For 41 years, Mike Burns made a career out of coaching gymnastics. Then the University of Minnesota eliminated his program last year, and it became strictly a labor of love.
He doesn’t get paid for coaching any more. Gigs such as driving an Uber, delivering packages and judging youth meets cover the bills, but Burns still spends much of his time running a men’s gymnastics team out of Cooke Hall on the U campus.
After the school cut three men’s sports — gymnastics, tennis and indoor track — Burns kept his sport alive as a competitive club program, a self-funded entity with no scholarships, no staff and no salaries.
“We’re doing this on a shoestring,” said Burns, 63. “We’ve all had to recalibrate. But our motto has been, ‘We’re not going away.”’
His team of seven — including a medical student and two athletes from local community colleges — became the newest member of GymACT, an organization for men’s gymnasts at colleges without varsity programs. Saturday, it will compete for the GymACT national championship in Mesa, Ariz., after winning the East Conference title last month.
While the gymnasts soldier on, so do supporters of the three Gophers sports that were dropped after the 2020-21 season. Working as the Minnesota Athletics Alliance, these supporters continued efforts to reinstate the sports, proposing new funding models and raising money to put those programs on a self-sustaining path.
Advocates of the eliminated sports testified before the Minnesota Senate Higher Education Committee in February. Last month, the committee asked the Board of Regents to establish a special commission to review the role of athletics at the U.
Regent Darrin Rosha introduced such a resolution Friday, but it failed on a 9-3 vote. The Board of Regents had otherwise rebuffed further discussion of the sports cuts, calling them “necessary” and “well-considered” in an April letter to the Minnesota Athletics Alliance.
Burns is still angry that the U cast aside a program with a 118-year history, but he tries not to dwell on it. He has too much to do to waste any energy. He and his athletes are raising the money to run the program by setting up and tearing down equipment at gymnastics meets, holding camps and judging competitions.
Yaroslav Pochinka is among those pitching in. During four seasons with the Gophers from 2015-18, he earned two Big Ten medals and all-America status on vault. As a 25-year-old medical student, he returned for fun and camaraderie, and to help keep the program going.
“In 2018, our goal was to win the Big Ten,” Pochinka said. “Now, it’s to show we’re still here, and we’re still good.
“We’re a smaller group. We don’t have many resources. But we all want this program to be successful, and we want each other to be successful. That hasn’t changed.”
Something old, something new
In their final competition as a varsity program, the Gophers hosted the 2021 NCAA championships. The meet at Maturi Pavilion featured two gymnasts who would compete for the U.S. at the Tokyo Olympics — the Gophers’ Shane Wiskus and Stanford’s Brody Malone — and was televised on the Big Ten Network.
The team’s GymACT conference title meet in April was held in decrepit Cooke Hall, with no …….