© Renee Jones Schneider

By Rachel Blount – Star Tribune

Like an archaeologist on a dig, Mike Burns knelt on Cooke Hall’s ancient gym floor and peeled back the present to reveal the history underneath. “See that?” the Gophers men’s gymnastics coach said, lifting the corner of a blue landing cushion. “That’s a horsehair mat. Probably original.”

The gym overflows with oddities such as that thin, horsehair-stuffed pad, which likely has covered the floor since the days when the Big Ten awarded titles in flying rings and tumbling. There’s the wooden catwalk, built by team alumni in 1979 to create extra space in the cramped, 4,140-square-foot room. The vault runway is 20 feet too short, and the floor exercise area is a fraction of regulation size.

Burns’ little corner of Cooke Hall can feel like claustrophobia coated in chalk dust, particularly when it’s filled with upward of a dozen twisting, flipping athletes. But a building erected in 1934 and a program that won its first Big Ten title in 1903 have proved to be survivors, even as the sport has shrunk to only 16 NCAA teams.

The Gophers are ranked fifth in the country entering Friday’s meet in Iowa City against No. 11 Iowa and No. 1 Oklahoma. The U has demonstrated a commitment to the program in the short term by bidding to host the NCAA championships in the 2019-2022 quadrennium. Looking at the long run, Burns said athletic director Mark Coyle has pledged upgrades for Cooke Hall, a sign that the program remains on solid ground.

As much of a relief as that is, Burns isn’t yearning for an extreme makeover, even on the days when a heating unit clogged with chalk dust drops the temperature in his office below 60 degrees.

“It’s a hard sell from a recruiting standpoint,” said Burns, the Gophers’ coach since 2005. “It’s an old building with a lot of quirks. At the same time, that’s part of the charm.

“The guys who decide to come here, as soon as they walk in, they say, ‘Wow, this fits like a glove.’ It has a real homey feeling. The idea of moving to something bigger and better is appealing, but to lose the history of this building would be hard.”

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