Scoggins: After all these years, J Robinson is still an original

  • Article by: CHIP SCOGGINS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 1, 2012 - 10:13 AM

He remains coaching wrestlers on his terms and in his own extraordinary way.

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Gophers head wrestling coach J Robinson.

Photo: Marlin Levison, Star Tribune

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J Robinson's office door opened and a visitor was ready to pounce. One-year-old grandson Wyatt squealed with delight while spreading his arms in the universal gesture that he wanted to be picked up.

"He's my buddy," Robinson beamed.

Grandpa held Wyatt in one arm as he searched for a "Meat Loaf" tune on his iPhone. "Let's see you dance," Robinson said.

Yep, J Robinson. Just an old softie.

Well, sort of. Certainly in those quiet moments with his grandson. But he also remains a straight-shooting, tough-as-nails wrestling coach who does things his way and his way only.

At age 66 and in his 27th season in charge of Gophers wrestling, Robinson last week became the program's all-time winningest coach with 394 victories. He surpassed the guy he replaced, Wally Johnson, who collected 392 wins from 1952 to '86. Think about that for a second. The Gophers have hired only two wrestling coaches in the past 60 years.

Robinson wants to coach "three or four more years," but nothing is definite, except his legacy: three national championships, three national coach of the year awards, 57 All-Americas, 13 individual national champions, six Big Ten titles. His team is ranked No. 1 nationally again this season entering Sunday's meet against No. 3 Oklahoma State.

This from a guy who "never had a desire to be a head coach" but viewed his job as an opportunity to create "something that was extraordinary."

He's done so on his terms, in his own extraordinary way. Any conversation with Robinson about wrestling or his program usually veers into history, politics, psychology or some other topic that he finds fascinating or particularly poignant at that precise moment. In a 30-minute scattershot conversation this week, he touched on Gen. George Patton's battle strategies, a book he just read about hoarding, how the Gophers can improve football attendance and the fact he had a lazy eye as a kid.

"I used to see double," he said. "It was pretty good looking at girls. 'There's two of them, twins, all right. I'm in heaven!' "

Robinson is an original, a Hall of Fame coach and character who served in Vietnam and speaks his mind without tiptoeing around political correctness. If he has a problem with a social issue, school policy or certain line of thinking, he's not afraid to challenge the status quo.

He's a breath of fresh air in the buttoned-up world of coaching. He's worked for 10 athletic directors at Minnesota, and it hasn't always been easy. But his staying power is a testament not only to his coaching success but also his ability to push the envelope without going too far.

"I have some rules that I live by, and one of the rules is you've got to understand who you work for," he said. "If they're in it for 40 percent and you're in it for 95 percent, you're never going over 40 percent."

Robinson also has managed to change and adapt with the times without compromising his rigid approach to discipline. He demands just as much effort, focus and intensity as ever. He still dresses in the locker room and laughs when his wrestlers ask him for high-fives, fully aware that Robinson's balky right shoulder doesn't allow him to lift his arm above his waist.

Robinson has spent his adult life studying history and human behavior. He wants to know what makes people tick and why they make certain decisions. He often shares philosophical quotes that reinforce his beliefs. His favorite?

"If nothing changes, nothing changes," he said. "It's so simple."

He compares coaching to putting a puzzle together. Every piece has to fit or it doesn't work. And it's not just about talent.

Robinson figures he's coached 700 to 800 wrestlers at Minnesota, but his real impact, he insists, can be measured in the lives he's changed through his summer camp, which he describes as his "laboratory." In 35 years, more than 30,000 kids have attended his camps. Robinson can recite verbatim letters written to him from past participants, including the kid who attended camp in 1991 and sent a note last June informing Robinson that he became a Navy SEAL.

"God didn't put me here to have fun," Robinson said. "God put me here to make a difference. He put me here to have a purpose. He put me here to make this a better place. Yeah, have fun along the way, but that's not my reason for being here. These young people give me a reason to get out of bed."

Not that he's incapable of humor. Robinson's wife, Sue, put a ringtone on his phone so that he'll know when she's calling. They own two black Labs, so she picked one with dogs barking.

Robinson forgot to turn off his phone during a news conference at the NCAA championships last season. Naturally, it rang and dogs started barking.

"Excuse me," he told reporters, "it's my wife."

It was classic Robinson. He's one of a kind.

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