When Mike Willson was studying in the library at Ohio State University he would sometimes take a break and walk around Larkins Hall. One time he walked into a room and thought the circus had come to town.
What Willson stumbled onto was an OSU gymnastics practice. And what he had no way of knowing was that he was staring straight into his future.
Before it was over Willson had coached teams to seven national junior college championships, one Division I NCAA National Championship at Ohio State, and four national runners-up. He coached 85 national junior college All-Americans, three Big Ten championship teams, and was on the U.S. Olympic Committee from 1968-72.
“I’d go watch the practices and one day the coach said, ‘You’re not going to learn anything watching. Why don’t you enroll in one of my classes?’” said Willson, a 1955 Hillsboro High School graduate.
Willson did. He took about every class the coach had to offer.
“At the end of them he asked, ‘How would like to come out for the team?’” Willson said.
Willson had never witnessed a gymnastics meet, but he had watched plenty of practices. He liked what he saw, so he accepted the offer.
He competed on the rings, parallel bars, and vault and was captain of the 1958 OSU gymnastics team. But he still had no idea that his real success would come as a coach.
Willson was born in Columbus on Nov. 8, 1957. When he was 3, his mother died from a blood clot after cancer surgery. He said his father was a sports editor for the Columbus Dispatch, but struggled with his wife’s death and raising Willson and his sister. Mike ended up in Hillsboro where was raised on West Walnut Street by his grandmother, Katherine Lynch, and aunt, Betty Lynch Hughes. His uncle, Bill Lynch, was a linotype operator for what then was The Press Gazette.
At HHS, Willson played basketball and baseball and ran some track. Then he headed to Ohio State where he had to work several part-time jobs to pay for his tuition, meals and expenses. He lived at his father’s house and drove to college each day for classes.
He also said he lifted weights a lot, weighed 160 and could bench press 300 pounds, and that it was his strength and speed that led to success in gymnastics.
Eventually, he landed a fellowship at Ohio State and was talked into going to a summer camp in Maine. While he was there, someone told him about a fellowship at the University of Buffalo where an assistant professor was needed to teach gymnastics and other classes.
After he had been at Buffalo for five years, he was told that he needed to start working at a summer camp, but for no additional pay. So Willson started sending his resume all over the country. He was eventually contacted by Odessa College in Odessa, Texas, where the movie “Friday Night Lights” was filmed. Odessa was dropping its football program (a virtual sin in Texas) and starting a men’s gymnastic team. The college offered him triple ($12,000 a year) what he was making at Buffalo, a car, to pay all his moving expenses and gave him and his family a place to live for a few months, plus another $1,000 to help raise money for the athletic program in the summer.
His first team at Odessa went 18-6 and won the Texas collegiate championship. The next year they were national junior college runners-up, then the next seven years in a row they won the junior college national championship.
Around the end of his 11-year run at Odessa, where he had another national runner-up team, Willson went to the Division I national gymnastics championships at Arizona State. The Ohio State coach at the time, who had been a Buckeye teammate of Willson’s at OSU, was there and said to him, “I’m retiring and I’m just going to teach. How would you like to be the coach at Ohio State?”
In 10 years at Ohio State, Willson’s teams went 142-32, won Big Ten Conference championships in 1983, 1985 and 1987, and a national championship in 1985. They placed in the top ten at the NCAAs nine consecutive years. Willson produced two individual NCAA event winners, 24 NCAA All-Americans, five NCAA Academic All-Americans, and 40 Big Ten Scholar Athletes.
In his 23-year coaching career his teams went 411-53. He received 13 Coach of the Year awards, served as vice president of the U.S. Gymnastics Federation, and as a U.S. coach for tours of Russia, Bulgaria, Canada and Cuba. He is a member of the Junior College Gymnastics Hall of Fame.
“I’m kind of curious about everything and I think I got a real good foundation coming up from nothing,” Willson said in describing the reason for his success. “I wanted all the kids, when they left me, to know that they worked their butt off and that there was no way they could have gone anywhere else and been any better.”
After coaching Willson served as a principal in three different school districts. He is retired and lives in Findlay.
Now, he has authored a book – “See You At The Top” – about it all.
“One day I was telling me wife, Helen, another one of my Odessa College or Ohio State gymnastics stories,” Willson wrote in the preface to his book. “The next day she came home from the store and placed a leather book and a pen on the table and said to me, ‘Here is the next chapter in your life. Every time we go to a meet, someone comes up to us and asks you how to teach that skill, so write this book for all the people who ask you all those questions, your former team members, and your sons who were on your teams.’”
Willson said the book is available on Amazon and at most major book stores in the Columbus area.
Reach Jeff Gilliland at 937-402-2522 or firstname.lastname@example.org.