Former Saluki coaches USA in Olympics

Men’s gymnastics cut from SIU in 1988

Former men’s gymnastics coach Bill Meade impacted many athletes’ lives, including a coach who just came back from the London Olympics.

Team USA men’s gymnastics coach Kevin Mazeika said he felt honored when Meade recruited him for SIU in 1980, given Meade’s record of four national championships, five national runner-up finishes and 68 consecutive victories from 1961-68 that still stands as the longest winning streak in any SIU sport. Mazeika said he adapted many of Meade’s lessons into his own coaching.

Mazeika’s team didn’t medal this year, but the Houston native was at the helm for back-to-back Olympic medals in 2004 and 2008, which is the first time that happened in American Olympic history.

Murph Melton, John Levy, Kevin Mazeika and Herb Voss prepare for the last meet of their SIU careers, the 1984 NCAA National Championship. Mazeika coached Team USA men’s gymnastics in the London Olympics this summer.
Provided Photo

Mazeika’s sport, however, hasn’t been offered at SIU for two decades. The program was cut in December of 1988 along with women’s field hockey to allow more money to go to the men’s basketball program, which at the time had a budget in the bottom half of Missouri Valley Conference teams.

“It was devastating. So many athletes gained so much from their experience here as a gymnast at SIU,” Mazeika said. “It was kind of like a death; you feel so bad, and that opportunity wasn’t going to be available for future gymnasts.”

The men’s basketball program budget went up from $150,000 to $180,000 the following year. In comparison, men’s basketball coach Barry Hinson — who makes three times less than his predecessor, Chris Lowery — is scheduled to make $250,000 next season.

Scott Belanger was on the men’s gymnastics team in 1988 when the program was cut, and he said news of the cuts caught the entire team off guard.

“We had no idea that was going to happen,” Belanger said. “I had real hard feelings for a long time about that.”

A few of Belanger’s teammates transferred to Oklahoma, which won the National Championship in April 1991. A few others took scholarships from other universities, but Belanger stayed at SIU, which was required to honor his scholarship for the one year he was still eligible for.

Belanger said Arizona State was willing to pick up his scholarship, but he wasn’t sure how he’d pay for school once the scholarship money dried up. At least with SIU, he knew he’d have his degree by then.

Belanger picked up a coaching job in Murphysboro after SIU cut men’s gymnastics. He said he met his wife, Mary Beth, around the same time, and shortly after they married in 1993, Belanger founded the Southern Illinois Gymnastics Academy in Marion.

Belanger operates the Academy out of Extreme Kids in Marion, which he also owns, and holds gymnastics classes for kids as soon as they can walk until they’re 18. Belanger grew up in Londonderry, New Hampshire, and he said gymnastics was really popular along the east coast with boys, but boy’s gymnastics never really took off outside of big cities such as Chicago or St. Louis.

“If you have a lot of people, you’re going to find a better niche for gymnastics,” Belanger said. “Around here, boy’s gymnastics was always a hard sell.”

Belanger said by the time kids in his camp get older, they’ve gotten more athletic and usually want to use those talents in other sports that high schools in the area actually offer, such as football or wrestling. He said he encouraged his own son Jonah, now a junior at Marion High School, to do wrestling rather than continue to compete in boys’ gymnastics meets.

Even if boys want to pursue gymnastics and try to get a college scholarship, there are only 16 NCAA Division I programs. Belanger said there used to be a lot more when he was growing up, but the programs started dropping around the same time men’s gymnastics was cut at SIU in the mid-to-late ’80s. Mazeika said it was one of the unintended consequences of Title IX, which was passed in 1972 and requires schools to offer the same amount of scholarships to men and women. Because football — a men’s sport — has so many scholarships, universities had to drop smaller ones such as gymnastics to help make up the difference.

With the small amount of NCAA men’s gymnastics programs, Mazeika said each program is a world-class training center for gymnasts.

Women’s gymnastics is more popular with 62 Division I programs. SIU Athletic Director Mario Moccia said some of his past employers had both men’s and women’s gymnastics, and women’s gymnastics was always more popular. Belanger said he’s seen the difference in his camps as well, as roughly 90 percent of their enrollment is girls.

“I’ve always said that girls will outwork a guy anyday; they’ll work hard and keep smiling, keep going where guys will just play video games,” Belanger said.

Olympic women’s gymnastics had slightly higher ratings on NBC than men’s, although NBC grouped both nights of coverage with swimming, including Michael Phelps breaking the record for most Olympic medals the night of the women’s gymnastics final. According to the Nielsen Company, ratings for NBC’s men’s gymnastics coverage July 30 earned 27.7 million viewers, while 29.8 million people watched women’s gymnastics July 31.

Belanger said the landscape of sports for men and women is different, and where men have always had several different sports to choose, women didn’t have the same choices until Title IX. However, gymnastics was a sport women have done long before Title IX opened doors, and Belanger said the sport has survived even though more opportunities are available for women in sports now.

As for any future of gymnastics at SIU, Moccia said the athletic department would only consider adding another sport if the university’s male-to-female ratio changed. Title IX requires universities to offer a proportional number of scholarships to men and women based on that ratio, which was 56 percent men and 44 percent female in 2011-12, according to US News’ annual college rankings.

“My hope is that we can start to add NCAA programs. It just takes one, and we can start to build on that,” Mazeika said. “We have so many athletes coming up through our pipeline that we need places for them to grow, train and continue the sport that they love.”

Moccia said however that chances of gymnastics coming back are slim. Women’s soccer is the only sport Moccia said the athletic department has explored adding in recent memory.

 

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