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Robinson, U wrestling climb back to contention

The disappointment of 2008 has given way to the challenge of 2009 for Gophers wrestling coach J Robinson.

By ROMAN AUGUSTOVIZ, Star Tribune (Original Here)

Last season ended in frustration for coach J Robinson’s wrestlers. The senior-laden Gophers, preseason favorites to repeat as NCAA champions, placed 10th in the national meet in St. Louis.

More disappointments followed.

In late August, Robinson’s highest-profile recruit reneged on his signed national letter of intent. Anoka’s Jake Deitchler, a member of the U.S. Greco-Roman team in the Beijing Olympics, chose to attend the national training center in Colorado.

Two weeks later, a month before the Gophers’ first official practice, Marty Morgan left. He was Robinson’s right-hand man, his head assistant coach. He was with the program for 20 years counting his wrestling days.

The Old Man, as Robinson’s wrestlers often teasingly call him, pondered all these things. Robinson, 62, had a growing list of reasons — new on top of old — to be sour and dour.

He is neither.
“I am happy here,” Robinson said. “I’ve got no reason to go anywhere. We’ve got a really good group of guys. We’ve done some stuff this summer to try to help them, to bring them together as a team.”

The tweaks seem to be working. The Gophers, ranked No. 11 in the nation, are 14-5 but have won four of their past five dual meets. They wrestle at No. 18 Wisconsin tonight, then at top-ranked and defending NCAA champion Iowa on Sunday.

Robinson can’t wait to face the Hawkeyes, who beat the Gophers 27-7 in January. He enjoys challenges. Tell him he can’t do something, he will try harder.

Robinson’s teams won national titles in 2001, 2002 and 2007 and six Big Ten titles but — and this is one festering sore spot — he works without a contract. The university simply reappoints him every year.

“We haven’t agreed on a long-term contract,” Gophers athletic director Joel Maturi said. “There’s where some of our differences exist. It doesn’t mean I don’t respect him, and it doesn’t mean I am not glad he is our wrestling coach.”

Robinson does receive cost of living raises. His salary this year is $103,250. He supplements that with his income from summer camps in wrestling, basketball and hockey at multiple sites across the country. They draw more than 3,000 athletes annually.

“J is a national championship coach from a success standpoint,” Maturi said. “But more importantly, he is a coach where the kids respond to him in an extremely positive manner.”

No frills, plenty of thrills

Robinson has a small, cramped office in the Bierman Athletic Building. From there he takes several flights of stairs to the basement, to the L-shaped, no-frills wrestling room. With pillars. Four years ago, Robinson asked for an upgrade. Even Maturi readily admits the wrestlers deserve better.

“We kind of laugh and we say, ‘They put us where we don’t bother anybody,'” Robinson said. “It’s a mat, and it’s adequate. You get what you need to get done.”

Pressed harder on the facilities issue, Robinson rattles off four other Big Ten schools with better wrestling facilities and mentions Michigan, which will move into a new $5.5 million wrestling center next fall.

“When you are winning, if you have the oldest facility in the world, it’s nostalgic, it’s cool,” Robinson said.

Robinson’s teams have won, consistently.

“There used to be a big four — Iowa, Iowa State, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State,” he said. “Minnesota is the only one that has entered that tier and stayed there for a long period of time.”

Since 1997, the Gophers have nine top-three NCAA finishes. Robinson’s goal for his team every year is always the same: the national title.

“Who wants to be on a rebuilding team?” Robinson said. “You want to be on a team that is going to try to win the Big Ten and win the national tournament. That doesn’t mean that you will get there. What’s important is that you are trying to do it.”

Adjusting the expectations

Not much was expected of the present team — the Gophers were ranked 12th nationally in the preseason poll. Only four starters returned and one of them, senior Dustin Schlatter, is taking a redshirt season. Schlatter won an NCAA title in 2006 and finished third and seventh the following two seasons, but he grew bigger. So this season the Gophers had Schlatter and another senior and returning starter, Tyler Safratowich, at 157 pounds.

Safratowich already had redshirted, Schlatter hadn’t. He agreed to sit out.

“A lot of people just wrote us off this year. They said it was going to bad year,” Robinson said.

Instead, the Gophers placed third at the 48-team Las Vegas Invitational in December, took sixth at National Duals in January and upset then-No. 5 Ohio State 18-16 last week. For this weekend’s matches, the Gophers will have either freshmen or sophomores at seven of the 10 weight classes.

Credit sweat and bonding for those highlights. Robinson has pushed his wrestlers harder this season. He also had them read a historical novel called “Gates of Fire” this summer and write a report on it.

It’s about the Spartans of ancient Greece, their training and how 300 of them, by relying on each other, held off a Persian horde for days at a pass called Thermopylae. His wrestlers’ reviews extolled the need for leadership, uncompromising values and working together.

Robinson shares those beliefs. He also believes, “If you want to win, you have to have the best guys.” The incoming recruiting class this fall, with Deitchler, was the Gophers’ ninth class to be ranked No. 1 in the nation since Robinson arrived.

Joe Russell is the recruiting coordinator and the top assistant now. He replaced Morgan, who resigned to train former Gophers wrestler Brock Lesnar for the Ultimate Fighting Championships.

“Joe Russell is like a dog on a bone,” Robinson said when pursuing prospects. “He knows who the best kids are.”

Those kids energize Robinson. “When you’ve done a lot of stuff in your life,” said Robinson, who has skydived and climbed mountains, “what is the reason to get up?” Young wrestlers who want his help, is his answer.

“I was a little intimidated” by Robinson, Safratowich said, recalling their first meeting on a recruiting trip. “He likes to talk, and he has his philosophies. But once you get to know him, he is easy to talk to and he really cares about his wrestlers, cares about his program and cares about you as a person.”

For the past four or five years, Robinson himself has been unable to actually wrestle, but he still demonstrates techniques. He has had 54 surgeries. His left knee has been replaced four times, his right once.

“I have to be a lot more careful than I have ever been,” said Robinson, a 1972 U.S. Olympian. “I don’t heal up as fast as I used to.”

His passion for wrestling remains unchanged, though.

“The kids are hungry and they are listening,” Robinson said. “It’s fun being the underdog for a change.”

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