One of college wrestling's premier events is coming to Williams Arena on Friday night, and Gophers coach J Robinson will be there in all his glory, even if he's hobbled on crutches.
Robinson, 66, nearly lost his left leg last month when a severe infection ravaged his artificial left knee. After undergoing surgery to remove the knee and missing several meets, he'll be back on the sideline, hoping for another National Duals championship.
This event is not to be confused with next month's NCAA Championships, which crown a team champion based on the success of individual wrestlers in their respective weight classes. In the National Duals, every match counts, so it's more of a true team competition. The third- seeded Gophers face Virginia Tech on Friday night, with the winner potentially facing second-seeded Iowa in Saturday afternoon's semis and top-seeded Oklahoma State in Saturday night's finals.
In other words, some bitter rivals should meet again.
"Oh yeah," Robinson said. "It's pure unadulterated hatred."
Yes, the fire still burns within Robinson, even after this latest health scare. If anybody should have known the dangers of leaving an infection untreated, it's him.
By his count, he's been through more than 50 surgeries, including at least 35 to his knees. He had his first knee replacement done in 1994, and that left knee has since been replaced two other times.
"I had an abscessed tooth last summer and just kept putting it off," Robinson said. "It was kind of stupid on my part."
Robinson eventually had the tooth treated, but the infection still spread to his left knee. In early January, the knee was so swollen, he couldn't walk. He had it drained twice, and the second time his doctor urged him to get to the Mayo Clinic.
"Had he not sent me there, it could have been a lot worse," Robinson said. "I could have lost my leg."
Unable to put weight on his left leg, Robinson looks considerably thinner and weaker than he did in November. But he is slowly getting his energy back and hopes to have yet another knee installed after the season.
For now, he's just happy to be back around the team he's coached since 1986. In his office this week, he slowly propped his left leg onto his desk.
"One thing I've learned in my life is that purpose is important," he said. "I see people that retire, and they have no purpose, and then they kind of just wither away.
"Even when you feel bad, you come here, and there's this energy of guys wanting to win national tournaments. And that energy rubs off on you. I can recuperate with my leg up here just as well as I can at home. And here I get a lot more grief from all the guys."
Robinson guided the Gophers to NCAA titles in 2001, 2002 and 2007. He's also proud of the team's seven titles at the National Duals. For a quarter-century, Robinson has pushed to make the National Duals a separate focal point on the wrestling calendar. The Gophers won last year's revamped Duals, defeating Iowa and Oklahoma State in the semifinals and finals.
As was the case a year ago, many of the nation's top wrestlers will compete.
"The beauty of this tournament is there are [seven] No. 1 guys here," Robinson said, citing the nation's top-ranked wrestlers at 125 pounds, 133, 149, 157, 165, 174 and heavyweight according to Intermat. "So you're going to see great wrestling."
Seven of the nation's top eight teams are also competing, but it's still an invitational. Top-ranked Penn State, as it did last year, chose not to enter.
Mike Moyer, president of the National Wrestling Coaches Association, said the hope is that every top program will compete for the National Duals title next year. A big turnout at Williams Arena this weekend wouldn't hurt.
"One of the reasons I'm glad it's coming to Minnesota is no one's been more supportive than J Robinson," Moyer said. "It's great that it's on his campus."