at the conclusion of their 2021 seasons, as it announced last fall. But where some saw finality, Burns saw opportunity. As the Gophers enter the last meet of their NCAA tenure, he plans to restructure his program into a competitive club team — a revival that could model a new way forward for the sport.
Burns is working to access $920,000 donated to the program through the Golden Gopher Fund, which would cover expenses while a new fundraising plan is implemented. Some current Gophers plan to stay on through the transition, and Burns said the shrinking pool of NCAA programs leaves plenty of talented gymnasts to recruit.
When the athletic administration said it was cutting sports because of financial and Title IX issues, Burns urged the U to explore creative solutions instead. Its inaction led him to take up the cause himself, leaving him too busy to mourn.
“I’ve been thrown off the island, and now, I have to sink or swim,” said Burns, the Gophers coach since 2004. “And I’m swimming like a son of a gun.
“You can sit there and cry about it, and we’ve all done that to a certain extent. And then you go, ‘OK, what’s the next step?’ If we have a facility, a coach and some money to operate, we can pretty much continue. It may be a different format, but Minnesota gymnastics is still going to be around.”
Senior Shane Wiskus believes the competitive club model could work at the U and elsewhere. He will finish his Gophers career this weekend with mixed emotions, excited to pursue an NCAA all-around title at home yet sad to see the program exiting the NCAA and Big Ten.
The 2019 NCAA champion on parallel bars, Wiskus has been training in Colorado Springs to prepare for the Olympic trials. After finishing second in the all-around at the past two NCAA championships, the Spring Park native hopes to close out the Gophers’ NCAA era with a victory, then support its transition into a new phase.
“It definitely feels good to know the Gophers will still be around in some capacity,” said Wiskus, who won three event titles and tied for the all-around crown at the Big Ten championships two weeks ago.
“This is uncharted territory. But unless something drastic happens with the remaining NCAA programs, I think most other colleges will be moving in a similar direction.”
Only 15 schools sponsor men’s gymnastics at the NCAA level, with 12 of those competing this weekend. Iowa also is dropping its program after the NCAA championships, reducing the ranks further.
The pandemic has pushed many cash-strapped athletic departments to eliminate men’s gymnastics and other Olympic sports, a worrying trend for the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee (USOPC). College sports are a critical development ground for Olympic and Paralympic athletes, producing nearly 80% of U.S. Olympians at the 2016 Rio Games.
The USOPC has launched initiatives to strengthen Olympic sports at the college level, including a think tank examining ways to share or decrease costs, raise money and partner with national teams.
“We definitely see this as a top priority for Team USA,” said Rick Adams, USOPC chief of sport performance. “We have really leaned into our efforts to make sure that the partnership with the NCAA remains strong. It is so critical to our success.”
At the U, Burns aims to craft a club program capable of competing against former Big Ten rivals. That’s already being done at schools such as Arizona State and Washington. With so few NCAA roster spots available, Burns said those clubs are starting to attract “a decent level of talent” for NCAA-style seasons that culminate in a collegiate national championship.
“It’s a little bit different, but not that much,” he said. “They might not be as strong as a team like Michigan or Minnesota, but they’re pretty good. And kids that can’t find a spot in an NCAA program are seeing opportunities.”
Burns is working with the U’s RecWell department to keep the team’s training facility in Cooke Hall. He needs athletic department permission to use the equipment, and he is seeking approval from the Golden Gopher Fund and donors to use money previously donated for men’s gymnastics scholarships and support.
Alumni are getting involved, too. John Roethlisberger, a three-time NCAA all-around champion for the Gophers, is president of a new group called Friends of Minnesota Men’s Gymnastics.
“I talked to a lot of alumni this week, and we see this as an important step,” Roethlisberger said. “Thousands of opportunities for student-athletes in a lot of sports are being lost. I hope we can be an example and create a new avenue.”
Though Burns’ coaching contract ends in August, he is planning to stay as coach of the club team. As he works to finalize the blueprint, he is already thinking about how he will have to adapt.
The road-trip hotels won’t be as nice, and Burns said he might have to learn how to drive the bus himself. If that’s what it takes to keep men’s gymnastics in Cooke Hall, he is ready to start now.
“There’s a need here, so let’s fill it,” he said. “And if it looks a little bit different, so be it. What we want to do is continue to provide opportunities.”