Back in the mid-1970s, California prep gymnast Doug Day had offers for full athletic scholarships from the likes of UCLA, Southern California and Washington.
Instead, he accepted a partial scholarship to attend the University of New Mexico.
“I remember my mom (saying), ‘Are you crazy?'” Day recalled in a phone interview from his home in Colorado Springs, where he retired two years ago after a 15-year stint as the women’s gymnastics coach at the Air Force Academy.
Day, though, had never forgotten having attended a gymnastics event in Phoenix over the Christmas holidays during his junior year in high school. There, he’d met UNM men’s coach Rusty Mitchell for the first time.
What he’d learned was this: not only was Mitchell a brilliant gymnastics coach, he was the consummate spotter – using his strength, agility and alertness to prevent gymnasts from harm should they suffer a potentially dangerous fall on one apparatus or another.
“Coach,” Day said, “was the best spotter in the country. … He’d keep you safe.”
Says another former UNM gymnast, Highland High School graduate Matt Arnot: “If you don’t have the discipline, (gymnastics) is a very dangerous sport. … You always knew (Mitchell) had your back.”
On Saturday, Arnot, Day and hundreds of Mitchell’s former UNM athletes will gather at Johnson Center to attend a memorial service for their coach. Mitchell died on Feb. 25 after suffering a series of strokes in his later years. He was 80.
Because, yes, he always had their backs.
Mitchell’s accomplishments at UNM rival and arguably surpass those of any coach the university has employed in any sport: 11 Western Athletic Conference titles, 53 All-Americans, 16 NCAA individual champions, a fourth-place NCAA team finish in 1993. He served as Lobos head coach from 1966, when, as a 1964 U.S. Olympian, he took the job at age 24, until 1999, when UNM dropped the program.
In June 2010, hundreds of former UNM gymnasts gathered for a reunion – eager, of course, to get back in touch with former teammates. It was clear at the time, though, that Mitchell was the common denominator, the reason most of them had come. Many stories were told.
Days later, former UNM athletic director Gary Ness, in a Journal Sports Speak Up! submission, wrote of Mitchell: “I have never known a coach more respected by his athletes.”
That respect, Arnot said, was moored in honesty and transparency. A gymnast in Mitchell’s program, he said, always knew precisely what Mitchell expected of him and precisely what he could expect from Mitchell in return.
“Even though he was a disciplinarian, he was fair and he was consistent with everyone,” Arnot said. “It didn’t matter if you were the star on the team or if you were a walk-on, everyone got treated the same.
“That’s who he was, and I think the older we get as his athletes, the more we appreciate that.”
Nor did it hurt that, even into his 30s, Mitchell – a superb athlete – still could do everything his athletes could do on a gymnastics floor.
“Sometimes,” said Day, who competed at UNM from 1973-77, “he’d perform our routines to the exact skill and then say, ‘OK, it’s your turn. Let’s see you do better.’ He led by example.”
Gymnastics being an exacting sport, one could say Mitchell was its personification – a man who’d go to a restaurant and order exactly 10 french fries. Dealing with his perfectionism wasn’t always easy.
Yet, for the majority of his athletes who (as the NCAA likes to say) turned pro in something other than sports, it seems fair to say the work ethic Mitchell instilled in them was put to good use later in life.
Day, though, was one who followed Mitchell into coaching: 11 years as a men’s assistant at UNM, nine as an women’s assistant at Minnesota, 15 at Air Force.
During his time working for Mitchell, Day (who’d eventually gotten that full scholarship) was afforded a window into a Rusty he’d not seen before.
“He was a great husband, a great father,” Day said. “He really, really idolized his kids and his wife (Shayleen).”
Throughout his coaching career, until Mitchell suffered a stroke in 2016 that deprived him of the ability to speak, Day often called him for advice.
“He was a mentor, a colleague, and a great friend,” he said.
After UNM dropped men’s gymnastics in 1999 – the women’s program had died seven years before – Mitchell stayed on as a tenured physical education professor.
Teaching, as much as coaching, was what he did.
“There were kids at UNM,” Day said, “that took his tumbling class five times because they had so much fun.”
Rusty had their backs, too.