It was always likely to end this way for J Robinson. The Gophers wrestling coach took pride in his image as a rugged individualist. He sparred with superiors and shunned political correctness on a modern college campus. He always was going to be vulnerable if he stopped winning or kept talking.
The story that might bring down one of Minnesota’s best coaches is uglier than anyone would have guessed, but Robinson’s handling of it is utterly predictable. It turns out that the man without punctuation after his first initial might have applied a period to his career by keeping his own counsel and trying to protect his athletes and his program.
In this case, as he so often did, Robinson made his own rules. He did what he thought was right and what his superiors are sure to see as wrong. This was as grooved to happen as a Joe Mauer groundout.
A source with the wrestling program told the Star Tribune’s Joe Christensen that Robinson learned this season that his athletes were using and selling large amounts of Xanax. Robinson, according to the source, tried to handle the crisis internally. He reportedly did not tell his superiors.
According to the terms of his contract, Robinson can be dismissed for exactly this kind of behavior. With a contract that runs through 2020, Robinson could have protected himself and his future earnings by immediately reporting the problem to his bosses. His reputation and résumé are strong enough that he could have survived those losses. He would have rebuilt his program eventually with another wave of excellent recruits.
Instead, Robinson stayed true to his nature instead of his contract, and he gave new athletic director Mark Coyle a batting-practice pitch down the middle. Coyle can fire a 69-year-old coach coming off a mediocre season who directly violated the language of his contract.
Coyle can look strong while making his first high-profile decision, and use this case to send a shot across the bow of the men’s basketball program, which has frequently embarrassed itself under coach Richard Pitino.
J is one of those people with whom I can amicably disagree. I like him. I appreciate that he has the guts to say what he believes even when it is politically unwise. I admire the bond he builds with his athletes.
When he celebrated his 25th season as the Gophers coach in 2011, I spent more than an hour with him in his campus office. He told stories, offered quotes from dozens of the books that surrounded him, and repeated his life philosophies so often I felt like he was trying to tattoo them on my forehead.
I felt like I was talking to the Jack Nicholson character from “A Few Good Men.” And until now, I did want him on that wall.
“Conflict is good,” he said that day. “Conflict is how you grow.”
He was an Army Ranger and a champion wrestler. He would drop 40 pounds in a week to win a bet. He protested during Vietnam — that he wasn’t getting enough combat time. “That was where the action was, for our generation,” he said that day. “That was, for us, the Wild West of the 1850s. That’s why you wanted to go there.”
He’s a fascinating character and Hall of Fame coach, but even those who like J shouldn’t deify him. He seemed quite willing to bend rules. The Minnesota Daily once portrayed him in a well-researched article as a University slumlord. And there is no escaping the exact nature of his current troubles.
He appears to have covered up a felony.
I have no doubt he thought he was doing right by his program and his wrestlers, but he did wrong by his university and under the terms of his contract.
I hate to see him go.
But it’s probably time for him to go.
Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at MalePatternPodcasts.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib. firstname.lastname@example.org