By Stephen J. Nesbitt, Daily Sports Editor
Published January 27, 2013
Crisler Center is home to three teams. Those teams are a combined 24-3 in the friendly and renovated confines this year. That’s pretty neat.
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You know about the men’s basketball team. You know about the women’s basketball team, too. But have you taken a visit to the Crisler when the hardwood is lifted, when mats and beams and bars are sprawled across the arena floor?
Well, let me tell you about that third team at Crisler. It’s one to be proud of. It’s the Michigan women’s gymnastics program, currently No. 1 in the land, and its success is no fluke.
Still, the gymnastics team is, for my money, the most overlooked varsity team on campus.
Meet Bev Plocki.
Her résumé lists but one professional job — head coach of the Michigan women’s gymnastics program. Plocki took the helm in Ann Arbor as a 23-year-old former All-American and hasn’t budged in the last 23 years.
The program she inherited in 1989 was something of a train wreck. Michigan was coming off a 2-19 season and had never fielded an All-American in the team’s 16-year history.
As a Butler, Pa. native, Alabama graduate and former graduate assistant at West Virginia, Plocki — née Beverly Fry — had no ties to Michigan or its suffering women’s gymnastics program.
Early on, she met Jim Plocki, a strength and conditioning coach for the Michigan football and ice hockey teams. The two hit it off, eventually married and decided to stay in Ann Arbor. And the Michigan community should thank its lucky stars that they did.
A team isn’t always hard to build, but a program is. It means changing tradition, changing culture, changing expectations. And Plocki did it in two years.
Plocki turned a two-win team into a 7-15 team in her first year, then 13-12 the next. Then the streak began. Michigan won five consecutive Big Ten titles, took second in 1998, won seven more, took fourth in 2006 and won five more before finishing fourth again last year.
That’s 18 Big Ten titles in 21 years. That’s absurd consistency, isn’t it? Let’s compare it to the other teams housed in Crisler: before last year, the men’s basketball team hasn’t won an outright title since 1986, and the women’s basketball team has never won one.
As for her coaching qualifications, Plocki has won everything but a national championship, and that could be just around the corner — Michigan has been runner-up twice. She has coached 148 first- and second-team All-Americans, been named Big Ten coach of the year 10 times and NCAA national coach of the year once.
So, I ask, what’s kept you away from Crisler?
The then-No. 2 Michigan women’s gymnastics team posted a 197.350 in its last competition at Crisler. That might not mean much to you, but it’s the highest team total since 2008.
A night earlier, No. 6 Alabama squared off against LSU at Coleman Coliseum in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Plocki knows the Crimson Tide quite well: you’ll remember, Alabama is her alma mater. She understands the tradition. She understands that gymnastics just means something different there.
But she probably didn’t expect this disparity.
Michigan had just 2,114 seats filled at Crisler. Alabama had a recorded attendance of 13,912 — higher even than the capacity of Crisler. A week later, 15,075 were on hand to watch the Crimson Tide.
That’s just a whole different ballgame.
It’s easy to see why an elite recruit would relish an opportunity to compete at Alabama, live on TV and in front of sellout crowds.
But it begs the question, how can the Wolverines, with a roster that lists just one Michigan native, pull in the caliber of recruits year after year to remain a national title contender?
Plocki tries to keep the answer short.
“Until we can get to a point where we can get that many people coming to our competitions, it’s really a matter of selling Michigan,” she said.
“If you are an individual who wants the dog-and-pony show, then Michigan’s not the right place for you to go to school anyway. You need to be coming to school here because you’re serious about your education, you want to get the most valuable degree that’s available to you and you want to have a great experience.”
You probably think every coach claims to sell the education. And they do. But there’s something different about gymnastics.
“Stereotypically, gymnasts are very good students, good time managers,” Plocki admitted.
If you think about it, a career in gymnastics has about the shortest career span out there. Gymnastics isn’t a profession for hardly anyone. You’re not going to be competing at 28, so it only makes sense to sell Michigan, to sell the education.
The largest circuit is the Olympics, where gymnastics truly thrives and consistently earns some of the highest viewership of the Olympic Games. But if you’re in college, you’re probably past your prime for international competition, so selecting a college isn’t an athletics decision as much as it is a career decision.
“We feel like we can offer the package between the national championship-caliber athletic program and the Ivy League-quality education,” Plocki said.
While she didn’t hesitate to praise the dedication of the fans that do trickle into the Crisler Center for competitions, Plocki did admit that finding ways to fill seats is still a work in progress. Huge banners are up around Briarwood Mall, a few miles from campus, showing an athlete or two and the season schedule.
It’s hard to attract that attention.
“We continually strive to get the word out,” Plocki said. “If people develop an interest in wanting to come out and check out the sport of women’s gymnastics, they’ll see why there are 13,000 people who go to a gym meet in Alabama, Utah, Georgia.
“It’s really a fabulous event. These athletes are genuinely athletes, and the things that they do are pretty incredible. It’s just a great sport and if you come once you typically really enjoy it and want to continue to come back.”
So, surprise yourself and give it a chance, make your way down on a Friday night. It’ll be worth your time.
It’s tough to get out of the shadows at Michigan, but there just might be enough room for two No. 1s at Crisler.
— Nesbitt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter: @stephenjnesbitt.