In honor of Gene Wettstone's 100th birthday, we are reprinting an interview IG published in its NCAA issue in May.
Born July 15, 1913, to Swiss parents, Gene Wettstone holds the record for NCAA men's team championships by a single coach (nine). He learned the sport at the Swiss Gymnastics Association in Union City, N.J., and was a Big Ten champion at Iowa. He took over the Penn State Nittany Lions in 1938 and produced 45 individual NCAA champions, 12 Olympians and was head coach of two Olympic teams (1948, '56). Wettstone was master at running competitions, but he is most proud of his work in unseating the AAU as the governing body for U.S. gymnastics. He was honored at the 2013 NCAAs in April, when Penn State named its workout facility the Gene Wettstone Gymnastics Complex. On April 1, he spoke by phone with IG Editor Dwight Normile about his long life in gymnastics.
IG: Did you ever think you would reach 99, and in a few months, 100?
GW: No, I never, never, never, never, never thought I'd reach 99.
IG: How often do you think about your days as a gymnast and coach?
GW: I think [about it] quite a bit, but I think more about ... the '60s when we battled the AAU to take over the sport of gymnastics, because the AAU had full control. And I think more about those years than I do about the success I had in getting 18 gymnasts jobs in different universities of this country.
IG: You retired in 1976, the year you hosted the Olympic trials. What do you remember from that event?
GW: I don't remember the event, but we won the national championship as a team [that year]. I remember that. It was the last of my career. It was a nice way to go out, I think.
IG: What are your impressions of gymnastics now?
GW: I keep interested in what is going on and how the rules keep changing. They don't know exactly what to do. We did the same thing in those years; we kept changing the rules. Now all [scores] count in the scoring. They keep changing all the time, trying to figure out how to make the sport a sport, and that bothers me a little bit.
IG: You were a gymnast at Iowa but a coach at Penn State. Are you loyal to both programs?
GW: No, I'm loyal to Penn State because I've been here over 60 years. When you're [in a place] that long and you have a team like we had, I don't think about my alma mater as much as I do Penn State, of course. That's obvious.
IG: You used music to help involve the crowd at gymnastics competitions. Do you still listen to music today?
GW: Not as much because I don't operate my music machine anymore ... it's a little too complicated. But music is, of course, part of gymnastics, and people ought to think about music, for example, "The Student Prince." I always associate that music and that title to our gymnasts, because in a way, they are student princes. If they don't develop these gymnasts into real wonderful models, then they're missing the boat, because they are, in a way, the prince of sports.
IG: What is your best memory as a competitive gymnast?
GW: Well, I won the Big Ten championships way back in — I don't even remember the year (1935 and '37).
IG: What is your best memory as a Penn State coach?
GW: I came to Penn State in 1939 because they wanted somebody to pep up their major student program so that they would be more eligible for jobs in the state. So when they hired me for $1,800 for nine months, I took over the gym like you wouldn't believe. I had the guts to throw baseball out, because they had no right to be playing baseball in a gym. I pulled down all their nets.
Everybody seemed to let me alone and do what I was supposed to do. Of course, I was too aggressive, but never mind; I was able to accomplish what I wanted. I had the phys. ed. majors, and I bought equipment and I developed in them skills on various things like walking on a ball, walking tight wire, just a lot of interesting things that major students had never done before. And pretty soon I was on the way of really taking over ... when the war broke out...
And after the war ended, we won the national championship, and then we won a couple of times around the '50s (four), and then I got the thought of bringing in some foreign teams so our students could understand what's happening in other countries.
I enjoyed making [my gymnasts] student princes. I wanted them to be examples of a person that's disciplined, nice looking. We practiced walking to be sure they had the right character. People got attached to certain gymnasts, and they would actually go to see their favorite gymnasts — (Mike) Jacobson was one of them. I mean, the ladies liked Jacobson, and they would go to the meets to see him. I wanted our gymnasts to be examples of good Americans and do everything so that it inspires people to duplicate what we were doing.
IG: How would you like to be remembered among the gymnastics community?
GW: I brought 16 teams to the United States, but the thing that I like the best of all was the battle we had with the AAU. I mean, that took 10 years, and it took certain teams that cooperated — for example, the University of Cologne in Germany. They came here and the AAU went to the airport to tell them they were not allowed to go to Penn State, and they told them that nothing was going to stop them.