A Big Leap

In Final Dismount, Nelligan Retires From Terps After 31 Years

April 23, 2009|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,mike.klingaman@baltsun.com

As a Maryland freshman, Brandi George brought lots of baggage to College Park. Her parents had just died six months apart, and George, a star gymnast, struggled to cope with the loss.

Her college coach vowed to see her through it. When George arrived on campus, Bob "Duke" Nelligan presented her with a hand-hewn basswood memory box in which to store family keepsakes. On the lid, he had carved the Chinese symbol for courage.

Moved to tears, George let her emotions spill out in just the kind of catharsis she needed.

"It takes a lot for me to open up and talk about my parents, but Duke is good about that," said George, now a junior and the Terps' top performer. "I needed a family away from home, and he has been that."

After 31 years, 490 victories and thousands of handsprings and straddle splits, Nelligan is retiring from Maryland. He has served six athletic directors and outlasted five football coaches.

At 59, Nelligan ranks sixth all time in coaching tenure at College Park, where he took over in 1979. That year, Gary Williams was sweating through suits at American and Ralph Friedgen was drawing X's and O's at The Citadel.

But Nelligan's legacy will be measured by more than longevity, those who know him said. He is a coach with a heart, the one you can call at 3 a.m. if your car breaks down or if a spat with a boyfriend makes you just want to talk.

It's a role he doesn't take lightly.

"I've had parents drop off their kids, then look me in the eye and say, 'Are you going to take care of my only daughter?' " Nelligan said. "Freshmen are very skilled in terms of their sport but not in life lessons. These women trust you implicitly to spot for them, both in the gym and out."

He's a surrogate dad who takes his charges sledding on the campus golf course, has them over for egg hunts at Easter and packs them sack lunches to ensure they eat right.

Last year, when a half-dozen gymnasts from Southern climes showed up without winter coats, Nelligan took them all shopping around town for hours.

"There's no other gymnastics coach like Duke in the U.S.," said Abbey Adams, a sophomore from Texas. "Last month, when my grandmother passed away, I walked into the gym and he gave me a hug and said that he cared about me and that if I needed anything, to just let him know.

"Duke has opened my eyes to a lot of things," Adams said. "He has taught me how to care about others."

Nelligan's focus on academics is well known. For the past four years, gymnastics has won the President's Cup, awarded to the university sport with the highest team grade-point average. Last year's squad had a 3.3 GPA in outperforming the 26 other teams at Maryland.

"Say what you will about the importance of wins and losses in sports, but that [academic] excellence is unparalleled," said Bonnie Bernstein, an ESPN reporter and former Terps gymnast. "Duke used to design practice around our exam schedules."

Once, before a meet at UCLA, Nelligan offered to drive Bernstein 100 miles up the coast so she could take an audition tape to a television station in Santa Barbara, Calif.

"He was instrumental in helping me to get my career rolling," said Bernstein, 38. "I have a very small circle of friends for whom I'd do anything, and Duke is in that circle. Everything he does for his gymnasts comes from the heart."

At Maryland, practice can be a hoot. It's not uncommon for Nelligan to lighten the mood by breaking into his "monkey dance," hopping first on one foot, then the other.

From across the gym, Nelligan's daughter, Kelsey - a member of the team - smiled and shook her head.

"He may be middle-aged," she said, "but he's a 12-year-old at heart."

There is method to his madness, the coach said.

"Athletes know I'm passionate about my sport, but let's keep this in perspective. It's supposed to be fun," said Nelligan, whose Maryland teams have made 18 NCAA regional championship appearances. "These are motor-sensory kids who got into gymnastics because they loved to jump on the bed and spin all around. Then, in their teens, they found themselves in the gym 24/7 and the sport became a job filled with pressure.

"My philosophy is to give them back their sport in college, to let them fall in love with it again. You can be successful and still enjoy it."

Last month, a celebration in Nelligan's honor in College Park drew 160 former gymnasts and their kin. Among those present were lawyers, teachers, med students and physical therapists.

"You can tell how truly interested Duke is in the whole student-athlete at Maryland from those who stay in touch with him," said Margie Cunningham, gymnastics coach at George Washington. "These women don't just disappear."

Nor will Nelligan vanish in retirement. His successor is his son, Brett, 28, who has been his assistant for six years.

"There's no way to keep my father out of the gym," Brett Nelligan said. "He loves it here, and he set such a good template for the program.

"He may be retiring, but he'll always be teaching about life."

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