Minnesota coach J Robinson has guided the Gophers to three NCAA titles in building a powerhouse program in Minneapolis.
J Robinson is still opinionated, stubborn and tough.
And he's as feisty and competitive as ever.
But there is one change you will notice in the 67-year-old head wrestling coach of the Minnesota Golden Gophers.
That’s what happens when you nearly lose your life, and that was the scary reality facing the three-time NCAA championship coach early last January.
The Gophers were competing in the Southern Scuffle in Chattanooga, Tenn., and Robinson woke up feeling ill that day. Following the morning session, Robinson returned to the hotel to rest before the finals.
He never made it back to the arena.
“I took about 10 steps out of my hotel room, and I couldn’t take another step – I couldn’t walk,” Robinson said. “Kevin LeValley, one of our coaches, went and got a luggage cart that they had to put me on to get me down to the lobby. It was pretty crazy.”
Robinson was taken to a local hospital, where his knee was drained but no serious health symptoms or complications were discovered.
Once Robinson returned home, doctors at the University of Minnesota recommended he immediately go to the renowned Mayo Clinic in nearby Rochester, Minn.
“My heart rate got so high that they had to bump me up to the top of the operating list,” Robinson said. “I had an abscessed tooth and the infection had spread into my leg. They took my entire knee out and removed three of my teeth.”
Doctors cut from the middle of Robinson’s left shin to the middle of his thigh. He received 82 stitches and was in the hospital for 12 days.
“The doctors at the Mayo Clinic told me if I hadn’t gone in that night,” Robinson said, “I would’ve either lost my leg or I would have died. It turned out to be pretty bad obviously. Thank God I didn’t wait any longer.”
Robinson credits his wife, Sue, for helping him through a very traumatic time.
“My wife was amazing, she was really was,” he said. “She basically took care of me for a month. I can’t thank her enough for all of her support.”
Minnesota assistant coach Brandon Eggum ran the team in Robinson’s absence.
Even a tough, hard-nosed former Army Ranger like Robinson was fully aware of what kind of danger he was in.
“It was very humbling, and it was a pretty big reality check for me,” he said. “Something like this definitely changes you, and it has. There is not a time when I wake up in the morning and don’t think about how thankful I am for everything I have in my life. I had a good friend that died from pancreatic cancer and that hit me pretty hard. I know how lucky I am to be alive and I appreciate that so much more now.
“When you are 67 years old, you don’t have a lot of time left. It makes you look at your life and prioritize what you have. We have two grandsons that are unbelievably fun and I’m enjoying my time with them. I want to make the most of my time.”
Amazingly, Robinson was back coaching again when the Gophers competed at the Big Ten and NCAA Championships this past March. Minnesota finished third at the 2013 NCAAs.
Robinson reports that he is now down “from two crutches to one crutch” and is walking better now.
“You wouldn’t believe how much I appreciate just being able to walk,” he said. “When you are on crutches, and you do something like drop your keys, let’s just say that’s not a real fun position to be in.”
Robinson took over a Minnesota program nearly 30 years ago that had been struggling. His first Gopher team went 0-8 in Big Ten Conference duals during the 1986-87 season.
Minnesota quickly became a force nationally under Robinson. The Gophers won three national titles in a seven-year span, earning NCAA championships in 2001, 2002 and 2007.
The 2001 Minnesota team remains the only squad in NCAA history to have an All-American in all 10 weight classes.
The Gophers are very strong again this season, ranked No. 2 behind three-time defending team champion Penn State. Minnesota is coming off a 16-15 road win against No. 3 Oklahoma State.
“The key for us is to keep improving and getting better,” Robinson said. “We have experience, which is important, but effort and attitude is even more important. Most of our guys have been on teams that have finished second and third in the nation the last two years. They are motivated to be the best.”
The powerful and veteran Gopher squad is led by two-time NCAA champion Tony Nelson, a senior heavyweight. He is unbeaten and ranked No. 1 again this season.
Nelson placed fifth at the 2012 University World Championships in freestyle wrestling.
“Tony’s a good, hard-nosed kid who has basically spent his whole career getting better,” Robinson said. “His freshman year, he really worked hard on his defense and he became very hard to score on. He’s obviously a very good rider. He gained that confidence his first year and he’s super coachable. His listens to what you tell him and he then just goes and does it.
“He’s done a good job keeping everything in perspective. He has to be as hungry to win a title this year as he was for the previous two. It’s not about defending or winning another one, he just has to approach this like he’s trying to win his first one.”
The Gophers also feature ranked wrestlers in Scott Schiller (No. 1 at 197 pounds), Dylan Ness (No. 3 at 157), Chris Dardanes (No. 4 at 141), Logan Storley (No. 5 at 174), Kevin Steinhaus (No. 5 at 184), Nick Dardanes (No. 6 at 149), David Thorn (No. 10 at 133) and Dan Zilverberg (No. 16 at 165).
Ness, the Dardanes twins and Thorn have each moved up a weight class this season.
“We’ve got a great group of guys,” Robinson said. “They’ve got a great work ethic and they’re very motivated to be successful. I’m doing everything I can to help them reach their goals at the national tournament.”
He’s 67, but Robinson has no timetable for when he will step away from coaching.
“I’ve got no place to go,” Robinson said. “I super enjoy what I do. I’m surrounded by great, energetic coaches and I’ve got a great group of motivated athletes to work with. It’s still fun for me.”