THE DAY THEIR DREAMS DIED
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.
The male gymnasts at the Games are mostly in their 20s. By contrast, the USA women's star at the Barcelona Olympics last summer was Shannon Miller, a birdlike, 15-year-old high school student.
While there are exceptions, of course, those who compete in men's gymnastics in college fit a certain mold: They are goal-oriented, macho, mostly white youngsters from middle- or upper-middle-class backgrounds. Small in stature, but possessing a remarkable strength-to-weight ratio, they have toiled at their chosen sport for years, fighting through the inevitable injuries.
Gymnastics is so difficult that one can't even be bad at it at first. But every collegiate-level gymnast became obsessed with the sport as a youngster and stuck with it.
With rare exceptions, the U.S. men's gymnastic program has lagged behind the world's powerhouses, most prominently the former Soviet Union, Japan and, recently, China. All but three male U.S. Olympic gymnasts since 1980 have come from the college ranks. Still, those athletes are limited by NCAA guidelines to 20 hours of training per week, about half the practice time put in by the world's best.
That's not why college men's gymnastics has been in decline nationwide in the last decade. While Charles Harris' priorities may be sorely misplaced, he is correct that the athletic programs at many universities have taken a financial beating in recent years.
Several sources contacted by New Times say male, nonrevenue-generating sports usually have been the first to go during the economic crunches. One reason is federal Title IX, known as the "gender equity" law. It ordered universities to make bona fide efforts to balance monies spent on men's and women's varsity sports.
Bad finances and the often tricky Title IX guidelines have conspired to kill many men's gymnastics programs. In 1981, 78 of the nation's 789 NCAA-affiliated schools had men's varsity gymnastics programs; by 1991, that number had decreased dramatically to 41 programs at 847 universities, though a number of schools approved "club," or non-NCAA-sanctioned, programs.
"What we had to do is something that all college athletics programs and universities in general have had to deal with," Harris says, noting that ASU was the last of the Pac-10 schools to drop a sport. "This is a national trend. That's why we put the men's gymnastics people and others on notice almost a year before we announced our decision that we had a money crunch. "
By the late 1980s, most folks involved in NCAA men's gymnastics knew the sport was in trouble.
@body:The ASU men's gymnastics team is practicing a few days after Charles Harris pronounced the death sentence. Garon Rowland, a freshman from Oklahoma City, takes a breather and describes how the decision has affected him.
"It's like a death," Rowland says, after thinking for several seconds. "This is going to cost all of us something that means so much to us. We believe in hard work and we have pride. Our dream was to compete in college. I don't know what to do."
Rowland gathers himself, much the same as he would before beginning a gymnastics routine. "I want to tell [ASU president] Lattie Coor, 'Don't end my dream,'" he continues. "As for Charles Harris, I just don't think he cares about my dreams."
Harris expresses disappointment that the gymnasts and their coaches "choose to personalize" the decision. "This was a difficult, long-thought-out process," he says. "Of course, some people are going to be unhappy. None of us is happy about it. But we cannot all take the position that what's mine is mine and what's yours is divisible."
But the other ASU gymnasts and the team's two coaches--Robinson and assistant Scott Barclay--echo Rowland's anger and confusion. Maybe Lattie Coor will listen to our side at the meeting with him in a few days, they say. Maybe we won't have to answer the office telephone, "Ex-ASU men's gymnastics," as some team members have been doing since the announcement.
"But I just don't think President Coor is going to reverse Charles Harris," gymnast Paul Bedewi says. "We were one of the strongest programs in the nation, and we're clean. We do things right. We represent the university with pride. But that doesn't matter to Charles Harris. It's like we caused this big debt, so we must pay. That's not true."
President Coor didn't return a telephone call last week from New Times. In a written statement, Coor has called the recent moves "a difficult but necessary step in order to bring expenditures in line with revenues. . . . The reality of our budget requires that we make choices, however painful they may be."
@body:Historically, the NCAA has a way of mucking things up even when the going is good, and few in men's gymnastics seem surprised the organization has hurt the sport more than helped it.
Case in point is the lucrative 1989 television deal between the NCAA and CBS-TV for rights to the college basketball championships. The deal meant big bucks for universities, but not for such "minor" sports as men's gymnastics.
Previously, the NCAA forked over $85,000 per year to offset the expenses of the sport's annual national championships. But for reasons no one can adequately explain, the NCAA decided not to turn over any of its new revenues to individual sports such as gymnastics. The organization also doubled, from $40 to $80, the mandatory per diem each school must produce for each athlete at a championship.
Those two factors meant, says NCAA committee chairman Fred Turoff, "that suddenly there was $105,000 every year we didn't have anymore. A big blow."
