Sept. 19, 2012
Michigan State will induct six new members into its Athletics Hall of Fame on Thursday, Sept. 20. In the third of a six-part series this week on msuspartans.com, online columnist Steve Grinczel profiles former men's gymnastics coach George Szypula.
Maybe George Szypula's fingerprints aren't all over the medals won by the U.S. gymnastics team at this summer's London Olympics. However, its success has been gently rocked by the ripples he created throughout the sport as Michigan State's head coach for 41 years.
We have pioneers like Szypula to thank for the spectacle gymnastics is today.
Long before sparkling pint-sized pixies became the darlings of the Olympic movement, Szypula was laying the groundwork for a sport he first undertook as an ultra-flexible tumbler at the age of 4.
He's now 91.
"They say, `Well, what did you do?' And I say, `You shouldn't have asked because you're going to have to sit here for half an hour,' said Szypula, who resides in East Lansing and could easily regale a visitor with life stories for a day and a half. "I have a picture of myself doing a side somersault which I taught myself, but which nobody did until the Japanese `invented' it at the Olympics in '78.
"I used to say, `Hey, they didn't invent it. I was doing that in 1938."
While attending Temple University, the Philadelphia native was a four-time AAU national tumbling champion and the NCAA tumbling champ in 1942. Temple honored Szypula as its outstanding athlete in 1942 and '43.
From there, the "firsts" roll off Szypula's tongue with such regularity, you almost expect him to say he invented gymnastics, which he did, in a manner of speaking, at MSU.
He was named the head coach of the new Spartans men's program in 1947. Two years later, Szypula guided Michigan State to a sixth-place finish in the national championships with Mel Stout, on the parallel bars, capturing the Spartans' first individual title. In 1958, MSU won a share of its first, and only, national championship.
It was also at about that time that Szypula coached Windsor, Ontario, native and eventual MSU graduate Ernestine Russell, the first female gymnast to represent Canada in the Olympics. She competed in the 1956 Melbourne and 1960 Rome games.
In 1966, one of Szypula's Spartan charges, Jim Curzi, won the first ever Nissan Award, which is the gymnastics equivalent of the Heisman Trophy. Two years later, Dave Thor also won the Nissan while leading MSU to its first, and only, Big Ten championship. Szypula also coached Thor in the 1968 Mexico Olympics, where he finished 24th in the men's all-around and first among American gymnasts.
"I had 48 Big Ten champions and 18 NCAA individual champions," Szypula said. "And for the benefit of the Title IX people, I'd like to say that Ernestine Russell got the first full-ride scholarship for a women's gymnast in college. She's a Canadian, but I still take credit for her."
Szypula throws out names from Michigan State's past as though he just had lunch with Biggie Munn, Duffy Daugherty, Amo Bessone and Fred Stabley yesterday.
"Biggie was responsible for Ernestine's full ride," Szypula said of the late, former MSU athletic director. "He was great."
Szypula also coached the Spartans to their first 252 meet victories, although what matters more to him are the relationships he maintains to this day.
"I'm so proud of the guys who graduated and went on to become lawyers, doctors...," he said. "I'm so impressed with them. They had great scholastic averages, and they had great (gymnastic) averages, too.
"The championships are memories, but I'm touched by these people calling me and saying, `Hey, how you doing?' I keep saying that at 91, maybe they're just checking to see if I'm still around."
Talking to Szypula is like peeling an onion; there's always another layer. An associate professor of physical education, Szypula taught tumbling to a student and gymnast named Don Vest, who became MSU's first black cheerleader.
Szypula's reach soon extended well beyond Michigan State as he, along with the help of his wife June, the gymnastics coach at East Lansing High School for 22 years, spread the word of gymnastics.
"My wife and I both coached and taught all kinds of people," he said. "I ran a national summer clinic and we taught coaches to be coaches. We'd get Olympians in here teaching and coaching, and coaches would come in from all over the country. We did that for almost 15 years. I did feel like I was a pioneer in promoting the sport nationally.
"So oh yeah, I think I played a role. I think men's gymnastics was even bigger in the '50s and '60s. Those were the glory days. Then in the '70s it started to slow up a bit. We contributed to what it is today. I like gymnastics period, boys and girls. I haven't taught any dogs or cats to do handsprings, but we were close at times."
Szypula, who coached the East Lansing High School boys' gymnastics team for 16 years after he retired from MSU in 1988, wrote two books, one on tumbling and the other on trampoline, and co-authored a book on girls' gymnastics with June.
"I never quite got to be the Olympic coach, but I was close," said the 1966 NCAA coach of the year.
Szypula also left his mark on a number of MSU football players including one fellow MSU Athletics Hall of Fame member.
"I worked them pretty hard and so they figured this gymnastics is pretty hard," Szypula said. "I was trying to prove the point that we were tough, too.
"One of the funniest things was when Bubba Smith was in class. I was doing some bookwork and there he was bouncing on the trampoline. I said, `Get off, you're going to kill yourself and Duffy's going to kill me.' And he jumped off through the air, which I didn't like because it was dangerous, and he landed on a mat and threw his arms out like a gymnast.
"I said, `Bubba, you're crazy.' He said, `No I'm not, I'm from Texas. My dad was a football coach and he also taught trampoline, and I'm great.' He always said he was great."
Szypula is now a member of five Halls of Fame, having previously gained induction in the U.S. Gymnastics Hall of Fame, the Temple University Hall of Fame, the East Lansing High School Hall of Fame and the National Polish-American Sports Hall of Fame.
And, he's still doing routines.
"When people at church say, `George, are you still tumbling?' I say, `Yeah, in the garden, but I don't plan it,'" he said.