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Legacy of retiring gymnastics coach expands through sport

BY NICK GANS | APRIL 27, 2010 7:30 AM

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For nearly three decades Tom Dunn has coached 22 Iowa teams to top-four Big Ten finishes and 33 individuals who combined for 67 All-American honors.

He’s also coached a lot of coaches.

“He put Iowa gymnastics on the map,” Iowa Associate Athletics Director Mark Jennings said. “Tom has affected all of his student-athletes and the whole gymnastics world. He has kept Iowa near the top for what seems like forever.”

Forever will come to an end in June, when Dunn will retire.

Since his first season in 1981, Dunn has experienced the highs of 23 top-10 seasons and the lows of watching other men’s programs around the country get cut in the 1980s.

His legacy won’t end this summer. His model for coaching has influenced some of the most successful gymnastics coaches in America.

Liang Chow started his coaching career as an assistant coach at Iowa in 1990. He has since gained national recognition as a U.S. National Team trainer and the club coach of 2008 Olympic gold medalist Shawn Johnson.

Chow remembers how Tom Dunn helped him evolve.

“I always felt Tom Dunn was honest with everyone, which was why he is such a great person to follow and learn from,” said Chow, who remains friends with Dunn. “I feel that under his leadership, he showed me how you need to teach everyone under you the right example to learn from.”

Michigan men’s gymnastics head coach Kurt Golder also enjoyed some success with the same model. His Wolverines won the NCAA championships on April 9, employing what Golder learned under Dunn as an Iowa assistant from 1991-97.

“Tom taught me to be calm and honest with my whole team,” Golder said. “The in-your-face type of coach who yells at his team isn’t always the best route. I learned how to draw lines with my team without always punishing them.”

Who influenced him

Dunn remembers the advice his father gave him when he was younger: “Do something you enjoy doing.”

He had loved gymnastics since his days as a competitor at Arlington Heights High in Chicago’s northwestern suburbs. After high school, he went to Penn State, at which he met Nittany Lion head coach Gene Wettstone, the winner of nine NCAA team championships.

Dunn, whose Penn State career included a national title on the parallel bars in 1971, said his time with Wettstone spurred him to become a coach.

“Gene taught me the basics of how to run a successful program,” Dunn said. “He ran the best program in the nation at that time, and I tried to use my experience with him as a steppingstone for my career.”

After graduate school, Dunn became the head coach at the University of Massachusetts, and he remained there until 1975. He then returned to his alma mater as an assistant for four years, then took that position at Iowa.

One year later, he became the head coach of the Hawkeyes, and he decided to build the program his way. That meant focusing on academics and an enjoyable gymnastics experience to attract student-athletes.

“I wanted to come to Iowa because of the whole environment he has created from the practice to the school,” Iowa junior gymnast Mike Jiang said. “The way we interact is unique and not like any other colleges I’ve been to.

“I hope the environment stays after Coach Dunn is gone, because we all love it. I don’t want it to be different after he retires.”

Retired but still affecting the sport?

When Dunn became a coach, he believed the job was a young man’s career. That hasn’t changed. He doesn’t have the same energy that he had when he started coaching, he said, and he thinks it’s a common problem of aging.

Plus the need for “new blood,” he said, that was his reason for retiring, which came as a surprise to both his past and present associates.

“When Tom mentioned to me he was retiring, I told him, ‘But you’re still a young man. You can still coach,’ ” said Chow, who learned of Dunn’s decision last year. “To me, he still could be involved, somehow.”

While Dunn’s influence won’t be felt in the practice room, it will be felt as a college judge — something he believes will be a natural transition out of coaching. He plans to judge the Hawkeyes’ practices and attend home meets as a fan.

Departing senior Reid Urbain wants to see a continuation of the principles Dunn established in the Iowa program.

“I would like the new coach to give all his gymnasts — scholarship or walk-on — a fair shot and treat everyone with respect,” Urbain said. “[Dunn is] very understanding of everyone on the team and can have an effect on you in whatever you do.”

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