RIVER FALLS, WIS. – Room 106 in Johnson Hall looks like any other college dorm room. There’s a twin bed with thin mattress, papers strewn across a desk, a mini fridge with a microwave resting on top and an oscillating fan struggling to keep the place cool.
The room’s occupant is 71 years old with a laundry list of physical ailments. He doesn’t have to be here. Yet J Robinson plans to spend roughly 20 nights in July in this dorm on the University of Wisconsin-River Falls campus surrounded by kids at his wrestling camp.
“You can’t ask other people to do what you wouldn’t do yourself,” he says. “You can’t tell other people to go to camp and then live in a hotel.”
This is where the former Gophers wrestling coach devotes his time and energy since being fired by the university last September after 30 seasons.
He remains a legendary figure at his camps, as evident by the 246 teenagers taking part in Robinson’s 28-day intensive camp.
Robinson has not spoken publicly since his termination stemming from a drug scandal that rocked his storied program. Robinson agreed to an interview after I showed up at his camp unannounced on Thursday.
“This isn’t the first bump in the road that has happened in my life,” he said. “People say every time the Lord shuts one door, he opens another one. I don’t like standing in the hallway. I don’t care what door gets opened. I just want to go do something that has value.”
A year removed from coaching has not diminished Robinson’s frustration and disappointment over the way his Hall of Fame career ended.
He envisioned a grand farewell befitting a three-time national champion. Instead, his messy departure stained his legacy.
New athletic director Mark Coyle fired Robinson for his handling of an alleged drug ring involving a group of his wrestlers. Coyle cited a lack of cooperation by Robinson with his superiors in dealing with the issue. Robinson vehemently disagrees with that notion, saying he followed proper university protocol and blames school leaders for not adhering to their own policies.
“Everybody is only interested in the sensationalism of the whole thing,” he said. “Nobody was interested in the facts.”
The saga began when an anonymous member of Robinson’s team reported to police that a dozen teammates were using and selling Xanax pills on campus. The wrestler told police that Robinson learned about the problem and offered “amnesty” to two wrestlers if they wrote apology letters and turned over the drugs to him.
Robinson says he’s the only person who knows all the facts but declined to share them in our conversation. He said he was instructed to present his side to a university review board but was never given that opportunity. The university disputes the notion that he wasn’t given a chance to tell his side.
Robinson said he recently lobbied to get his job back during a grievance hearing with a three-person university panel. He knows the odds of that happening are less than zero.
Asked if he has any regrets, Robinson said, “It’s disappointing when you work for people for 30 years and nobody comes to help you.”
Robinson irritated university officials over the years with his willingness to speak his mind on issues, a former Army Ranger unafraid to challenge authority. He gave a revealing and classic J Robinson answer when asked about his legacy.
He referenced the accusation that he took matters into his own hands when faced with a serious drug situation inside his program because he wanted to “protect” his players. He said it’s unfair to ask if he would handle the same situation differently because hindsight provides a clear picture.
“Everybody wants to be judgmental about it,” he said. “But the bottom line is, if it’s your son or daughter, you’d tell the person what you want them to do. You know what most people will say? ‘I want you to take care of them, Coach. Help restore and repair them because I’m trusting you with the most precious thing I can give you, my son or daughter.’ ” …
“So the question is: What are you willing to do to accept that trust? …
“It’s a question you don’t want to answer. Yeah, I want to answer it when I’m sitting inside your house and everything is comfortable and cozy. But when the [situation] is going down, what are you going to do, Coach? Are you going to really help them or not? Tell me what your standard, your word, your level of excellence, you honor is. Tell me what you’ll do.”
Robinson made his own decision and lives with the consequences. The ceremonial sendoff didn’t happen, but he’s still doing what he loves, coaching wrestling and roughing it, showing the campers how it’s done.