Largely because of those changes, the NCAA men's gymnastics championships in 1991 lost money for the first time in memory. That spelled trouble, for the NCAA has stated that if a team championship event loses money three years in a row, it may be eliminated as a sanctioned sport.
During that time, NCAA-affiliated universities with men's gymnastics programs plummeted to the bottom-line number needed to maintain sanction as a varsity sport.
Meanwhile, the ASU athletic-department budget was struggling under a multimillion-dollar debt incurred from a new press box and sky boxes at Sun Devil Stadium, a six-story office complex at the stadium, a golf course, locker rooms and the paucity of football ticket sales. (ASU football attendance in 1992 was at a 20-year low.)
Coach Don Robinson says that early in 1992, Charles Harris told the coach he'd have to raise more than $2 million over three years or his program might die at an unspecified date. Robinson says he figured, wrongly, he'd have through 1995 to right things, because the NCAA has announced a moratorium on dropping any team championships until after that academic year.
But things were not boding well for the Sun Devil program. School president Lattie Coor convened a task force led by Harris to look at ways to solve the athletic department's budget woes.
"The athletic director persuaded us that they couldn't get significant cost savings by simply squeezing existing programs tighter," says Milton Schroeder, a commercial-law professor who was on the task force. "The only alternative was looking at existing programs. Men's gymnastics appeared to be a logical candidate."
In months of work, Schroeder and his colleagues on the task force didn't do the homework that gymnast Paul Bedewi did after Harris broke the bad news.
Under the pretext of doing a term paper, the biomechanical-engineering major obtained from the ASU athletic department a breakdown of what it costs to operate its men's gymnastics team. What he found convinced him he and his teammates were getting the shaft.
Bedewi says Harris told the team it cost ASU about $300,000 per year for the men's gymnastics program. That figure included salaries, scholarships, marketing, insurance, administrative costs and something called "sports information."
Bedewi points out that killing the program after this year isn't going to save ASU the $300,000 immediately. Even without an NCAA men's gymnastics program, the school will still be paying the gymnasts' financial aid and medical insurance--totaling about $100,000 next year--until the present freshman gymnasts use up their athletic eligibility in 1996.
And Bedewi raises another point apparently ignored by Charles Harris and the "task force." His team's nonscholarship members--about half of the 20-plus squad--pay full tuition to ASU. That money goes into the university's general fund, not into the athletic department's needy coffers.
"That should have counted for something," Bedewi says. "We got axed before we had to get axed, if we had to get axed at all. Killing us isn't going to, quote, save the athletic department. It's just that we didn't mean anything to Mr. Harris."
@body:Last November 4, worried about his team's future, assistant men's gymnastics coach Scott Barclay spoke with associate athletic director Herman Frazier. Barclay asked Frazier for proof--in writing--that ASU wouldn't be eliminating the sport anytime soon.
The reasons for the request were twofold: Barclay was recruiting high schoolers for the then-anticipated 1994 season and he wanted to know how safe the program was; and he wanted to know if he was going to have a job.
Earlier in 1992, Coach Robinson says Charles Harris had told him that the situation, while unresolved, wasn't dire. In November, associate athletic director Frazier went farther than his boss.
Frazier penned a handwritten memo; its opening and most telling passage stated: "Athletic Director has made commitment that as long as NCAA sponsors a championship in the sport, we will have the sport."
The team's two coaches breathed a huge sigh of relief.
But a month later, Don Robinson says, Charles Harris again raised the matter of fund-raising. "Charles told me we'd better get some money together," Robinson recalls, "but he never, never told me he was going to drop us by a certain date. I never could get anything from him in black or white."
Harris says he "acknowledges" the existence of the Frazier memo while insisting, "There was was no misunderstanding on the expectations that had to be met." But he bristles at Robinson's version of the events. "No one can characterize what we did as a surprise," the athletic director says. "I met with Coach Robinson about once a month after our original discussion to see how their fund-raising was going. I was up-front about things. If anyone says otherwise, I'd have to say it's a misrepresentation."
While all this was occurring in Tempe, Fred Turoff and his NCAA gymnastics committee were working to restructure and reduce the costs of the annual men's championships. They cut it from a three- to a two-day meet and reduced its size.
The committee also made strides in its effort to convince the NCAA to combine men's and women's gymnastics championships into one meet. That's the way it is at the Olympics and other major international and national events. If that happens, Turoff and others say, college men's gymnastics would get a major boost.
Turoff reiterates that the death of college men's gymnastics is not at all a given. And he expresses dismay that Charles Harris misrepresented the state of affairs when he announced the end of ASU's men's gymnastics program.
