By Colt Rosensweig
Daily Sports Writer
The distinguished gentleman sits in a chair in the corner of the practice gym. Placing both hands on the armrests, he grins brightly and says, “Look at these old parallel bars muscles at work!”
But this is no ordinary Michigan gymnastics alumnus.
This is Newt Loken, the men’s gymnastics equivalent of Bo Schembechler.
The practice gym is named after him. The award for best performance of the night on either team, presented at each men’s gymnastics home meet, is named after him. If Michigan coach Kurt Golder had his way, the entire Sports Coliseum would be named in honor of him.
Known across the country, no individual has had a bigger impact on the Michigan men’s gymnastics program.
The 88-year-old Loken, head coach of the men’s gymnastics team from its rebirth at Michigan until his retirement in 1983, is a familiar sight at practices and home meets. In fact, he has not missed a single Michigan home meet since he took over as head coach in 1948.
And his influence on the program is still strong.
Both of the coaches since Loken – Bob Darden and Golder – were Michigan gymnasts under his tutelage. Actually, if it weren’t for Loken’s insistence, Golder might still be coaching at Iowa.
“Newt called me enough times that to get him off my back I finally said, ‘OK, I’ll interview,’ ” Golder said. “Once I said that, I thought, ‘If I’m going to do this, I’m going to do it right.’ . So I really went after it at that point. But if it weren’t for his influence, it’s quite likely that I wouldn’t have been here.”
Men’s gymnastics itself might not be here if it wasn’t for Loken.
After a spectacular career as a gymnast at the University of Minnesota – among his many achievements was a national all-around championship in 1942 – Loken served as an athletic welfare officer in the Navy during World War II. He helped sailors keep up their fitness, often using a trampoline. Following his service, Loken came to Michigan to pursue his master’s degree. On the side, he offered his services as a coach to the cheerleading team.
In 1947, the athletic board of directors awarded varsity status to men’s gymnastics, which had been dropped as a varsity sport during the Great Depression. Loken, who had been leading a group of club gymnasts around the Midwest performing at the halftime of basketball games, immediately accepted the offer to become the team’s coach.
At first, the fledgling Wolverines had a tough time competing against more established programs. But in the late 1950s, when Loken could offer scholarships to prospective recruits, Michigan gymnastics took off. Loken’s team won 12 Big Ten championships – more than any other coach – and national titles in 1963 and 1970.
A consummate Michigan man, Loken was not only a top gymnast and coach, but is also a published author, and a tremendous public speaker. He has always exuded an infectious enthusiasm.
“I have this image of him from homecoming games,” said Rich Dopp, a Michigan gymnast from 1991-95. “As recently as probably five or six years ago, he was still on the field with the alumni cheerleaders at the Homecoming game. . It may sound a little dorky, but it just makes me want to go, ‘Meechigan! Meechigan! Rah, rah!’ “
The current team collectively perks up whenever Loken comes to practice. One by one, the gymnasts walk over to greet him and shake his hand.
“Whenever everyone sees him, it always brightens up people’s day,” sophomore Joe Catrambone said. “It just means a lot to me – seeing him every day, him coming in here when he doesn’t even have to be here anymore, and taking time out to help some of the guys still. It’s just real nice.”
Said assistant coach Scott Vetere: “(Loken) wants to get to know every guy. He knows everybody on the team, and if he forgets, he’s 80-some years old, and he’ll ask again. He’s just a pure gymnastics guy – always wants to be around gymnastics, always wants to learn more, (always) wants to praise guys for what a wonderful job they’re doing.”
Loken holds the current team of gymnasts in equal esteem as they hold him.
Rather than bemoaning the constant changes to the gymnastics Code of Points, and the tremendous difference in the sport from his college days, he revels in every new skill and hit routine. Few things make him happier than rehashing the greatest performances of the most recent meet with the gymnasts.
“As I’ve kidded these guys, I don’t even show my old movies,” Loken joked. “The elevation of their skills is so great, right up there at a high level.”
Loken has a huge collection of stories, which he gladly shares with anyone who wants to hear them.
He can tell you something about every athlete whose name is on the Park Family Wall of Fame, where the top gymnasts in Michigan history are commemorated.
He’ll tell you about the time he was pulled into the stands and involuntarily went crowd-surfing during halftime at a football game. He was later found out by the none-too-pleased band director, William Revelli, who hated any distractions from his halftime show.
Or the time former Minnesota head coach Ralph Piper had a trophy engraved for his all-around championship in 1942 – two weeks before Loken actually won the competition.
In addition to his published tomes on gymnastics and cheerleading, Loken printed a little book for his grandchildren called “Newt’s Sayings.”
Over the years, the coach collected a number of motivational sayings, which he used liberally with both his athletes and family. Recently, his wife convinced him to write some of the best ones down.
One quote graces the final page: “You never touch people so lightly that you do not leave a trace.” Of Newt Loken, truer words were never spoken.
“I’ve learned how to be a Michigan man from him,” said Vetere, who competed for Michigan from 1999 to 2003. “I’ve learned to always stay positive. . I’ve tried to live my life and coach like Newt Loken would want.”