By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Arizona State University men's gymnastics standout Paul Bedewi is about to attempt a final, strength-sapping trick on the horizontal bar before dismounting. Standing nearby, ASU head coach Don Robinson talks his senior co-captain through it.
"Own it, own it," Robinson says, urgently. "Stick it."
His chiseled, five-foot-six frame shaking with exertion, Bedewi does stick it. He lands almost perfectly. He stands at attention briefly, then raises his right hand in triumph and runs to his teammates.
Sticking it after a rigorous routine is what separates an exceptional gymnast from an average one. Bedewi's teammates share hugs, handshakes and high-fives. Even one of the opposing gymnasts from the University of Michigan applauds Bedewi's effort.
The sparse crowd at ASU Activity Center makes as much noise as a few hundred people in a 14,000-seat arena can muster. Caught up in the moment, ASU freshman gymnast Garon Rowland blurts out something for any and all to hear.
"Just try and get rid of this team," he says. "Just try!"
@body:Ten days earlier, on February 16, ASU athletic director Charles Harris had done just that. Harris spoke to the media soon after meeting with the team's two coaches and then with the 20 or so gymnasts.
In his opening remarks, Harris did not quote Plato, who once wrote, "God, I should say, has given men two arts--music and gymnastics."
Instead, in the dry, cool tones that mark his public persona, Harris announced ASU's plans to drop men's gymnastics, men's and women's badminton and men's and women's archery at the end of the current semester. He promised to honor the 20 scholarships held by athletes in the three sports until the athletes complete their eligibility.
Harris blamed economics for the decision: Calling it "painful," he nonetheless concluded that eliminating three "nonrevenue-generating" sports will save ASU about $350,000 per year. His department has a $3.35 million debt to pay off in the next decade, Harris said, and this was an unfortunate but sure-fire way to cover some of it.
The move shattered the Sun Devil gymnasts and coaches, who are deeply proud of their program. Coach Robinson, in the midst of his 25th season at ASU, was particularly devastated. Twenty-three of his athletes have earned all-American status over the years. In 1986, his squad won the NCAA championship. His teams have finished in the nation's Top 10 a dozen times.
The academic achievements of Robinson's teams have been as impressive as their athletic glories. Almost all of his gymnasts have earned degrees, and in formidable programs: The current team includes majors in biomechanical engineering, biology and computer science.
Nationally, too, the program has long been widely admired.
"ASU under Coach Robinson has done everything an ideal NCAA program should do," says Fred Turoff, chairman of the NCAA Men's Gymnastics Committee and men's gymnastics coach at Philadelphia's Temple University.
"They graduate their athletes, they don't have kids with drug problems and they produce Olympic-quality athletes. What happened out there is a very bad scene, a complete waste."
Six days after Charles Harris' press conference, the Arizona Republic's Steve Benson did a vicious cartoon about the situation at ASU. Under the heading "Administration Priorities," the cartoon depicts three groups of athletes on a medal stand. Standing on the two lower platforms--one entitled "Good Grades" and the other "Good Reputation"--are sad-looking members of ASU's gymnastics, archery and badminton teams.
Atop the gold-medal stand, their arms linked, are smiling ASU basketball and football players. Their platform is dubbed "Good Money."
Benson was dead-on about the "good grades" and "good reputation" earned by members of the axed programs. But he was wrong about the "good money."
Football has been losing money at ASU. In fact, the failure of last year's football team to attract as many fans as projected created a good portion--about $700,000 worth--of the athletic department's big debt. To the gymnasts and their coaches, ASU was cutting the three small programs to cover the unanticipated losses by its supposed cash cow.
Just as galling to Coach Robinson and his team was that Harris' press conference came just over three months after the athletic director's top assistant promised, in writing, that the gymnastics program would be alive at least through 1995.
There was another element of deception in Harris' remarks that afternoon. The athletic director claimed he was killing men's gymnastics because the NCAA is about to drop the sport. Harris said he knew this because he has been a member of the NCAA Men's Gymnastics Committee. But Harris was wrong. The NCAA is committed to men's gymnastics through 1995. "Charles should have known--more than most athletic directors--that the end of NCAA men's gymnastics is not, repeat not, a done deal," says committee chairman Fred Turoff. @rule:
@body:Millions of Americans get hooked on gymnastics every fourth summer. They watch in awe, and with some trepidation, as prepubescent-looking girls do mind-boggling routines at the summer Olympics and then run into the burly arms of their coaches.
It's a wonderful spectator sport, even for neophytes for whom a meet is akin to watching a foreign movie without subtitles. And it's the only sport in which commentators refer to 19-year-old females as old-timers or "grandes dames" who inspire memories of an elegant, less-athletic era--way back in the 1980s.