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Iowa men's gymnastics went from pinnacle of its sport to the chopping block

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — There was neither bitterness nor surprise when JD Reive received the word that his Iowa men’s gymnastics team was deemed expendable.

All that was left for the 10-year head coach was to execute a graceful dismount.

“We knew that we were fading away,” Reive said of a sport that will now muster only 14 Division I programs after this academic year. “All COVID did was speed the whole thing up and make it a more realistic possibility.”

Iowa athletic director Gary Barta announced Aug. 21 that he was shedding four sports — men’s tennis and men’s and women’s swimming and diving in addition to men’s gymnastics — after the year. He said it’s a cost-cutting measure intended to save $5 million annually as he tries to carve into what he estimates could be a $100 million loss in revenue this year after the Big Ten Conference canceled its fall football season over health concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Men’s gymnastics has operational expenses of around $1 million per year at Iowa. That money will now be wiped off of the books. But the legacy of a program that was once among the nation’s best will endure for those who participated in it.

The 1969 Iowa men's gymnastics champions pose on the podium in Seattle. That's Dick Taffe at far left.

That includes Dick Taffe, who was the floor exercise expert on the Hawkeyes’ lone national championship team, in 1969. Iowa had finished third in the nation the previous two years but put together an immaculate performance that April in Seattle, Washington, to upend Penn State and earn the school’s first NCAA title in any sport.

“Perhaps for the first time in that season, we had no breaks. Basically, everyone from top to bottom hit their routines,” Taffe recalled.

That was in an era when 139 college teams competed in men’s gymnastics. The championships were shown on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports.” Taffe remembers completing the third pass on his floor routine in Seattle, then staring up into the massive lens of one of the bulky TV cameras of that era.

“As a performer, that was great,” said Taffe, who always loved to show off. “And I stuck my dismount.”

A decade later, Tom Dunn arrived to take over a Hawkeye men’s gymnastics team that had fallen on hard times. He was hired by legendary athletic director Bump Elliott, getting to campus the same year Hayden Fry began his overhaul of the football team.

Dunn stayed 31 years, retiring in 2010 and being replaced by Reive.

Under Dunn, Iowa won Big Ten championships in 1986 and 1998. The Hawkeyes finished second nine other times. The Hawkeyes hosted the NCAA championships in 1997 and 2000, claiming third place on each occasion. Their best finish nationally under Dunn was second, in 1998.

Dunn, who began his coaching career at Massachusetts in 1972, said everyone in the sport knew enough to be constantly looking over their shoulder, fearful that the axe could fall at any time. But he had a strong relationship with Barta, who came to Iowa in 2006. He even spoke to his boss about the future of Hawkeye men’s gymnastics before stepping away from the program.

“I always had a concern that if I retired, they might drop (the sport),” Dunn said. “He wouldn’t give me 100 percent commitment, but he didn’t think there was any reason it would be dropping. I can’t recall them ever dropping a program.

“I think it’s crushed the spirits a little bit of a lot of alumni who enjoy coming back and having reunions.”

The program Dunn nurtured for three decades did survive one more.

Reive was lured from Stanford to take over. He arrived at Iowa knowing that the gymnasts were still practicing in the back half of the north gym in the old Fieldhouse, where they had been since the 1950s.

“It was basically a broom closet. It was incredible that it was still functioning,” Reive said.

Barta gave Reive the money to renovate his facility, doubling its square footage. That was an exciting moment for his gymnasts, Reive said.

But gymnastics was still tucked away from Hawkeye fans, who rarely showed up for meets. Reive struggled to get exposure among Iowa students. The only people who attended competitions were family members of the athletes.

Andrew Botto was an early standout for Reive. The California native turned down a chance to compete for his home-state school in Berkeley, fearing that the sport was in jeopardy of being cut there. Cal gymnastics has actually outlasted Iowa now.

Still, Botto said he is grateful for his time at Iowa, although he was sad to hear it is dropping his sport.

Iowa gymnast Andrew Botto, with his father Greg and mother Lisa, at a home meet. Botto, a California native who graduated in 2017, said his parents flew to all of his home meets, with his dad even pulling double-duty as the announcer.

“It was nice to be in a different community and with a band of brothers at one of the best universities in the Big Ten,” he said.

Botto graduated in 2017 with a degree in business management and marketing. He was among America’s best collegiate performers on the rings but was skilled enough to be an all-around competitor as a junior and senior, his career hindered a bit by a pair of shoulder surgeries.

Botto’s parents, Greg and Lisa, flew in for all his home meets. Greg Botto even doubled as the public-address announcer, handling the music, lights and videography. Those were special times for Andrew, who began in gymnastics at age 2.

Now, he worries for his sport’s future.

“Everything at the end of the day revolves around money,” he said of Iowa’s move to drop men’s gymnastics, which he believes may be a precursor to other schools following suit.

“It’s definitely a spiral effect.”

Keith McCanless won back-to-back national championships in 1968-69 for Iowa on the pommel horse, which was then called the side horse.

Keith McCanless has taken it upon himself to become the historian of Iowa men’s gymnastics. He left his home in suburban Chicago in the mid-1960s to become a Hawkeye and won back-to-back national championships on the pommel horse (or side horse, as it was then known). He was a key figure on the 1969 championship team, the one that was overshadowed in its day when the athletes arrived back on campus after spring break to discover that 16 of Iowa’s 20 Black football players were staging a walkout over allegations of mistreatment. That story dominated the headlines; few paid attention to what the gymnasts had accomplished.

It wasn’t until 2009 that the gymnastics champions were honored by the university. In 2015, the 14 athletes were finally given championship rings, by members of Reive’s squad that year. Last year, the gymnasts returned to Iowa for a 50th-anniversary celebration of their title, taking to the turf of Kinnick Stadium during a football game while the crowd cheered.

Taffe said it was the first time he’d ever touched the championship trophy. Even though he’s in his 70s, he decided to do an impromptu cartwheel to get the fans even more riled up.

“The performer in me, I couldn’t resist,” he said.

No one knew then that that was the curtain call for the entire Iowa men’s gymnastics program.

In his research, McCanless found the first mention of Iowa gymnastics in the 1915 Hawkeye yearbook. The blurb said there were five men on the team, but didn’t name them. There was no picture.

A program that began in obscurity and reached its pinnacle during one of the most tumultuous times in modern American history is now bowing out quietly amid a global pandemic.

Reive, 44, is hoping to be able to stay in Iowa City and start a club gymnastics program. His sons, ages 12 and 8, are already immersed in the sport.

He wrestles with whether he could have saved his varsity team from extinction.

“That’s the thing that keeps me up at night. Short of having some sort of multimillion-dollar fund-raising campaign, I don’t think there was anything at this point that I could have done,” Reive said.

“If I had won an NCAA championship, I don’t think it would have helped.”

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at memmert@registermedia.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.

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