For 41 years, Mike Burns made a career out of coaching gymnastics. Then the University of Minnesota eliminated his program last year, and it became strictly a labor of love.
He doesn’t get paid for coaching any more. Gigs such as driving an Uber, delivering packages and judging youth meets cover the bills, but Burns still spends much of his time running a men’s gymnastics team out of Cooke Hall on the U campus.
After the school cut three men’s sports — gymnastics, tennis and indoor track — Burns kept his sport alive as a competitive club program, a self-funded entity with no scholarships, no staff and no salaries.
“We’re doing this on a shoestring,” said Burns, 63. “We’ve all had to recalibrate. But our motto has been, ‘We’re not going away.”’
His team of seven — including a medical student and two athletes from local community colleges — became the newest member of GymACT, an organization for men’s gymnasts at colleges without varsity programs. Saturday, it will compete for the GymACT national championship in Mesa, Ariz., after winning the East Conference title last month.
While the gymnasts soldier on, so do supporters of the three Gophers sports that were dropped after the 2020-21 season. Working as the Minnesota Athletics Alliance, these supporters continued efforts to reinstate the sports, proposing new funding models and raising money to put those programs on a self-sustaining path.
Advocates of the eliminated sports testified before the Minnesota Senate Higher Education Committee in February. In April, the committee asked the Board of Regents to establish a special commission to review the role of athletics at the U.
Regent Darrin Rosha introduced such a resolution Friday, but it failed on a 9-3 vote. The Board of Regents had otherwise rebuffed further discussion of the sports cuts, calling them “necessary” and “well-considered” in an April letter to the Minnesota Athletics Alliance.
Burns is still angry that the U cast aside a program with a 118-year history, but he tries not to dwell on it. He has too much to do to waste any energy. He and his athletes from him are raising the money to run the program by setting up and tearing down equipment at gymnastics meets, holding camps and judging competitions.
Yaroslav Pochinka is among those pitching in. During four seasons with the Gophers from 2015-18, he earned two Big Ten medals and all-America status on vault. As a 25-year-old medical student, he returned for fun and camaraderie, and to help keep the program going.
“In 2018, our goal was to win the Big Ten,” Pochinka said. “Now, it’s to show we’re still here, and we’re still good.
“We’re a smaller group. We don’t have many resources. But we all want this program to be successful, and we want each other to be successful. That hasn’t changed.”
Something old, something new
In their final competition as a varsity program, the Gophers hosted the 2021 NCAA championships. The meet at Maturi Pavilion featured two gymnasts who would compete for the US at the Tokyo Olympics — the Gophers’ Shane Wiskus and Stanford’s Brody Malone — and was televised on the Big Ten Network.
The team’s GymACT conference title meet in April was held in decrepit Cooke Hall, with no spectators, no TV, no live judges and no opponent. Gymnasts performed their routines while Burns recorded video and uploaded it to a site to be judged later that day. The other team competing for the title, Temple, did the same at its home gym.
The club Gophers would not find out they had won until later that night. Ben Hays, a freshman from Colorado, was already celebrating with a round of vigorous high-fives.
“With club gymnastics, I think there’s a stigma,” Hays said. “People think, ‘It’s just club.’ But we have some incredible athletes here. It’s awesome to be part of building something new.”
Burns’ athletes follow the same schedule they did as a varsity program, practicing three hours a day Monday through Friday, with shorter workouts on Saturdays. They competed in four regular-season meetings.
Two athletes from the final varsity team, Donte McKinney and Crew Bold, moved on to other Division I programs at Nebraska and Michigan. Only one, junior Andrew Hyde of Plymouth, is competing for the new club team. He thought about transferring to continue as a varsity athlete but chose to complete his engineering degree at the U and help establish the club program.
“I spent a year being mad,” Hyde said. “I don’t forgive the athletic department for what they did, but I’m trying to push forward.
“I want to focus my energy here. I feel like we’re in a good spot to build something, and I wanted to end my career on my terms. I’m still competing. And that’s better than nothing.”
Burns estimates it cost between $40,000 and $50,000 to fund the club team this season. During this weekend’s national championships, the team will stay in an Airbnb; at one meet this season, Burns shared a hotel room with a rival coach. With no athletic trainer, Burns will be in charge of taping ankles.
In addition to the money earned by working at gymnastics meets, the team has raised funds through donations and has set up a nonprofit, Friends of Minnesota Men’s Gymnastics.
Though the team is still in Cooke Hall, longtime home to the varsity program, there is no guarantee the club program can stay there permanently. Burns lost the office he occupied for 16 years, which was converted to storage. Calvin Phillips, the U’s vice president for student affairs and dean of students, said “there are no plans at this time that would require a change in use of that space as we look ahead to next year.”
Even as a club coach, Burns is still recruiting, and five athletes have committed to join the team next season. He has loads of ideas for the future, including running a recreational gymnastics program that could generate revenue to fund the team. As colleges seek new ways to finance their sports programs, Burns and his athletes believe they could set a course for others to emulate.
For now, it’s a labor of love, which is fine by Burns.
“I feel a commitment to this program,” he said. “I’ve always preached to my guys, ‘Identify the problem, then find a solution.’ That’s what we’re doing. And I think we can build something good here.”