50 years later, 1970 men’s gymnastics team reunites to celebrate title

Wednesday, September 11, 2019 - 9:59pm

The 1970 national championship men's gymnastics team held a 50-year reunion Friday night.

The 1970 national championship men's gymnastics team held a 50-year reunion Friday night. Buy this photo
Courtesy of Daniel Dash

On Friday night, a similar roar of applause to the one that filled Temple’s McGonigle Hall in April 1970 bounced off the walls in Ann Arbor’s Glick Ballroom.

A room full of people crowded around nine round tables overlooking the golf course along East Stadium Boulevard, eyes glued to the projector screen. On it, the faintly-colored film from the day that forever solidified the 1970 Michigan men’s gymnastics team’s place in history rolled. Nearly half a century later, players from that national championship team still recall April 4, 1970 well.

Over 18 months of planning went into the reunion, largely facilitated by a committee of four team members — Ron Rapper, Murray Plotkin, Ray Gura and Ed Howard.

When the idea of a reunion was first floated, the committee estimated about 30 people would come. The team itself included 27 lettermen, of which two have passed away. Just two still live in Michigan, while others have settled as far away as Colorado, Florida and Arizona. The proposition of every living teammate making the trip felt far-fetched at first, but after the committee put out a feeler, it became reality quickly.

Eighteen months later, 85 people packed the Glick Ballroom to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the team’s national championship. Some former players brought up to three generations of family to the dinner, while others traveled alone or with a spouse. Championship banners draped from the windows and the championship trophy sat on a table adjacent to the door as guests walked in.

Since 1969, the Michigan men’s gymnastics program is responsible for seven of the university’s 15 team national championships. Following the 1970 title, it took three decades for the program to hoist the trophy again. But the 1970 team’s impact on the perception surrounding the sport on campus goes far beyond a slab of iron with a championship inscription.

“Makes one feel as if we’ve come of age and are considered as one of the major sports on our campus,” coach Newt Loken wrote in his annual team newsletter that summer. “You men have elevated the sport of gymnastics to (what) some have declared ‘a fantastically beautiful sport.’ ”

***

More often than not, the 1970 national championship felt out of Michigan’s reach. Eight teams qualified for the two-day preliminary qualifiers in Philadelphia, with the top three advancing to the finals the following day.

The Wolverines found themselves in fourth place at the close of the afternoon session. With their season on the line, they surged past Southern Illinois and Temple to clinch a spot in the next day’s field.

Just over 24 hours later, Michigan needed more than a surge. It needed a miracle. With every routine in the books besides one, the Wolverines trailed Iowa State, the heavy favorite, by 9.3 points — a “lofty score” at the time, according to Rapper. Silence fell over McGonigle Hall as Howard, the last man standing, stepped up to the horizontal bars. With the pressure of an entire season on his shoulders, Howard delivered a career-best 9.4.

The national championship was decided by one-tenth of a point — the scoring difference of a slight arm flex, a three-degree vertical error or an inadvertent slight step on a dismount. Howard put the perfect bowtie on a 12-0 season, forever cementing the team among Michigan’s all-time best.

The Wolverines’ narrow margin in the championship might’ve been thrilling, but it wasn’t an accurate portrayal of how badly Michigan beat teams during that era. Beginning in 1968, the team won four consecutive Big Ten titles, posting a 28-0 dual meet record across a three-year period in the process. The Wolverines won those meets by an average of five points. That’s the equivalent of a 31-3 win in football and 10-1 score in baseball, according to Rapper.

***

Ironically enough, the reunion began with a lost ring.

When trampoline champion Goerge Huntzicker discovered his championship ring was missing two years ago, he phoned Rapper — the team’s captain — to ask how to get a new one. These types of rings are hard to come by, so Rapper thought it was worth it to reach out to the whole team to see if other players lost their rings too. The wheels began turning in his head and, soon enough, the idea snowballed.

A long-overdue reunion was in order. Using the event as an opportunity to issue redesigned rings to the team was the perfect reason to bring everyone to the Ann Arbor. But the face of the man responsible for building the team was missing, as Loken passed away in 2011 at the age of 92.

“Winning a championship is the pinnacle of college athletics,” Rapper said. “And for this championship, credit must go to our coach, Newt Loken. … He emphasized the importance of hitting your routine and instilled in us the pride of representing Michigan in the sport of gymnastics. It was Newt who engineered our victory. In what is traditionally an individually-focused sport, this team victory was very special.”

Added Plotkin: “(Loken) knew how to make things happen. He knew how to say things in a way that made you want to stretch yourself.”

When Michigan granted varsity status to its men’s gymnastics team in 1947, Loken was named the program’s first coach. From there, the program was off and running. As a 1941 national high bar and all-around champion at Minnesota, he had the perfect pedigree to shape and lead an elite program. He remained at the helm for 36 years, compiling a 250-72-1 career record while winning a pair of NCAA titles and overseeing 71 Big Ten individual event championships.

Plotkin graduated in 1972 but remained in Ann Arbor to complete his master’s degree. Loken, nearing the end of his career, made Plotkin his first assistant coach. To this day, he raves about how lucky he was to have the dual perspective of both playing and working for Loken.

Loken’s death in 2011 marked the end of an era in men’s gymnastics. Even after retiring from coaching, he didn’t miss a single home meet for 61 years. In fact, once Loken retired, his successor named an award for best individual performance at each home meet after him. Loken presented the award, a certificate which quickly became one of the program’s highest honors, until 2010.

“(Loken) was unlike nearly every other coach who has reached legendary status in his or her sport,” wrote former Daily sports editor Colt Rosensweig, author of the biography Newt: The Father of Michigan Men’s Gymnastics. “Instead of barking orders like a drill sergeant, Newt resembled a kindly father. His unflagging optimism and constant encouragement — not to mention his excellent technical skills — motivated his gymnasts more than a good chewing out ever could.”

The program fell out of contention after Loken retired, posting eight straight losing seasons during the decade prior to current coach Kurt Golder’s hiring in 1997. While the Wolverines suffered through their winless 1996 season, Golder served as the top assistant at Iowa — a program trending in the opposite direction. With little ambition to become a head coach at the time, Golder was content.

That is, until Loken called him. The next day, Loken called again. And again. He wouldn’t take no for an answer.

Ultimately, Golder accepted the job — a testament to Loken and his legacy. It only took Golder three years to transform a winless team into a national champion. The program hasn’t looked back, winning three more national titles since.

***

As the guests dined on salads, roasted Yukon potatoes and pecan crusted chicken, Rapper approached the podium. Rapper’s grandson, an aspiring gymnast himself, was one of the 85 pairs of eyes on the front of the room. Loken’s children sat at the front table, while Plotkin’s grandchildren played with a ball in the back of the room.

Beyond the applause that accompanied Howard’s now-legendary 9.4, three generations of admiration, chatter and pride brought an equal presence to the room. And the bond shared amongst the 1970 teammates proved to be as strong as ever.

“It’s great to get the band back together,” Rapper said. “There’s something to be said about the athletic bond that ties together members of an athletic team. The bond is particularly strong that brings together an NCAA championship team.”

Now, they have new rings to show for it.