[Editor's note: This story appeared in the Feb. 1, 2002 edition of the Star Tribune. J Robinson was fired from the Gophers on Wednesday.]
It seemed like a safe bet. After all, J Robinson has had 38 surgeries, 28 of them on his knees. And, besides, when the wager was being finalized, Robinson was 35 pounds overweight and could barely climb a flight of stairs.
There was no way the 55-year-old Gophers wrestling coach could scale 14,152-foot Mount Shasta in California. No way.
"[Gophers assistant] Brandon Eggum had climbed Mount Shasta and there was a running argument with J that he couldn't do it," Gophers assistant Marty Morgan said. "Finally, after we won the NCAA title at Iowa, we looked at J hobbling up the stairs and said, `The bet is on.' "
If Robinson climbed Mount Shasta, Eggum, Morgan and assistants Joe Russell and Tim Hartung would have to sky dive. The thought of losing the bet frightened Russell, "because I'm scared to death of heights." But, then again, Eggum had assured him there was no way they'd lose.
Then came Aug. 11. Morgan's phone rang. It was Robinson, standing at the top of Mount Shasta, 35 pounds lighter from months of training. He shouted into his cell phone.
"Get ready to jump," he barked. "I'm at the top."
Yes sir, someone else had underestimated Robinson's resolve and would pay the price. In retrospect, Russell kicks himself.
"Should've known," he says. "J doesn't lose."
Whether it's climbing Mount Shasta, driving the Gophers to their first national championship, battling the implementation of Title IX or conducting his popular summer camps, J Paul Robinson is relentless, tough, demanding and, usually, successful. He's also controversial, outspoken and, at times, politically incorrect, offensive and divisive, say some university officials.
"J represents a quandary for the university," said Tonya Moten Brown, university vice president and chief of staff. "On the one hand, the wrestling program is a competitive success and J enjoys tremendous loyalty and respect. But at times it feels like the university spends more time, energy and resources investigating issues involving wrestling than the other 22 sports combined. And it never seems to end.
"We want our employees to conduct themselves in a manner that reflects positively on the university and that advances institutional priorities and values," Moten Brown said. "We are not satisfied that the wrestling program is meeting our expectations in this regard."
Robinson shrugs. The last thing he's afraid of is confrontation. His late father, John, always told him "conflict is inevitable. Once you realize life is hard, it becomes easy."
"The thing about J is you always know where he stands," said Sam Barber, a friend and wrestling coach at Augsburg. "He has a lot of loyal fans and a lot of people who can't stand him."
A Ranger at heart
So much of Robinson's life is shaped by Vietnam. He volunteered for service there not once, but twice. He served with the 173rd Airborne Brigade in 1969, left to wrestle for the U.S. World team and then returned to Vietnam with the First Calvary Division after the U.S. Army said it was OK for him to finish his tour in the states.
"I didn't wrestle to get out of serving in Vietnam," Robinson said. "The Army said I could go home. But that wasn't the deal I made with myself."
Robinson enlisted in the Army's elite Ranger training school. Of the 200 who signed up, 108 didn't finish.
Robinson graduated with honors, comparing Ranger school to wrestling.
Robinson was a captain. He wanted to lead troops into battle and became frustrated when he couldn't because his rank was higher than that of an infantry officer. He went into combat only a few times, mostly as a bodyguard for reporters.
"J did have some scary moments," said Jerry Robinson, one of J's three brothers, all of whom served in Vietnam. "Drugs were a problem over there and I know that bothered J. One time, an American, high on drugs, stuck an M-16 in J's stomach and was going to kill him. The guy just wanted to kill someone so that the army would send him home."
The armed man originally was going to kill a sergeant in the unit when Robinson stepped in. He talked the guy out of the weapon in about 30 minutes.
"When I got home from Vietnam, there was a real question of guilt; Did I do enough?" Robinson said. "Over the course of years, you think maybe it was God's plan to keep me alive. As corny as it sounds, maybe He kept me alive for what I do in my summer camps for young kids."
J Robinson Wrestling Camps were created 24 years ago when Robinson was an assistant at Iowa. The longest of the camps, the 28-day intensive camp, was modeled in many ways to resemble Ranger school. Campers must endure 28 consecutive 15-hour days. Days that include four intense workouts, starting before breakfast at 6:30 a.m. and ending about 9:30 p.m. The idea is to get one's body to function at a high level when it's tired and hungry, two things common to all wrestlers.
Robinson's camps revolutionized the industry and changed many young lives, advocates say. Of course, they also create a swirl of controversy because of Robinson's steadfast refusal to compromise.
About 5 to 10 percent of the campers quit or are dismissed for breaking rules before camp's end, said Andy Johnson, executive director of J Robinson Wrestling Camps.
"We don't try to con people," Johnson said. "We tell them up front it will be harder than anything you've ever done before. If you can't handle it, don't come." Ned Blass, a former two-time NCAA champion from Oklahoma State, became the wrestling coach at Mount Miguel High in Spring Valley, Calif. in 1963. One of the first things he did was pummel his 157-pounder, one of the best high school wrestlers in California. The kid's name was J Robinson.
