Hall of Fame induction a bright spot in ASU gymnastics

John Spini was all smiles last Wednesday as he was inducted into the USAG Arizona Gymnastics Hall of Fame.

He had every right to enjoy the honor, which is probably long overdue.  The head women’s gymnastics coach at Arizona State, who just finished his 30th year at the helm, has led the Sun Devils to no less than 20 NCAA Championship appearances, nine of those resulting in top-five finishes.

But just a couple of months ago he had little to smile about.  ASU finished dead last at the Pac-10 Championships, with a score of 190.675 – the team’s lowest score in more than 10 years.  UCLA took the conference title with a score of 197.350.

Spini had been competing all year without his top athlete from last year’s squad, Beate Jones, who was sidelined with an injury.  But even his All-American, Mary Atkinson, showed poorly, missing on her vault routine.

“I am absolutely fuming,” he said after the meet.  “Not disappointed; I am actually mad.”  He felt that his athletes had let him down, not performing up to their abilities.

Atkinson had been able to keep the team in contention throughout the season, but the final result was a 2-11 overall record and 2-4 in conference.

It was a far cry from the days when ASU was considered a gymnastics powerhouse.  They were runners-up for three national crowns in the ’80s and, as late as 1997, had another runner-up finish.

Spini’s program took a hit in 2001 when the team’s practice facility was torn down and practices were moved off-site to a facility Spini owns in Chandler.  It was five years later before the new practice facility, named in his honor, was opened.  He feels those years without a facility on campus took a toll on the program.

He told a reporter early in this season: “I want to get this team back to nationals.  I want to prove that Arizona State is one of the top programs.”

This year couldn’t be considered a step toward that goal.

The team did recover somewhat after the debacle at the Pac-10 Championships, making it to the NCAA Regionals.  But they finished fifth.

Atkinson became Spini’s 27th All-American during his career at ASU, finishing ninth on vault at the Championships.  His athletes have brought home 81 All-America honors.

But the program has been sputtering of late.  In 2008, the Devils finished 7th in the Pac-10 and 6th in the region.  And 2009 wasn’t much brighter, as the squad finished 6th in the Pac-10 and 5th at regionals.

But the 2010 season was one Spini undoubtedly wants to forget.  It has tried the patience of one of the most even-keeled coaches in the sport, one who is accustomed to winning at a national level.

The Devils finished the season ranked 32nd nationally.  California was even worse, concluding at No. 56.  Those schools were the only two in the conference who failed to score 48 or more points in any event this year.

Spini needs two more seasons at ASU to become the longest-tenured coach in the school’s history.  Any more seasons like the last, and those next two years will seem like an eternity.

Especially for a Hall of Fame coach.

(Photo: ASU Athletics)