Image provided by: University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries, Lincoln, NE
About The daily Nebraskan. ([Lincoln, Neb.) 1901-current | View Entire Issue (Feb. 5, 1997)
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1 Allen's coaching.
The Bob Devaney Sports Center is built, and
wins its first Big Eight title under Allen, placi
at the NCAA Championships.
The Huskers win every dual n
the season, claiming the first ■
straight national championshii i
Husker coach Allen
builds NU tradition
ALLEN from page 1
people,” Nebraska Athletic Director
Bill Byrne says, “both professionally
and personally. What he brings to this
Athletic Department is a great sense
of balance. All he does is win, and he
cares about everyone else.”
Twice Allen coached the U.S.
Olympic Team, and his NU gymnasts
own 146 All-America honors. Allen’s
list of accomplishments is unmatched
by any coach in Husker history, yet his
recognition pales in comparison to
many of his NU peers.
But Allen doesn’t mind.
“I’m a gym bum,” he says. “I love
gymnastics. Some nights I’ll wake up
and throw in a tape, and I’ll know im
mediately what a kid is doing wrong.
We can fix it, and that’s the greatest
thing about coaching.”
Building a dynasty
Francis Allen grew up in Nebraska
and attended Lincoln High School.
After performing as an NU gymnast
for four years on a mediocre team, he
entered graduate school to pursue a
master’s degree in physical education.
As an undergraduate, Allen and NU
Coach Jake Geier rarely saw eye-to
confidence come naturally to Allen.
“He’s got the personality,” Ne
braska Women’s Gymnastics Coach
Dan Kendig says. “I know he has had
opportunities to move into administra
tion, but he loves what he’s doing so
much that he continues to do it. He’s
like a friend to everybody.
“I’ll be out recruiting, and I’ll say
I’m from Nebraska, and people all over
the country will say, 'Oh, Francis
Allen.’ So then I’ll use it sometimes.
That’s my foot in the door.”
Through Allen’s door, pieces of his
legacy are strewn throughout his of
fice. Trophies and medals sit forgot
cut soon, Allen says, I realized
what he was trying to do, and our rela
tionship grew to the point that he
trusted me to run the program when
he retired.” £> /
In 1969, Allen took over.
“He absolutely studies gymnas
tics,” says Jim Howard, who competed
at Nebraska with Allen and returned
as an assistant coach in 1976. “He
knows gymnastics inside and out.
That’s his whole life, and it has been
for many, many years.”
Allen often takes his expertise
overseas, traveling five times to China,
seven times to Japan and 10 times to
“He has seen it all,” says Dennis
Harrison, an all-around national cham
pion under Allen in 1994, the season
of NU’s most recent national title.
“He’s confident in his teams, and that
definitely shows on the floor.
“Judges and other coaches tend to
pick up on that. When the University
of Nebraska walks on the floor, other
people stop and recognize that.”
Allen’s demeanor and attitude give
NU an edge in competition, Harrison
says, both psychologically and with the
“When he’s feeling good,”
Harrison says, “the whole team is feel
The attitude, the swagger and the
When he's feeling
good, the whole
team is feeling
former NU gymnast
ten on the shelves, but"Allen’s pres
ence at Nebraska will always be re
Allen created tradition. When he
came to Nebraska, nothing existed.
When he leaves, his footsteps will
be nearly impossible to fill, in part be
cause few coaches can match Allen’s
success with such limited resources.
Pummelled by Title IX legislation
in recent years, men-s gymnastics re~|
ceives less funding than nearly every*
Cornhusker program. But if
Nebraska’s model of consistency is^
jealous of the “revenue” sports, it’s not
“He always shows up everywhere,”
Byrne says. “He’s an absolute team
player. It doesn’t matter if it’s Francis
at a basketball game or a volleyball
match, he’s always there. I really value
Allen says he shows up because he
values Nebraska, and he appreciates
the university’s support.
“We have an allegiance with our
people,” he says, “and our people have
an allegiance with us, too.”
‘Teacher at heart’
Francis Allen builds that kind of
allegiance wherever he goes, and each
year he walks into dozens of gyms. But
in nearly 40 years, he says, nothing
compares to the Chinese gymnastics
headquarters, which he visited in late
It was a nondescript building, he
says, void of the sensationalism and
pageantry one would expect to see in
the center that houses the world’s best
“I was the first white man ever in
their training gym,” Allen says. “(Di
rector of Chinese Gymnastics Gao
Jian) was beaming when he took me
in. He took me up to their junior gym
nasts, and he made them do a whole
bunch of stuff for me. Then he asked
Upon returning to Nebraska, Allen
shared his new knowledge of the Chi
nese with the brass of the U.S. National
Team, among other coaches and
“He comes back and he makes a
million copies of takes he took over
there,” Kendig says. “He sends them
to everybody to help them as a good
Allen’s extensive international ex
perience contributes heavily to his
teaching techniques. In many ways, he
is simultaneously a coach ahead of his
time and behind his time. He has been
for three decades.