"Charles was on our committee in name only," Turoff says. "He had good excuses, but he missed our last two annual meetings and he wasn't present to discuss the major changes we've made and are contemplating. He was not a factor."
But Charles Harris and the other powers that be at ASU didn't wait to see how things panned out nationally. Instead, Harris called a press conference and killed a bunch of dreams.
@body:Surrounded by a quarter-century of his memories, Don Robinson holds court at his tiny office at Sun Devil Stadium. The office teems with a diverse mix of international curios and American pop culture among photographs of gymnasts in full flight. Wooden masks from such places as Japan, Mexico, Korea and Bali stare down at visitors from one corner; mementos of Disneyland crowd another.
Robinson is a 62-year-old with a bounce in his step and a sharp wit that recent events have honed. He battled prostate cancer last year and, fingers crossed, it's in remission. On this day--a few days after Charles Harris lowered the boom on his venerable program--Robinson is a gracious man. He leans back against his roll-top desk and faces a visitor, who is sitting in a barber's chair the coach brought in years ago.
Robinson has been an outspoken and effective ambassador for his sport since he first stepped onto the ASU campus in 1969. His is an unusual program in that he has always kept onboard any aspiring gymnast who shows up for practice and sticks with it.
About half of the members of this year's team are walk-ons who pay full tuition to ASU. Ten gymnasts share the seven scholarships the NCAA allows the sport. Robinson treats walk-ons and scholarship athletes the same, his gymnasts say.
Robinson is not cantankerous by nature, but the recent events have been enough to send him through the roof when he gets revved up.
"Of course, I knew we were in trouble, but it's much more than that," he says. "They never told us we were going to be gone by a certain date. I guess we were supposed to read between the lines. You know, there's a sacred cow here that no one will ever touch--football. We didn't incur their debt."
And Robinson read with anger last week a newspaper column in which ASU basketball coach Bill Frieder humorously discussed paying $200,000 for a horse for his equestrian daughter.
"That's about what it costs to run our program for one year," Robinson says. "This is a crazy world when a college basketball coach--a college basketball coach, for gosh sakes!--can buy a horse for that amount of money."
Robinson also describes with disgust how the 100-strong ASU football team stays at a local hotel the night before each home game.
"I know that's a common practice for Division I schools," he says, then adds, voice dripping with sarcasm, "Oh, I forgot. I'm talking about football. I'm sorry. I forgot."
Cole Albon, an injured gymnast from Tulsa, Oklahoma, hobbles into Robinson's office to say hello. Albon is one of the team's many walk-ons, a business major who excelled on the pommel horse before his knee gave out.
"I've been working hard to rehab my knee and I'm going to get there," Albon says, "but I'm kind of feeling that I'm done in gymnastics because of what's happened. It's an empty feeling. I've been doing this since I was a little kid."
As Albon leaves, an ASU coach from another sport drops by to commiserate with Robinson. The other coach blasts ASU's athletic hierarchy for its shortsightedness, then leaves after exacting a promise of anonymity.
Robinson's telephone rings. It's Jerry Burrell, a former ASU walk-on gymnast now in his second season as the pro basketball Houston Rockets' mascot, the Rocket.
Burrell is part of a cottage industry spawned by Robinson's program. Five ASU gymnasts now work as NBA mascots, including the current Phoenix Suns' Gorilla and mascots in Seattle, Charlotte and Indianapolis. And someday those fellows may be joined by a sixth: Gymnast Paul Bedewi plans to try out next year for the job of Sparky, the Sun Devil mascot.
"Rocket" Burrell offers to lend Robinson whatever support he can.
"Anyone who has gone through the program will attest to the benefits he is recouping now," Burrell says. "My training with Coach Robinson comes into play daily--performance, dealing with the public, organization. What has happened shocked and disappointed me."
After Burrell hangs up, Robinson tries to summarize the onslaught of emotions that have welled up in him since ASU terminated his program.
"Let me put it like this," he says. "I've taught my guys that if they worked hard and stayed clean, things would work out for them in gymnastics and, more important, after gymnastics. Now the big shots at ASU are trying to take something from my kids for no good reason. I can't forgive them and neither can my kids."
@body:The gymnastics meet with the University of Michigan has just ended in a narrow win for ASU. The team gathers around the coaches in a corner of the arena for a brief postmeet critique.
After they're done, each of the gymnasts--those who have competed and those in street clothes--wordlessly approaches Don Robinson. Each athlete shares a special, complicated handshake with his coach.
Then these little warriors walk toward the ASU locker room, maybe for one of the final times as teammates.
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