"I was new and the kids were leery of me," Blass said. "The first thing I said is, `I'm going to line you up and kick each one of your butts.' "
Blass also was a stickler for rules. Break them and he'd make you grab your ankles and introduce you to his big wooden paddle.
"He'd whack you on Monday and your backside was still sore on Friday," Robinson said.
Although Robinson went on to wrestle at Oklahoma State, the Olympics in 1972 and two World Championships, he couldn't beat Blass in wrestling. Every time he went back home, he'd try and fail.
Finally, in the early '80s when Robinson was about 35 and Blass about 50, Robinson got a takedown against Blass, right there on the hard carpet floor of Blass' office. They've never wrestled again.
"J would have wrestled me until I was 100 if that's what it took to beat me," Blass said. "After he took me down, I said, `Now, we can finally stop this.' "
Fun at Iowa
Nobody worked harder or had more fun in Iowa City in the 1970s than Robinson. He was a paid assistant for eight years under Dan Gable, his Olympic roommate. They won seven NCAA titles in eight seasons.
Gable was the motivator. Robinson was the master technician, but he also had an iron in every fire. So, naturally, he was in charge of the team's annual NCAA championship celebrations, which grew in number of people and beer kegs every year.
"We were at a farm one year and suddenly everyone started looking up," Gable said. "J had hired the skydiving club to jump for us. Here they came. Buck naked."
Robinson had a farm just outside Iowa City. He discovered a man in Oregon was trying to save wild mustangs and buffalo by giving them away. Robinson went to Oregon expecting to bring back a couple of horses. He ended up renting a semi and brought back 36 horses and two buffalo.
"J could read something, get hooked on it and go off," Gable said. "I called them distractions. For J, they were his little loves.
"But the wild mustang thing. I mean, who does that?"
A helping hand
Chris Campell was a walk-on freshman for the Iowa wrestling team in the 1970s. A black man from New Jersey, Campbell said he felt out of place in Iowa City and was close to quitting.
"Then, for whatever reason, J decided to become my guardian angel," Campbell said. "He took me under his wing, beat me up pretty good in practice and taught me what it took to become a winner."
Campbell went on to become the Big Ten's most outstanding wrestler as a freshman. He was an NCAA runner-up as a sophomore and won NCAA titles as a junior and senior.
"After college, I asked J, `How can I repay you?' " Campbell said. "He said by doing the same thing for somebody else one day."
Campbell got his law degree from Cornell in 1987 and practices in San Francisco. In 1981, he won a world championship 4-1 on a move Robinson had taught him. Moments before the match, Campbell received a telegram from Robinson wishing him good luck.
"Without J Robinson," Campbell said, "there never would have been a Chris Campbell."
Breaking up is hard
Robinson had no intention of leaving Iowa. But he wore out his welcome following an incident in which a camper collapsed during one of his intensive camps.
The University of Iowa wanted to take financial control of the camp. Robinson, who was making less than $40,000 as an assistant and far more with his camps, resigned. It bothered him for years that Gable didn't stand up for him.
"We did part on shaky terms, but my argument to him was I kept warning him that it was an issue he had to fight alone," Gable said. "I wasn't going to the well for him on this one. I don't agree with how he runs his intensive camps. It's fine for Olympic, high-level athletes. But for kids 12-to-18 years old, that's a different story. I would be a little more flexible."
Robinson's camps are now a source of concern at Minnesota. The university recently investigated allegations of misbehavior at Robinson's on-campus summer camp. No significant violations of Robinson's contract with the university were identified. In its investigation, the university said it reserves the right to discontinue its relationship with the camps. However, Moten Brown said there are no plans to do so.
Robinson doesn't let the allegations distract him. His camps annually attract about 2,300 wrestlers and have a budget of several hundred thousand dollars.
Les Gutches, winner of two national titles at Oregon State and five U.S. Open titles, talked his way into one of Robinson's camps in Oregon when he was only a seventh-grader.
"J looked at me and said, `Don't expect any special treatment,' " Gutches said. "I pretty much died the whole time I was there, but it got me on track and showed me what hard work really is. I tell everybody that J's camp was the turning point in my career. You could call hundreds of the top wrestlers in the country and they'd tell you the same thing."
Tackling Title IX
There was a snowstorm last season that might have chilled Robinson's relationship with Iowa State coach Bobby Douglas forever. Douglas, who was Robinson's freshman coach at Oklahoma State, still won't speak to Robinson because of remarks he made after Douglas refused to bring his team through a snowstorm to wrestle the Gophers.
"I got a little upset because I had driven through a snowstorm the year before to get to his place," Robinson said. "He wouldn't work with us on a makeup date. My argument was that if we ever want wrestling to be big-time, we can't have this sort of thing. Do you think they would just not show up for a football game, and then not make it up?"
Snowstorms aren't the only thing icing their relationship. The two also are at odds about Title IX, the federal law banning sex discrimination in education. The National Wrestling Coaches Association recently sued the Education Department, focusing on Title IX's "proportionality" element, which calls for the percentage of females participating in athletics to be roughly the same as their school's female enrollment.