“I’m a teacher at heart,” Allen says.
“My life’s profession is teaching.
FRANCIS ALLEN’S office at the Bob Devaney Sports Center is like a time capsule. Allen and his gymnasts moved into
Coaching is teaching, but you’re just
in an elite group.”
The Chinese asked Allen to return
to Asia for a month in November. Allen
says he will eventually accept the in
vitation, reuniting the coach of the
1980 and 1992 U.S. Olympians with
Gao, a fixture in the Chinese gyms for
Allen and Gao met in the late 1970s
while coaching against each other in
ternationally. In 1979, the year before
the United States boycotted the Olym
pic Games in Moscow, Gao traveled
to Fort Worth, Texas, to work as a
judge at an international meet.
“The judges all wore blue blazers,”
Allen says. “Gao didn’t have one. He
had some weird Chinese blazer. You
could tell he didn’t want to wear that
So Allen bought Gao a blue blazer
at a local department store.
“It was 18 bucks,” Allen says.
“Ever since then, I’ve been his buddy.”
Allen’s buddy invited the NU
coach and Jason Christie — a former
Husker whom Gao originally mistook
for Allen’s son — to visit China in
1993. Allen didn’t go. But in October,
he and Christie, the lone Husker se
nior last season, made the journey
across the Pacific Ocean.
Allen spent three days observing
the Chinese, whose men won the
Olympic gold medal in Atlanta last
summer. Christie, who is studying the
Chinese language, enrolled at a uni
versity in Beijing.
“They are the best,” Allen says of
the Chinese gymnasts. “They have all
the right social attitudes for gymnas
tics. They’re poor. They’re dirt poor,
and the only way they can get ahead is
through sports. Seeing them was the
highlight of my coaching career.”
Allen’s career is checkered with
highlights. When he came to NU, the
gymnasts practiced in the field house
north of Memorial Stadium. They soon
outgrew that area and moved to Mabel
Lee Hall, where the NU women’s team
now practices. In 1976, the Athletic
Department built the Devaney Center.
Allen and company got a closet.
“I came in when the building was
done,” Allen says, “and I told (Athletic
Director) Bob Devaney that he had
better go look at his gym. When you
walked into it, it looked like a hall
Contractors inadvertently built a
wall 14 feet from its designated posi
tion, adding to the size of the swim
ming pool’s north deck and eliminat
ing 20 percent of the gymnasts’ space.
Allen threatened to quit, but he later
learned to cope with his limited space,
thanks in part to Devaney’s sweet talk
“Bob and Francis sort of thought
on a similar wavelength,” says
Howard, NU’s assistant coach of 21
years. “Bob admired Francis’ efforts
and his personality. Without Devaney’s
support, the program probably would
not have lasted.
“The bottom line was that Francis
Allen’s endeavors and Bob Devaney’s
support really was the mix that made
the whole thing work.”
Three years later, Allen’s team won
its first national title. For each of the
next 17 years, NU qualified for the
NCAA Championships, a streak that
ended last season when an injury
riddled squad barely missed the cut.
In addition to providing the support
for Allen’s program, Devaney saved
Allen from Vietnam in 1969.
“I went to the pre-induction physi
cal,” he says. “But then Devaney wrote
them a letter and said they really
couldn’t find anyone of my caliber to
take over the coaching job. So they
gave me a deferment from Vietnam.”
Shortly before taking over the top
spot, Allen served as a graduate assis
tant in the physical education depart
ment, teaching fencing, weight lifting,
swimming and, of course, gymnastics.
“I was the new generation of gym
nastics coaches,” he says. “I trained
myself to coach, and that’s all I wanted
to do. The physical education depart
ment was really pissed off at me, be
cause all I did was coach.”
And coach he did.
“The thing I keep hearing from
Francis’ athletes is how much fun it is
to have him coach them,” Byrne says.
“He’s demanding, but he doesn’t ex
pect more from them than they can
In 1991, one year before former
Husker Trent Dimas won^an Olympic
gold medal on the high bar at the
Barcelona Olympics, Harrison com
pleted his first season in the NU pro
gram. He was one of four freshmen
enticed by Allen’s cool recruiting style.
As seniors, that group led the Husk
ers to a national title before a home
crowd at the Devaney Center.
“You don’t win a national champi
onship because you’re the best coach
in the world,” Allen says. “You have
the best people around you. There’s
some damn good coaches in this coun
try who will never win a national title
because they can’t work with people.”
I was the new generation of gymnastics
coaches. I trained myself to coach, and
that's all I wanted to do.''
NU men’s gymnastics coach
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