Gene Wettstone, Record-Setting Gymnastics Coach, Dies at 100
By DANIEL E. SLOTNIK
Published: August 2, 2013
Gene Wettstone, a gymnastics coach who led Penn State University to a record nine N.C.A.A. championships in the sport, coached the United States men’s teams in the 1948 and 1956 Olympic Games and successfully promoted gymnastics on a campus better known for football, died on Tuesday in State College, Pa. He was 100.
Penn State Athletics
His son Jerry confirmed the death.
About 6 feet tall and 170 pounds, Wettstone was a sequoia of a gymnast at the University of Iowa, where he won a national championship. He joined Penn State in 1939. At the time, the closest thing to a gymnastics program at Penn State was a student circus featuring acrobatics and tumbling.
Wettstone molded his first championship team by 1948, even though most intercollegiate competition had been suspended during World War II.
Over the next 25 years, Wettstone won more than 200 meets and 8 more national championships for Penn State, including three in a row from 1959 through 1961.
“Gene was very, very much a stickler for making things clean and sharp,” Randy Jepson, the current gymnastics coach at Penn State, said on Friday. “Gene would have guys come to the gym for the first few days, and he wouldn’t want to see gymnastics; he’d want to see how they walked, their posture.”
Wettstone instructed 35 individual national champions, and 13 of his gymnasts, including the United States Gymnastics Hall of Fame members Greg Weiss and Armando Vega, competed in the Olympics. Three of them, Steve Cohen (1967), Gene Whelan (1976) and Bob Emery (1969), won the Nissen-Emery Award, collegiate gymnastics’ version of the Heisman Trophy.
Wettstone’s Olympic teams did not fare so well. His athletes won no medals in the 1948 Games in London, though the team included the Penn State gymnasts Ray Sorensen and William Bonsall. Wettstone’s team took sixth in team all-around at the Melbourne Games in 1956, the United States’ best showing since the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles.
Wettstone publicized his teams’ prowess by bringing major events to Penn State, including three N.C.A.A. championships and four Olympic Trials. He also organized international meets with teams from Sweden, Switzerland, Japan and the Soviet Union. He regularly attracted crowds of more than 7,000 in the late 1960s; Jepson said meets nowadays draw about 5,000.
Wettstone was inducted into the United States Gymnastics Hall of Fame in 1963 and retired after winning the N.C.A.A. championship in 1976. The Gene Wettstone Award, given to the top Penn State gymnast, was introduced that year.
Eugene Wettstein was born on July 15, 1913, to Swiss immigrants in West Hoboken, N.J. (now a neighborhood of Union City). His father, August Wettstein, was a butcher, and his mother, Anna, was an embroiderer. He Americanized his surname because he thought having a Jewish-sounding name — even though he was not Jewish — would make it more difficult to find a job at a time when anti-Semitism was rife.
Wettstone took up gymnastics at a Swiss social club and went to the University of Iowa on a scholarship in the sport. He won Big Ten titles on the pommel horse and the high bar and in the all-around as a senior in 1937 before graduating with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in physical education. He married Eleanor Keen that year in Iowa City.
Wettstone was hired by Penn State in 1939 and instructed officer candidates there in physical education during World War II.
He lived the rest of his life in State College, most recently in an elder-care facility.
His first wife died in 2006. In addition to his son Jerry, Wettstone is survived by another son, Richard; two daughters, Janet Lyle-Gardner and Laurie Humphreville; his second wife, Ann; her sons, Lance and Douglas; eight grandchildren; and 14 great-grandchildren.
Wettstone thought the only way United States gymnasts could compete with their Russian or Chinese counterparts was through a much more dedicated training regimen.
“We’ve got 10 times as many kids competing in gymnastics as some of the countries that beat us,” he told The New York Times in 1972. “The trouble is, our kids are scattered all over the place, training under different coaching systems. The other countries trap their best gymnasts.”