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OU gymnastics program rose from humble beginnings

BY RJ YOUNG, Staff Writer, ryoung@opubco.com Published: July 7, 2012

Oklahoma's football team has won seven national championships. The men's gymnastics program has won eight.

The football team boasts 153 All-Americans. The men's gymnastics team claims 231.

Five Heisman Trophy winners played at Oklahoma. Seven Sooners have won the Nissen-Emery Award, considered the Heisman Trophy of gymnastics

OU football began in 1895. OU men's gymnastics began in 1966.

Seven years later, a teacher at Chicago's Homewood-Flossmoor High School named Paul Ziert accepted a job coaching men's gymnastics at OU. When he arrived in Norman, he found he would be coaching in a building with no name, only a number.

Building 24 was hardly fit to practice gymnastics in. Fearing the roof might cave in, scaffolding was installed to hold it up during its latter years, and it constantly leaked.

“The room where we worked out was the theater where they showed movies and did entertainment,” Ziert said. “Up on the stage were the rings, and we had to run from the concession stand into the main room to do vaulting.”

Yet Ziert made it work. It took him three years to recruit the athletes he needed to compete, and one gymnast to make that team elite.

His name was Bart Conner.

Conner was the youngest member of the 1976 Olympic team, which was the same year he became a freshman at Oklahoma. He led OU to its first national championship in 1977 and helped the Sooners repeat in 1978.

“There were very, very good athletes on the team at that time,” Ziert said.

Ziert saw Conner become OU's first Nissen-Emery winner in 1981, paving the way for a succession of Sooner greats.