Proportionality infuriates Robinson and he isn't shy about expressing his views. He believes universities are taking away opportunities for men rather than creating more opportunities for women. Since 1981, 171 wrestling programs and more than 300 men's non-revenue sports have been discontinued.
"Interest has to play a role in a free society," Robinson said. "More men like to play sports. More girls like to play with dolls. Are we going to make a law forcing boys to play with dolls?
"I think things are changing though. You can only push a dog so far back into the corner before he will bite you. I think women see that and are afraid. When men get organized, it's going to be great."
It's comments such as those that cause Moten Brown to say Robinson is "throwing fuel on the fire."
"I believe you get a lot more with honey than you do with vinegar," Douglas said. "We are in a position where we have to make friends, not enemies."
Robinson has been reprimanded for trying to distribute his views on Title IX in wrestling programs. He also was reprimanded for using university resources for his organization, Simply Common Sense, which speaks out against proportionality.
Some members of the women's athletic department have expressed concerns that Robinson's passion on the subject excites his wrestlers to the point where they create friction between male and female athletes.
"I am so proud of what J has done and I can't fault him for fighting to keep his sport," said women's swimming coach Jean Freeman. "But I don't agree with him. You need to have proportionality, especially when there are more women going to college and fewer men going. You can't have that many opportunities in football and just not count them because we don't have football."
Volleyball coach Mike Hebert praises Robinson for his passion.
"I've never heard J say he's against the idea of Title IX's ideals," Hebert said. "There are parts of what he says that I agree with. I'm not sure I'm even in favor of proportionality, but until something better comes along, it needs to be in place. I've never heard J mention an alternative solution."
Women's Athletics Director Chris Voelz refused to comment for this story.
Turning the tide
The Gophers are ranked No. 1. They're 13-0, winners of 27 consecutive dual matches. Robinson is 235-81-3 in his career. Last year, Minnesota won its second Big Ten title in three years after not winning one since 1959. And the Gophers won the NCAA title, setting a national record with 10 All-Americans.
Who would have imagined that? Especially when the Gophers were one of the worst programs in the Big Ten when Robinson arrived in 1986?
Tonight, the Gophers face Iowa at Target Center. Robinson has planned a gala event with a chance to break the all-time NCAA dual-match wrestling attendance mark of 15,291, set by Iowa against Iowa State 10 years ago. As of Thursday afternoon, about 12,000 tickets had been sold.
Who would have imagined that? Especially when so many people remember crowds of fewer than 500 at Williams Arena?
Who would have imagined any of this?
J Robinson, that's who.
"It took a unique person to have a vision and then do what J has done," said former Gophers Men's Athletic Director Mark Dienhart. "The program was down so far, but J was fighting an even broader battle. One of apathy.
"There was a feeling at the school and in the community that this is a state where hockey and basketball are so good. And Iowa was so dominant in wrestling. Was there really room for another sport like wrestling? J wasn't willing to take no for an answer."
Bumps in the road
And just think. It almost never happened. Ten years ago, Robinson's program was found guilty of several minor NCAA rules violations. Former Gophers Men's Athletic Director Rick Bay put Robinson on probation and warned the coach that any further rules violations could result in his dismissal. Bay said this month he always believed Robinson deserved a second chance.
"There were times I worried about J," said Bay, now the athletic director at San Diego State. "There were times J looked at the gray areas of the rules as an opportunity rather than something he shouldn't chance. After we came to an understanding that gray was black and not to go there, I didn't worry about him."
Robinson and his program have been investigated numerous times by the university. Several secondary NCAA violations have been self-reported to the NCAA, but, according to Mark Rotenberg, university general counsel, there hasn't been a pattern of willful intent to break rules or disregard them.
J's other world
Sue Rubens was working in the marketing department when it became apparent Robinson was interested in her. It wasn't exactly love at first sight.
"I thought to myself, `I don't want to date that crazy wrestling coach,"' Sue said. "But he won me over."
Robinson, who was married once before, and Rubens were married in 2000.
Robinson said when he's lying on his death bed, he'll, "Have only one beef with God. Life isn't long enough."
Robinson has so many goals. Hundreds of them. Hundreds of occupations he'd love to try, too. For instance, he'd like to be a park ranger in Botswana, Africa, catching poachers.
"I have all of my goals written down," Robinson said. "Some are dumb goals. Stupid goals. I want to have a beer with Mel Gibson. Why? Because he seems like a cool guy."
Back to the mountain
Barber, the coach at Augsburg, helped Robinson climb Mount Shasta.
"Fifty percent of the people who try it don't make it to the top," Barber said. "When we went, we passed four 19-year-old guys who were giving up.
"I was amazed. I've seen J's knees, but he just kept going. He wouldn't quit."
When Robinson got to the top, a feeling hit him similar to the one he had the morning after the Gophers won the national championship.
"When you get to the top of a mountain, what do you do?" Robinson asked. "You find another mountain to climb."