John McGrath

John McGrath: Hall of Fame inductee Tom Mustin still dreaming

Tom Mustin served as head coach for the USA Olympic boxing team in 2000, at Sydney.
Tom Mustin served as head coach for the USA Olympic boxing team in 2000, at Sydney. AP file, 2000

When Tom Mustin turned 70 on Feb. 27, he figured it would be just like any other day at the Tacoma Boxing Club, his home away from home for the past 45 years.

“I was in the gym,” he recalled Thursday, “and after I worked the hell out of the kids, a group of parents brought some presents and a cake and they sang ‘Happy Birthday.’ That was my big sha-bang.”

The celebration was consistent with the boxing coach’s determination to keep things in the key of low. Whether it has to do with confronting a judge about an unfavorable scorecard (“I don’t do that. Never have and never will, because it’s not gonna help.”) or preaching self-discipline at the Al Davies Boys and Girls Club, Mustin believes poise is both a virtue and a survival skill.

“The kids that are good boxers are the ones who can get hit and keep their cool,” he said. “When you’re hit, it’s natural to get angry, but you have to keep your emotions in check. The kids who can’t do that are the ones who don’t make it.”

Under Mustin, hundreds of competitors have made it to national and international championships since he became the Tacoma Boxing Club’s head coach in 1978. His selfless service will be recognized at the Tacoma Dome Exhibition Hall on Thursday, when the Stadium High grad is inducted into the Tacoma-Pierce County Sports Hall of Fame class of 2016.

The honor points to Mustin’s ability to keep the boxing club afloat. A year ago, diminished donations had him fearing the best local boxers no longer would be able to travel. But Propel Insurance signed on as a sponsor, the Tacoma Athletic Commission chipped in, and the Buffalo Soldiers motorcycle club put together some fundraisers.

Mustin will take nine fighters to Dallas in a few weeks for the U.S. Junior Olympics, a reality that appeared unthinkable 13 months ago, when he described the boxing club’s financial state as “dire.”

Although the club provides stimulating recreation for its 97 members, many of them teenagers looking for something to do after school, Mustin’s worries have to turned to the long-range health of boxing. He’s convinced the International Boxing Association — AIBA — is wrong in its decision to ban headgear from men’s events.

Some studies have shown a correlation between head protection and concussions. The pad, opponents argue, creates a larger target for a punch and a false sense of security.

“I don’t buy it,” Mustin said. “You take away headgear, and the doctor ends up stitching one cut on the forehead after another. And then there’s the issue with parents: Until a boxer is 19, a parent has to give the OK for a kid to get into a ring. Eliminating headgear is going to scare off those parents.”

Mustin’s other concern pertains to the Olympic Games. Momentum is building toward opening up the competition to professional boxers.

“The dream of every amateur is to advance to the Olympics, just as it is for coaches,” said Mustin, who served as head coach for the USA Olympic boxing team in 2000, at Sydney. “I don’t want to see that dream taken away.”

Despite Mustin’s displeasure with the way these boxing wedge issues are trending, the former newspaper production manager — he retired eight years ago, after working more than 40 years at The News Tribune — has no plans to retire from his second job.

“It keeps me going,” he said, likening his role during a typical boxing-club session to that of the late football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, who famously oversaw practices from a tower. “If I weren’t coaching, what would I do? Sit around the house all day and do nothing? I enjoy this, even if it seems like drudgery sometimes.”

The past few weeks have been especially challenging. Mustin’s mother, Hildred, died May 29 at the age of 87. The oldest of eight children, Mustin found himself playing big brother during the ultimate crisis, “holding the whole family together ...

“One of the reasons I became a boxing coach is that I wanted to make her proud of me,” he said. “I think she was.”

The Tacoma Boxing Club, by the way, will be represented at Rio de Janeiro in August. Super heavyweight Elvis Garcia qualified for the Summer Games at the 2015 Mexican Olympic Trials. And though Garcia is competing for Mexico, his club coach couldn’t be more proud.

“We’ve got an Olympic boxer,” said Mustin. “That’s the dream.”