Like an archaeologist on a dig, Mike Burns knelt on Cooke Hall’s ancient gym floor and peeled back the present to reveal the history underneath. “See that?” the Gophers men’s gymnastics coach said, lifting the corner of a blue landing cushion. “That’s a horsehair mat. Probably original.”
The gym overflows with oddities such as that thin, horsehair-stuffed pad, which likely has covered the floor since the days when the Big Ten awarded titles in flying rings and tumbling. There’s the wooden catwalk, built by team alumni in 1979 to create extra space in the cramped, 4,140-square-foot room. The vault runway is 20 feet too short, and the floor exercise area is a fraction of regulation size.
Burns’ little corner of Cooke Hall can feel like claustrophobia coated in chalk dust, particularly when it’s filled with upward of a dozen twisting, flipping athletes. But a building erected in 1934 and a program that won its first Big Ten title in 1903 have proved to be survivors, even as the sport has shrunk to only 16 NCAA teams.
The Gophers are ranked fifth in the country entering Friday’s meet in Iowa City against No. 11 Iowa and No. 1 Oklahoma. The U has demonstrated a commitment to the program in the short term by bidding to host the NCAA championships in the 2019-2022 quadrennium. Looking at the long run, Burns said athletic director Mark Coyle has pledged upgrades for Cooke Hall, a sign that the program remains on solid ground.
As much of a relief as that is, Burns isn’t yearning for an extreme makeover, even on the days when a heating unit clogged with chalk dust drops the temperature in his office below 60 degrees.
“It’s a hard sell from a recruiting standpoint,” said Burns, the Gophers’ coach since 2005. “It’s an old building with a lot of quirks. At the same time, that’s part of the charm.
“The guys who decide to come here, as soon as they walk in, they say, ‘Wow, this fits like a glove.’ It has a real homey feeling. The idea of moving to something bigger and better is appealing, but to lose the history of this building would be hard.”
That appreciation for tradition is a common denominator among the few remaining programs. Burns said those that have endured — including seven in the Big Ten — are determined to hang on, aided by the devotion of current and past athletes.
“Everyone in this sport understands the position we’re in,” said Zach Liebler, a Gophers senior from Pine Island. “We all work to promote our teams and the sport as a whole. That’s one of the great things about this sport. Everyone looks out for one another.”
It requires an expedition just to reach the Cooke Hall gym. It sits on the third floor of the building, behind an old basketball court now used for badminton, and is accessible only through the adjoining University Recreation and Wellness Center. It is so hard to reach that Burns has to meet guests in the first-floor lobby to escort them up.
Its lone concession to modernity is the video cameras and flat-screen monitors dotting its walls, which athletes and coaches use to record and view practice routines. Liebler has long loved the room, but he said some teammates were initially put off by the hoary surroundings.
“People come in and the first thing they notice is, ‘Oh, my gosh, where’s the floor?’ ” Liebler said, referring to the diminutive floor exercise space. “But we’ve proven we can work around it. [Teammate] Joel [Gagnon] and I were both All-Americans on floor for the past two years. You just have to get strategic with it.”
Liebler said the Gophers take great pride in what they have hatched in their old gym. Over the past four seasons, six gymnasts have earned 11 All-America honors, and Ellis Mannon won the 2014 NCAA title in pommel horse. Last season, the Gophers made the NCAA team finals for the first time since 2007, finishing sixth.
They also are grateful to be among their sport’s stubborn survivors. Since 1969, the number of NCAA men’s varsity teams has plummeted from 234 to 16. No conference has more than the Big Ten, which Burns credits to the conference’s wealth and its members’ commitment to broad-based athletic programs.
The U proposed dropping men’s gymnastics in 2002, sparing it only after a fundraising drive. As the costs of running a Division I athletic department continue to escalate, Burns worries that his program — which has a yearly operating budget of about $500,000 and 6.3 scholarships — could get “caught in the crossfire.”
So does USA Gymnastics, which oversees the national and Olympic teams. Male gymnasts reach their peak in their 20s, and NCAA programs have long been a vital developing ground for the U.S. men’s teams. At last summer’s Rio Olympics, five of seven athletes on the U.S. roster were current or former college gymnasts.
Burns has urged the NCAA, USA Gymnastics and the U.S. Olympic Committee to work together more closely to strengthen men’s college gymnastics. The vice president of USA Gymnastics’ men’s program, Dennis McIntyre, said his organization is committed to do its part.
“We’re being as active as possible, assisting in any way we can,” McIntyre said. “It’s important to us that men’s college gymnastics stays viable and strong. And generally, the programs that are left are very solid.”
Raising the bar
As he brushed chalk dust off his iPad at practice, Burns noted that one benefit of his gym’s close quarters is that he can see everything that’s happening. He likes his view of the future; the top recruit in the country, U.S. junior all-around champion Shane Wiskus of Spring Park, Minn., will join the Gophers next season. The present looks good, too, with Yaro Pochinka earning the highest vault score in the nation this season (15.100).
Coyle called the team’s success “undeniable” and said men’s gymnastics fits his goal of a “broad-based” athletics program. “Most important to me, however, is the emphasis Coach Burns places on excelling in the classroom and as well as in competition. That philosophy matches perfectly with our vision for all Gopher teams,” he added.
In Cooke Hall, the past is never out of sight, either. Even if the gym is updated, Burns anticipates some things will never change.
“I know a guy who’s a gymnastics historian, always looking for ancient equipment,” the coach said. “He asked me what I wanted for that horsehair mat. But it’s 70 feet long. I don’t think it’s ever coming out of here.”