When Temple announced in December that its men's gymnastics team had only one more season as a varsity sport, I was as blindsided as anyone. I felt connected since my high school coach, the late Frank Yapps, had competed for Temple. We also had just released our December issue of IG, which included a "10 Questions With" interview with Temple Coach Fred Turoff.
Turoff saved his program from that same fate in 1994, the same year UCLA lost its men's team. And now he is faced with that same tall task again.
Turoff was given the bad news at 1:05 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 6, 40 minutes before his team did. I asked him how he planned to rescue his program one more time.
"Our Board of Trustees already approved the plan," he said. "So now I will make an effort to educate them on what they're losing."
Go to www.templegymnastics.com to learn how you can support his mission. In the meantime, here is my interview with Turoff.
10 Questions With Fred Turoff
Fred Turoff is truly one of the “good guys” of American gymnastics. As a Temple Owl gymnast, the Philadelphia native won the 1968 EIGL all-around, and represented the U.S. at the ’69 Maccabiah Games and the ’70 Universiade. He was inducted into the USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame in 2009, and now begins his 38th season as coach of Temple. With four scholarships (the top schools have 6.3), Turoff will try to qualify a full team to NCAAs for the third year in a row. Recently, the wisest Owl of all fielded questions about what he’s learned through the years, the evolution of gymnastics and why he’s always smiling.
You have a physics degree and master’s in biomechanics. Have they come in handy?
Sure, my physics background certainly helps me understand movement, as classical mechanics governs gymnastics. Now, getting gymnasts to apply those principles—that’s a challenge.
The Temple men’s team was on the chopping block in December, 1994. What was your initial emotional reaction and how was the program saved?
I was totally surprised the new AD tried to drop our successful program along with women’s gymnastics and baseball. Fortunately, alumni, fans and media rallied around our counter-effort and we were able to convince our Board of Trustees that the points the AD used to back up his proposal were not all true and that it was better to retain us.
After almost four decades of coaching in the Temple gym, what aspects of your job keep you going?
Since I work in a glorified playroom with youthful, eager students, work is a pleasure, not a chore. There are always challenges—teaching techniques, being a psychologist, an understanding adult, a motivator. This helps keep me young.
What are the most important coaching concepts you have learned through the years?
My first lesson was that not all wanted to be as good and didn’t want to work as hard as I did. Once I accepted that, I found a bit of peace in dealing with those whose goals weren’t as high as mine were, but still wanted to compete well in a collegiate program. The next was that many needed guidance in developing and pursuing goals. And lastly, something I learned from my coach Bill Coco is that it’s important to educate my team members outside of the gym and hotel room, so I try to show them things of interest when I can on away trips.
You were a Temple freshman in 1965. What was your floor exercise routine that year, and what skill(s) were you hoping to add to it?
In late 1965, my big moves were a back layout and a wide-arm press. Of course, we tumbled on the wooden floor or a thin mat sometimes. When I came to Temple, we had a quarter-inch thick floor ex mat. By my junior year, we used the wrestling mat under a vinyl cover for our meets, but tumbled on 1.25 inch-thick Nissen panel mats in practice. By the time I was a junior, I could do a back layout with a full twist and a front handspring tucked front, which were both C-skills at that time. My floor routine had four single-salto passes, two splits and two presses.
What are your thoughts on the current state of the sport?
The constant progress our athletes and coaches make in devising new skills and training techniques amazes me. They often exceed the Code of Points requirements in short order. I’ve always felt that those with higher difficulty should get a higher score than others with lower difficulty — given execution is the same. The current system does reward difficulty in that way. However, I also argued that 10 points for execution wasn’t necessary, as few lose more than 3-4 points in a poor routine, so the scoring system could have been adjusted to allow a final score to be around the 10.0 we had some years back.
What aspects of the Antwerp worlds made the biggest impressions on you?
I was so happy the U.S. did well, both men and women. It shows we are certainly in the mix for top honors both for teams and individuals. I felt the judges picked the correct winners in most cases, but it seems sometimes there are deductions that I can’t see – perhaps because I’m distant from the performer. I was also quite happy that videotaping was allowed, as this enables coaches to bring back videos to study with their students. With the advent of YouTube, all routines are available worldwide anyhow, so it seems silly to prohibit videotaping.
What changes would you make to the Code of Points?
There are still skills that are valued incorrectly. Look at rings. Many young gymnasts can do a Yamawaki, a C-skill, but can’t do a straight arm shoot handstand, also a C-value, and certainly can’t do an inverted cross, another C-value. Where’s the logic? When an inverted cross was devalued to C many years back, I, along with many others, asked “Did the evaluator ever try one?” And pressing out of an inverted was also valued as a C until this recent Code, when it was raised to D. That previous C-value was the most ridiculous value in the Code. What the FIG MTC should do is regularly ask coaches and gymnasts to submit rating change suggestions, then correlate the answers and make changes. So far I believe Steve Butcher is listening, but he has to wade through red tape to effect change.
You always seem to be smiling. To what or whom do you attribute your positive outlook?
There’s enough bad stuff in the world to make anyone get depressed. I choose to look at the brighter side of things and enjoy success of any size, accomplishments, friendships and family. I also make sure to take a vacation regularly to allow me to think of other things and rejuvenate. My other love is underwater photography, in which I indulge yearly.
Looking back on your coaching career, what are you most proud of?
Countering the attempt to drop our program is certainly a source of pride, but more so it’s having success team-wise plus graduating the great majority of gymnasts who joined my program. Seeing them become successful tells me we did well by them here. I’m fortunate that I’ve been able to work at something I greatly enjoy, and have never felt I didn’t want to go into the gym.