Gymnastics journey

Mineral Ridge native coaching for Crimson Tide

By John Bassetti


The University of Alabama’s football and gymnastics teams were enjoying back-to-back national championship seasons until 2013 kicked in.

The Crimson Tide’s gymnastics team ended short of its goal with a third-place finish nationally last spring while the football team’s hopes for a third straight national championship were dashed by Auburn last month.

After spending Christmas back home, Bryan Raschilla, a 1983 Mineral Ridge graduate and a member of the Alabama women’s gymnastics team coaching staff, will return to Tuscaloosa, Ala., with the 2014 season opener just weeks away.

“We’re currently a preseason No. 2 in the country, so we’re expecting big things,” the 48-year-old Raschilla said as he begins his 18th season with Alabama.

Alabama’s 17 women have been training since August.

Alabama’s football and gymnastics programs won back-to-back NCAA titles in 2011 and 2012.

What makes Raschilla unique is that he’s never done a gymnastics routine in his life. When he’s traveling while wearing his school’s apparel, he’s often mistaken for an Alabama football player.

No doubt, the 6-foot-5 Raschilla could put on a uniform and helmet and pass as one of Nick Saban’s players, but size is also what got Raschilla into gymnastics.

“There are those who wonder why someone who was pretty good in football would get into gymnastics,” Raschilla said of the impression of being out of his element. “Being 6-5 for gymnastics just doesn’t work. The average height of our gymnastics team at Alabama is 5-0.”

His gymnastics journey started when Raschilla was a high school senior and librarian/gymnastics coach Sue Jones asked if he’d help after his Mineral Ridge football practices.

“I never did a day of gymnastics in my life,” said Raschilla, who began his duties as a spotter. “She figured that if I could catch a football [as a tight end], I could catch kids [from falling during routines].

“When they’d flip and mess up or if they were too low, I’d make sure they weren’t going to land on their neck or break something. I didn’t realize at the time that gymnastics was going to turn into a career.”

Raschilla did that several days a week until he went to Mercyhurst College to play football. Despite having a partial athletic scholarship, Raschilla was concerned with the cost of college.

“I woke up one day and thought, ‘I’m a big burden to my dad,’ ” said Raschilla, who then transferred to Youngstown State University.

Jones eventually got him a job at the Ohio Gymnastics Institute in Austintown, where he not only spotted for young boys and girls, but also taught classes.

“I developed skills and knowledge from there,” Raschilla said.

After graduation, Raschilla found employment in Canton as a full time coach of developmental and advanced teams.

“My degree was in advertising, but there weren’t many jobs, especially since I thought I was making good money at the time.”

Raschilla’s best year in Canton was 1993 when he had seven athletes receive Division I scholarship offers, mostly to Big 10 schools.

However, the night and weekend schedule of working in gymnastics eventually became a reason to leave.

“I wanted to get married, but the evening hours and traveling 30 weekends a year took up a lot of time away from home,” Raschilla said. “My wife-to-be was a softball player at Ohio University, not a gymnast.”

Raschilla decided to try advertising, but he quickly learned that he didn’t like sitting behind a desk all day.

“That’s when I started getting calls from schools where I had gymnasts,” Raschilla said. “I developed relationships with college coaches who recruited when I was coaching in Canton.“

In 1994, Raschilla took a job at the University of Michigan as an assistant. In his first year, the Wolverines won the Big 10 championship and finished tied for second in the nation to Utah. It was Michigan’s highest finish — ironically, Michigan tied with Alabama.

After the Wolverines repeated as Big 10 champion, an assistant’s position opened at the Alabama. However, an obstacle developed.

“The Alabama coach called to ask for permission [to talk] and, at first, Michigan was OK with it,” Raschilla said. “The next day, they said that if I went on an interview, I’d no longer have the job.”

Raschilla, not knowing whether he was first or last on Alabama’s list, tried in vain to contact the Crimson Tide’s head coach, Sarah Patterson, and her volunteer coach and husband, Dave. But they were on a cruise.

“I had just gotten married — my wife was a nurse — and I couldn’t afford to give up our source of income when I didn’t know where I stood,” Raschilla said.

He told Michigan that he’d declined the interview, but, when the Pattersons returned, they weren’t happy about what had transpired.

“You are our No. 1 choice,” Sarah Patterson told Raschilla.

She tried twisting Raschilla’s arm, but his resolve was steadfast.

“I don’t have a lot in this world, but I do have my word and I gave that [to Michigan],” Raschilla said. “I gave my word that I wouldn’t interview.”

About an hour later, Patterson called, again.

“The way I grew up, giving your word is as good as anything on paper,” Raschilla said.

Patterson replied, “I know you gave your word, but you didn’t say your wife couldn’t come on an interview.”

As his proxy, Laura Raschilla made the plane ride to Tuscaloosa.

“I didn’t hear from her all weekend,” Raschilla said. “Sarah not only took Laura around the university, but to hospitals.”

Laura was being courted for employment as a nurse.

When Raschilla finally talked to his wife and Patterson, he was told: “If you want to see your wife again, you’ll have to come to Alabama.“

That light-hearted arm twisting worked.

“I could hear in her voice that she loved it there, so I knew it was the right move.

“I’ve got to give Coach Patterson credit for being creative and determined,” Raschilla said. “I remember asking her why I was at the top of her list. One of the reasons was that she didn’t like recruiting against me.”

During his time at Alabama, the Crimson Tide has won four SEC championships and three national titles: (2002, 2011 and 2012).

His most memorable was 2011 when the national competition was at Cleveland State University.

“To come back and win in the state where it started with friends and family around was pretty special,” Raschilla said.

His family lives in North Port, Ala., where his children, Adam, 15, and Kathryn, 12, are involved in athletics.

At 6-6 and 260 pounds, Adam, like his father, is not gymnast material, but he could be playing college football when the time comes.

“I’m still a Buckeyes fan, so he knows I wouldn’t mind if he played for Ohio State or Alabama,” Raschilla said.

Like her mother, Kathryn, is 6-feet tall and good at volleyball, basketball and softball.

“I tell people that Great Danes don’t make Chihuahuas.”

Whatever the height of Raschilla, his family or his gymnasts, the long and short of his career is simple: “I couldn’t have done much better,” he said.

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