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   from the issue of August 23, 2007

Big Red 'gym bum' chalks 40 years


Francis Allen is at home amid clouds of chalk, the forgiving thump of padded mats and the occasional groan of an Iron Cross.

DEDICATED COACH - Husker men's gymnastics coach Francis Allen watches a routine during an Aug. 9 practice. Allen - who was a...
 DEDICATED COACH - Husker men's gymnastics coach Francis Allen watches a routine during an Aug. 9 practice. Allen - who was a member of the Husker men's gymnastics team from 1960-1965 - will be among the 22 employees honored for 40 years of university service during the Aug. 30 Service Awards ceremony in the Lied Center for Performing Arts. Photo by Troy Fedderson/University Communications.

"I'm a gym bum," said the Husker men's gymnastics head coach after critiquing a senior's tumbling pass. "This is all I've ever wanted to be. This is what I was made to do."

Allen's dedication to the university - starting as a student in 1962, then stepping into a coaching role after graduation - will be honored as he is among 22 UNL faculty and staff who will receive 40 year honors during the Employee Service Awards ceremony on Aug. 30.

"I can't believe I've really been here for 40 years," Allen said. "I'm not really a reflective kind of guy. My focus is reserved for my students, my team and the season."

He set down gymnastic roots in Lincoln as a youth. While living along West O Street, Francis spent many days at a nearby swimming pool. Then Lincoln Northeast gymnastics coach Tom Kidd came by the pool and started talking about working on gymnastics.

"He invited all of us monkeys out to work on stuff in the gym with him during the day," Allen said. "At night, one of our neighbors had a trampoline and he taught us how to do stuff on it."

Allen was a state gymnastics champion for Lincoln High School. That success carried over into college where Allen helped the Huskers win back-to-back Big 8 titles in 1963 and 1964. He was also a national gymnastics all-around finalist from 1962 to 1964, finishing as high as fourth (1964).

During his sophomore year with the Huskers, Allen discovered his desire to coach.

"I started working with gymnasts out at Union College and found I really enjoyed it," Allen said. "That led to some teaching in a dance studio. It was a bit different, but I still really liked working with the students."

When he graduated from UNL in 1965, Allen was approached about a coaching position at the University of Arizona.

"They were really interested in hiring me, but I really wasn't interested in the offer," Allen said. "I wanted to stay in Lincoln and keep building on the success we started here.

"That decision helped me establish roots here. And, it's what has kept me here all these years."

Allen has served as the men's gymnastics head coach since 1969.

He is a nine-time national coach of the year, leading the Huskers to an unprecedented five-straight national titles (1979 to 1983) and 17 straight NCAA appearances (1979 to 1995). The Huskers have competed in 23 of the last 28 NCAA championships, advancing to the finals 16 times.

Allen's gymnastics service has also grown into the national and international scenes. He has served with the NCAA and on a number of gymnastics committees. He also headed up the United States Olympic team in 1980 and 1992.

"Coaching at the Olympics was an awesome experience," Allen said. "But, it taught me that I would rather coach at the college level.

"It's the commitment these guys give to the program that makes this place so special."

That commitment is a reflection of Allen - who often uses his own hands to better the program.

He continues to sew hand grips for Husker athletes on a machine in his Devaney Center office. He also helped redesign a retractable trampoline mat (based on a Russian design) and even helped build the Husker men's practice floor.

"I'm 65 now, so I suppose I'll start to consider retirement in two, three or four years," Allen said. "I have some great assistant coaches and they allow me more time to work out. I'm actually in better shape now than I used to be."

Any departure will be difficult for Allen - especially when it's a job he was born to do.

"Overall, I've enjoyed my entire career at UNL," Allen said. "How can it get any better than spending 40-plus years in a gymnasium?"



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