Temple gymnastics coach fights for team's survival

Coach Fred Turoff is trying to save Temple men's gymnastics, a program that is scheduled to end in July.
Coach Fred Turoff is trying to save Temple men's gymnastics, a program that is scheduled to end in July. (   BOB FORD / Staff)
Posted: January 09, 2014

Someone had to swap out equipment on the still-rings apparatus in the Temple University men's gymnastics practice facility on Tuesday, replacing old fiberglass rings with new wooden ones of the kind now required by USA Gymnastics.

All the job really took was a ladder and some time, so 66-year-old Fred Turoff, coach of the Temple men's team since 1976, made the climb himself. He could have called the university's building services department, but then his program would have been billed for the work. Turoff has been scratching for a long time to stretch his modest budget, and old habits die hard.

It remains to be seen whether great, old programs die hard, too. Temple men's gymnastics has been around as a varsity sport for 88 years, but it will cease to exist in July unless Turoff and his supporters can find some way around the athletic department's decision to cut that program along with six other sports.

"I'm waiting to see if there is some kind of an opening," Turoff said.

There are backers who have come forward willing to help fund the team, and Turoff has scheduled meetings with some members of the university's board of trustees, hoping to find that opening, but the prospects are still grim. Athletic director Kevin Clark told Turoff when the decision was announced Dec. 6 that there was no going back this time.

"Do I have any recourse?" Turoff asked.

"No," Clark said.

"Well, you know your APR is really going to suffer," Turoff said.

Clark nodded.

The APR - Academic Progress Rate - for the men's gymnastics team is perfect. Every scholarship or partial-scholarship athlete graduates. Turoff's team has had the best grade point average among all of Temple's varsity sports for the last three years. For the 2012-13 school year, it was 3.41.

During Turoff's tenure as coach, the Owls have won the conference title 18 times in 38 years, and produced NCAA all-Americans, NCAA individual champions, and numerous national team members, including a world championship and Olympic team member. In 2009, Turoff, who himself competed for the Owls and was a national team member, was inducted into the USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame.

In other words, it's not a bad little program to have around, something that any school would be proud to support, particularly since it pays for itself.

"What's the purpose of intercollegiate athletics?" Turoff said Tuesday before climbing the ladder to attend to the rings. "It should be to provide another opportunity for students to grow and to do so knowing they are students first and athletes second, to compete well, win when you can, but always to represent the university honorably. So if you look at those things, isn't my program the exemplary program?"

Yes, and cost-efficient, too. Turoff has four scholarships at his disposal to apportion among the 19 gymnasts on the men's team. He slices off a half-scholarship here and a quarter-scholarship there, but that leaves the equivalent of 15 full-tuition students who are at Temple solely because of the gymnastics team. That tuition by itself offsets the approximately $300,000 annual budget of men's gymnastics, which is about what the football team spends on chin straps every year. Turoff also does his own fund-raising to meet a required annual goal of $29,000. For the 2012-13 year, he raised $59,000.

"We have done everything you would want a college team to do, including bringing money to the university," Turoff said.

The other sports that are being cut - men's indoor and outdoor track, men's crew, women's rowing, baseball and softball - have their own supporters, their own sad stories, and their own valid arguments for survival. The men's gymnastics team isn't alone there, and while the university administration is publicly sympathetic - president Neil Theobald called the decision "excruciating" - all seven of the sports have been given little hope of a reprieve.

According to the university, the cuts were necessary because the school was not compliant with the funding aspects of Title IX due to a $2.8 million shortfall on the women's side; because of anticipated facilities costs in the future; because the overall budget needed to be trimmed to prevent a tuition hike; and because carrying 24 sports was not in line with other members of the American Athletic Conference, the Owls' new conference partner.

Going forward, Temple will support 11 women's teams and six men's teams, the latter being the bare minimum to qualify for FBS (Division I-A) status. The Owls sliced that thin, too. The sixth men's team is cross-country, which has nine athletes, zero scholarships, and a scant budget.

The university made its decision, however, and it is in keeping with the football-obsessed landscape of modern intercollegiate athletics. Temple isn't alone. Of course, that doesn't make it right, either.

"I hope people are going to come forward and speak up for us, and flood the mailboxes and e-mail of the board of trustees and the president as to why our program should continue," Turoff said. "I always felt that because we have been so successful both athletically and academically, the administration wouldn't look at us as an expendable program."

Turoff, six months from unemployment, with no severance package in his future, smiled a grim smile. Then he went to find the ladder and save the program a few more bucks.


bford@phillynews.com

@bobfordsports

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