Legendary Penn State coach, Hall-of-Famer Wettstone dies at age 100
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. –- Penn State and college athletics mourns the passing of former men’s gymnastics head coach Gene Wettstone, a legend in the sport of gymnastics and the record-holder for most NCAA men’s team championships by a single coach in the sport.
Wettstone, who celebrated his 100th birthday earlier this month, passed away Tuesday morning in State College. Known for his foresight in the gym and his knack for promoting his program, Wettstone was inducted into the United States Gymnastics Hall of Fame in 1963.
“Gene Wettstone touched the lives of numerous Penn State student-athletes and countless others throughout the gymnastics community,” said Penn State Director of Athletics Dave Joyner. “He is viewed as the John Wooden of college gymnastics and was very highly respected worldwide in the gymnastics communities. Coach Wettstone was a great person and an outstanding tutor that brought Penn State and collegiate gymnastics to the forefront. He will be deeply missed by Penn Staters and many others around the world.”
A member of the Penn State coaching staff for 36 seasons, Wettstone led the Nittany Lions to an astonishing nine NCAA team championships and 13 Eastern Intercollegiate Gymnastics League (EIGL) crowns. He compiled more than 200 dual meet victories, coached his student-athletes to 35 individual national titles and produced 13 Olympians before retiring from coaching.
The Gene Wettstone Award, which is awarded to the top Nittany Lion gymnast each year, was founded in 1976 upon his retirement and internationally acclaimed artist Richard MacDonald created the sculpture that was dedicated in honor of Coach Wettstone in 2006. The sculpture, which is on permanent display in the Penn State All-Sports Museum, depicts a gymnast strained in the execution of a move called the "Flair" and exalts the determination, tenacity, and dedication inherent in the pursuit of excellence that Wettstone constantly strove for.
At Penn State, Wettstone oversaw 26 major events at Rec Hall, including three NCAA men’s championships, including the 1960 event which Penn State won, and four Olympic Trials. He also set a then-national record when 8,114 spectators attended a home meet versus Southern Connecticut State on Feb. 4, 1978. Crowds in excess of 7,000 were the norm in the late 60’s after Rec Hall's expansion.
Three of Wettstone’s student-athletes went on to win the Nissen-Emery Award, given annually to the nation’s top gymnast, an award equivalent to college football’s Heisman Trophy. Steve Cohen (1967), Bob Emery (1969) and Gene Whelan (1976) all earned the sport’s top distinction, with Emery having his name attached to the award in 1997 for his contributions to the sport.
Wettstone made two tours as the head coach of the U.S. Olympic men’s gymnastics team, serving as the frontman in 1948 and 1956, and was the manager of the 1976 U.S. Olympic squad. He was an Olympic judge during the 1952 and 1968 games and served on the U.S. Olympic Committee for 20 years. He also served as the national AAU Vice-Chairperson from 1948-1956 and was a member of the NCAA Gymnastics Committee for 18 years.
One of the first recipients of the National Gymnastics Governing Board’s Master of Sport Award, Wettstone was known as an innovator both in the gym and on the promotion front. Largely responsible for the growth in popularity of NCAA gymnastics, Wettstone’s meets inside of the historic Recreation Building were some of the best attended meets in the nation during his tenure in Happy Valley.
His love for the Penn State community was apparent upon his arrival in the University Park campus, as he helped revive the Nittany Lion mascot in 1939. Wettstone brought the mascot back after a 12-year hiatus and manned the outfit for one season before passing the responsibilities along to a student the next year.
Considered the Dean of Collegiate Gymnastics, Wettstone gave the sport of gymnastics amazing gifts of safety, visibility, and affection that transferred to his many protégés.
Wettstone also experienced success as a student-athlete at the University of Iowa, earning Big Ten titles on the pommel horse, high bar and in the all-around as a senior in 1937. Other awards for Wettstone include the Lifetime Achievement Award from his alma mater, as the Iowa Letterman's Club bestowed the honor upon him in 2005.