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All-around Thriller A depleted NCAA field put on an electrifying show

April 12, 2004
April 12, 2004

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April 12, 2004

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All-around Thriller A depleted NCAA field put on an electrifying show

In recent years the plight of men's gymnastics has resembled the
plot of the Agatha Christie mystery classic And Then There Were
None, with college programs, rather than ill-fated houseguests,
being picked off one by one. So last Saturday night at the men's
NCAA championships in Champaign, Ill., it was refreshing to see
the sport switch genres and present a different kind of story--a
thriller.

This is an article from the April 12, 2004 issue

Illinois, inspired by a boisterous home crowd, rang up the
highest team score in a gymnastics competition in school
history--and finished third. Two-time defending champion Oklahoma
opened the meet with a series of electric high bar routines and
carried a slim lead into the final rotation. But the Sooners were
overtaken and dethroned by Penn State, led by Luis Vargas, who
just a few weeks ago needed 40 stitches in the back of his head
after a fall from the parallel bars. The 5'5" Nittany Lions
sophomore outpointed favorites Dan Gill of Stanford and Randy
Monahan of Ohio State to win the individual all-around title as
well. Said Penn State coach Randy Jepson, "Anybody who didn't
have a ticket tonight really missed out on some great
entertainment."

Indeed, the championships showed that men's college gymnastics
can still put on a show, however troubled the sport may be. This
year only 20 colleges fielded teams, compared with 97 in 1978.
Many blame the drop in participation on Title IX, the federal law
requiring that colleges give athletic scholarships to men and
women in proportion to their representation in the student body.
Michigan assistant coach Mike Burns, whose Wolverines finished
fifth this year, points out that the NCAA now has more than twice
as many teams in women's bowling (42) than it does in men's
gymnastics. For Burns, seeing administrators remove support from
his intensely-demanding sport while bowling prospers is like
having his face rubbed in the chalk bin. "Gymnastics is about
dedication, it's about perseverance," Burns says. "It's what
college athletics is supposed to be about."

Colleges no longer serve as the prime feeder for the U.S. Olympic
men's team. The only current NCAA athlete certain to be competing
in Athens this summer is Vargas--representing his native Puerto
Rico. About half of the current U.S. team sidestepped college
programs to train privately with coaches, often with direct
support from USA Gymnastics. Compare that with the 1984 U.S.
squad, which won the team gold medal and is considered America's
high-water mark in the sport. All six members of that team were
products of college programs, including Bart Conner, the 1978
NCAA all-around champ with Oklahoma. "The college program was the
biggest thing in our development," says Conner, who was in
Champaign as a commentator for ESPN. "We got to benefit from
being on a team and going out every week and competing." While he
acknowledges that the U.S. team in Athens should be strong and
says colleges shouldn't necessarily be expected to assume the
burden of grooming Olympic athletes, Conner points out that the
decline in the number of programs bodes ill for the future. It's
already becoming harder to find skilled coaches for youth clubs,
and parents have less incentive to invest in their children's
training through high school when there are fewer college
scholarships available.

Joining Conner in Champaign last weekend was his coach on the
1984 team, Abie Grossfeld, the 1958 NCAA all-around champion.
Grossfeld is a legend in the sport: For 42 years he has headed
the gymnastics enclave at Southern Connecticut State, where he's
had 145 All-Americas and 32 individual national champions and
developed such gymnasts as John Crosby, America's first World Cup
gold medalist, and Peter Kormann, whose bronze in the floor
exercise in Montreal in 1976 was the first U.S. Olympic
gymnastics medal since '32. While Grossfeld's Owls did not
qualify for the NCAAs this year, senior Curtis Haines competed in
the all-around. "I think this event is more spirited than the
Olympics," Grossfeld said, noting the shouts and high fives that
followed each routine and the call-and-response cheers between
the athletes and their fans. Grossfeld, 70, savored it all. He is
retiring, and this was his last NCAA championships. It was also
the last for the Owls: With its coach stepping down, Southern
Connecticut State has said it will eliminate its men's gymnastics
program.

COLOR PHOTO: TOM ROBERTS/AP RING BEARER Champion Vargas will compete in Athens for his native Puerto Rico.

Ups and Downs

While Title IX has hurt some men's NCAA sports, others have grown
in participation in the past two decades. Here's a look at the
number of men's programs in Divisions I, II and III combined in
10 selected sports (declining sports in red).

SPORT '81-82 '91-92 '01-02

Baseball 642 713 866
Basketball 741 814 990
Fencing 79 49 38
Football 497 546 617
Golf 590 610 754
Gymnastics 79 40 23
Lacrosse 138 160 211
Soccer 521 581 734
Swimming and Diving 377 367 388
Wrestling 363 275 231