Jan. 28, 2003
Your first glimpse of Barry Weiner suggests a quiet, unassuming man who would be the last person to draw attention to himself.
Sporting his trademark gray Cal sweatsuit-a circa 1960 coaching look, only lacking a whistle-the soft spoken Weiner seems quite comfortable sitting behind the desk in his modest office on the second floor of the Golden Bear Recreation Center.
But looks can be deceiving, for Barry Weiner-who has coached the men's gymnastics team to two NCAA titles and six Top 5 finishes in his 10 seasons at Cal-once lived a life of daily peril. For seven years, he was a star attraction in the circus.
That's right, the circus.
"After the fire dive and the sponge plunge, I figured I could handle Berkeley!" said Weiner, flashing a wide grin.
A native of the Philadelphia area, Weiner grew up like many East Coast kids, with athletics a centerpiece of his childhood.
"I played all sports and was a decent ballplayer," recalled the two-time National Coach of the Year. "I played Little League and sandlot football. When I went to junior high school, they took you on a tour of the school. They took me to the cafeteria and there was this guy who was doing the flying rings. I thought that was really cool."
Weiner deemed it so "cool" that, in seventh grade, he tried out for gymnastics.
"I liked to swing on the bar, flip and twist," he said. "I spent the next few years at the Germantown YMCA. I would take three buses across the city to get there. At the time, I wasn't old enough to be a member, so I had to sneak in through the window of the gym."
He formed a friendship with the YMCA staff, who admired his determination. At age 15, he obtained a membership there and went on to represent Germantown at the YMCA Nationals as a high school senior. After finishing second at the meet, Weiner enrolled at nearby Temple University, where the Owls advanced to two Final Fours during his tenure.
He went on to win All-America awards, but-by his own admission-"was not quite championship caliber." So, what does an All-American gymnast do when he's finished college? He joins the circus.
"I began diving in the show-spring board diving, which led to doing the high dive," Weiner said. "The more things you could do, the more money you made."
Weiner joined an entertainment company called the Steel Pier Divers, who performed four times daily at the Atlantic City pier.
"There was a hole in the pier, which we dove through into the ocean," recalled Weiner. "During the summer, they had all kinds of entertainment acts out there. They had rock bands, street musicians. At the end of the pier was the diving show."
His antics with the Steel Pier Divers led to another gig at Great Adventure Park in New Jersey, followed by an international circus tour in Japan and Greece. His specialties were the high dive and the fire dive.
"On the fire dive, I'd put on a hooded sweat suit, jump in the water, then take a towel and dip it in kerosene," explained the Bears' coach. "Then I would wrap the towel around my neck and climb up the ladder. You'd actually hear yourself get lit. You'd stand there at the top, and if the wind was at your face, you could stand there longer."
But he adds, "If the wind was at your back, though, you'd better hurry and dive into the pool!"
So, just how dangerous was it?
"Let's put it this way," revealed Weiner. "By the end of the summer, I had no eyebrows. And if you ever had a hole in your suit, you'd know it! The fire would find its way. You made sure you repaired your suit before the next jump."
In Japan, he performed at an amusement park in Tokyo that attracted 100,000 people. In Greece, he was part of Maxwell Productions' "American Water Show," which featured a young Weiner performing with a school of dolphins.
After the overseas trip, he joined a U.S. tour called "Europarama."
"We performed a balancing act with Coke bottles, stacked chairs and stuff," said Weiner. "We used a road motorcycle and did tricks on a trapeze bar, too. And since I was Jewish, they made me 'Barry Weiner from Israel!'"
One year, the Europarama made a stop at San Francisco's Cow Palace, and in off hours, Weiner visited Berkeley and observed Hal Frey's Cal men's gymnastics team practice in the old Harmon Gym.
Little did he know, that some day, he would be wearing Frey's shoes.
After a few years on the circuit, Weiner changed directions and formed a circus comedy act on his own. He had learned that the plum jobs were held by performers from long-time circus families. At the age of 28, he retired from the business.
"The circus life had kind of isolated me," he admitted. "I didn't own a driver's license until I was 26, and I really didn't know what I wanted to do. I decided to see if I could relate with youngsters, and over the next 10 years, I found out I could."
After all, what kid couldn't relate to a former circus dare devil? Weiner worked for the Surgents Elite Gym School, a private gymnastics school in central New Jersey. Eventually, he left the school and coached top young gymnasts privately.
"At some point, the school became more concerned with making money," he said. "The problem was, I just wanted to make gymnasts. I became a 'pied piper' of sorts, going from gym to gym, and many gymnasts followed me."
In the late 1970s, Weiner was recruited by the U.S. Junior Olympic Team to join its coaching staff. After developing Junior National champions Robbie Campbell (later a UCLA All-American) and J.D. Reive (a child prodigy who eventually starred at Nebraska), he left the U.S. team to accept the head coaching job at Cal in 1991.
He inherited a men's gymnastics program that was in shambles. The Bears endured a nightmarish 1-18 season the year before, and Weiner had less than one full scholarship equivalent to use on his first team. Remarkably, he transformed that former 1-18 squad into a unit that posted a 15-13 record in his maiden season.
Slowly, Weiner began to make headway in rebuilding the program. His second year, Cal registered a 16-7 mark in '93, then reeled off records of 20-11, 15-2-1 and 16-1 in consecutive years. Since then, his Bears have, incredibly, enjoyed perfect seasons in four of the last five years with showings of 17-0 in 1997, 23-0 in '98, 16-0 in '00 and 11-0 in '01.
Weiner started to land national caliber gymnasts, awarding scholarships to David Kruse and Andrew Mason, and adding "super walk-on" Trent Wells in 1995. All three were Top 10 finishers at the 1996 NCAA championships, with Kruse serving as team captain for three years and earning multiple All-American honors.
Weiner and his Golden Bears rocked the college gymnastics world soon thereafter, claiming national team championships in both 1997 and 1998. Last year's team roared to a 15-3 record and third-place NCAA finish, and reigning national champion Cody Moore (first in the parallel bars, second on the pommel horse) returns to lead this year's team.
Moore, a former National Merit Scholar, is the poster boy for Weiner's formula for success at Cal. Operating with only 2.8 full scholarships (out of an NCAA-allowable 6.3), the Bears' coach has creatively added quality gymnasts to his program through traditional need-based aid. Moore, who has earned a career 3.3 grade point average in physics, is a prime example on a men's gymnastics team that boasts a collective 3.2 GPA.
"Ultimately, what I really get to offer young men is the education at Berkeley, not your picture on a box of Wheaties," Weiner summed up.
And two final notes to the Barry Weiner Story, filed under the chapter of life coming full circle:
Prior to the Bears' dual meet against nationally-ranked Iowa on March 16, the Cal men's gymnastics program will honor former coach Hal Frey-the same Hal Frey that Weiner met in Berkeley between circus performances some 35 years ago.
And later in April, the NCAA championships will be held at Temple University in Philadelphia, the place that prepared Barry Weiner-circus performer turned gymnastic coach-for his high-flying adventures of life.