The maverick wrestling coach who won championships playing by his own rules lost his job of 30 years by doing just that.
J Robinson was fired from the University of Minnesota on Wednesday by athletic director Mark Coyle. Coyle, who took over in June, had on his first day on the job banished the 70-year-old coach from campus and begun an investigation of Robinson’s handling of an alleged drug ring involving more than a dozen wrestlers.
The firing ends a coaching career that is among the most decorated in Gophers history. Yet Robinson’s run was as controversial as it was successful. He’ll be remembered for questionable behavior and divisive comments, as well as for his drill-sergeant leadership of a program that won three national championships.
Ultimately, it was Robinson’s unwillingness to reveal details of the use and sale of the prescription sedative Xanax by Gophers wrestlers, and his alleged self-policing of the issue, that led to his fall.
“I’m terminating Coach Robinson’s contract because he was not forthcoming with his superiors when reporting his suspicions about selling and abusing prescription medication,” Coyle said. “… As I’ve said from the beginning of his situation, I have a great deal of respect for Coach Robinson and what he’s accomplished during his 30 years at the University of Minnesota. That respect cannot excuse his conduct in this instance.”
Coyle said the university fired Robinson with “just cause,” meaning the university will not pay the remainder of Robinson’s contract, worth over $500,000.
The Star Tribune was unable to reach Robinson for comment, but it obtained a letter Robinson sent Coyle on Aug. 30. Robinson wrote that the school’s investigation supported “a pre-determined outcome to find fault with me. ...”
Robinson’s letter disputes several points, but he writes, “I do not intend to address each inaccuracy and/or omission in the Report because there are far too many.”
The decision comes nearly four months after reports first emerged of a drug problem permeating the wrestling team. On June 1, Coyle placed Robinson on paid administrative leave, telling Robinson in writing, “You are not to be on campus.”
Three months later, Coyle ended a summer of speculation and negotiation by firing Robinson. Coyle said the university met with Robinson and his representatives several times this summer, talks that he said will be kept private.
“In case anyone has not noticed, we do have a new sheriff in town and his name is athletic director Mark Coyle,” said Dean Johnson, chairman of the U’s Board of Regents. “There’s little room, little tolerance for missteps in participating and representing the University of Minnesota. And that standard is strongly supported by [University President Eric Kaler] and very much supported by the Board of Regents.”
A mixed legacy
Robinson’s teams won national titles in 2001, 2002 and 2007. He was named Big Ten wrestling coach of the year eight times and was inducted in the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2005. Still, he often made his bosses cringe as strongly as they cheered his championships.
Robinson battled Title IX policies that created opportunities for women, saying in a 2002 Star Tribune profile that, “Interest has to play a role in a free society. 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?”
During the Gophers 2002 national championship season, six “minor violations” were reported in the wrestling program. Robinson also raised eyebrows by earning money through his popular summer camps, formerly held at the U and across the country, and through local properties he rented or sold to wrestlers and staff.
In 2002, Tonya Moten Brown, then the U vice president and chief of staff, said, “J represents a quandary for the university. 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.”
‘Face of Minnesota wrestling’
To his wrestlers, however, he was a father figure who boldly turned teenagers into strong men.
Damion Hahn, a two-time NCAA champion in the early 2000s and current Cornell assistant wrestling coach, got choked up when talking about what Robinson meant to him.
“He was a father figure for me when I was in college,” Hahn said. “He really pushed me to reach my potential. … This is a sad day. It hurts. It hurts.”
Longtime assistant Brandon Eggum, the acting head coach since August, will coach on an interim basis, the university said.
Leroy Vega, a three-time All-American and member of the 2001 and 2002 national title teams, called Wednesday “a very sad day.”
“J Robinson has always been the face of Minnesota wrestling, and he always will be,” Vega added. “There was always a lesson in everything he did.”
But Johnson said being a role model doesn’t excuse someone from following rules.
“In many respects, it’s tragic, because for 30 years he’s been a national leader in coaching and working with young men, national champions, Big Ten champions, individual champions,” Johnson said. “He taught young men how to be men, and all of a sudden this issue comes before him. And if you were to read reports that policies set forth in athletics for head coaches, those policies were not followed.”
Drug ring reported
The public end for Robinson began when an anonymous member of the U wrestling team reported to police April 8 that 14 teammates were using and selling 500 to 1,000 pills of Xanax on campus. The wrestler told police that Robinson knew of the situation and that he offered “amnesty” to two wrestlers if they wrote letters of apology and gave the drugs to Robinson.
According to a search warrant affidavit, Robinson met with university police officers April 12 but refused to provide them with wrestlers’ names, documents in his possession and other pertinent information. The coach said he’d provide extensive information to police in exchange for “immunity” for his athletes.
“He said [to police], ‘Listen, I’m not going to work with you,’ ” Robinson’s attorney, Ryan Kaess, said in June. “ ‘Why are you ostensibly coming after these kids? We need to help them — not hang a felony around their necks.’ ”
Citing a lack of evidence, Hennepin County prosecutors in June declined to press charges.
Robinson’s agent, James C.W. Bock, has insisted that Robinson acted appropriately. Bock has said Robinson first notified U officials, including then-interim AD Beth Goetz, of his suspicions about drug use on March 7.
The entire wrestling team was tested March 22, and according to the university investigation, Robinson asked his wrestlers the next day at a team meeting to come to him with their confessions and remaining drugs and “they would receive amnesty.”
The investigation found at least 12 wrestlers followed their coach’s instructions, but “Coach Robinson never told anyone in Athletics administration what the student athletes had self-reported.”
Robinson wrote of the testing process, and guidance he received, in closing his Aug. 30 letter to Coyle: “The [investigation] report is filled with excuses for the University’s failure to act and masks the lack of adequate policy guidance and support to assist coaches in addressing situations involving and helping student athletes with drug issues.”
In the final missive of a contentious summer, Coyle sent a letter Wednesday to Robinson, saying Robinson has “not accepted responsibility or expressed remorse for your conduct. As a result, I cannot trust you to refrain from such conduct in the future. … Coaches cannot decide to conceal knowledge of misconduct and attempt to handle matters on their own. …
“Given your conduct, your refusal to obey my directives, and your failure to accept responsibility for your actions, you can no longer continue in your position as Head Coach.”