By Mike Finn
J Robinson doesn’t needed to be reminded by those outside the Minnesota wrestling program that he is 65 years old.
That happens enough from those inside the Gopher wrestling room.
“Other than getting bashed by (Minnesota’s 2012 NCAA All-Americans Anthony) Nelson and (Kevin) Steinhaus and (Zach) Sanders about me being ‘an old fart,’ one of the things I tell people is that the world I reside in is the world of 18- to 25-year-olds,” said Robinson. “From the time I get up in the morning to the time I go to bed, that is with who I interact.”
Robinson did more than that in his 26th year in Minneapolis.
Despite the fact that the Gopher line-up featured seven underclassmen — and four freshmen — Minnesota won the NWCA National Duals (and was the only program to beat NCAA champion Penn State in a dual this season) and finished second at the NCAA tournament.
This also happened just one year after the Gophers finished seventh in both the 2010 and 2011 NCAAs … and a big reason why he was named WIN’s Dan Gable Coach of the Year for 2012.
This is the third time in the 16-year history of this award the Gopher head man has won WIN’s top college coaching honor.
“J is as ‘old school’ as it gets. That’s a compliment because of his unique ability to elevate the performance of other people by telling them what they don’t want to hear at times,” WIN Publisher Bryan Van Kley said. “And with what coach Cael Sanderson and his staff did with Penn State’s dominating season, it was probably the toughest coach of the year decision we’ve ever had.”
Robinson’s men scored an NCAA-high 23 points above their seeds at the recent NCAAs in St. Louis and produced the most All-American honors (7) and a champion in Nelson, who was just a sophomore heavyweight in 2011-12.
“How many people thought Tony Nelson would be national champion as a sophomore,” said Robinson, who has produced 13 different champions and 61 All-Americans since coming to Minnesota in 1986. “They are there because of work ethic and diligence.”
That is the same thing that could be said of this former U.S. Army Ranger. He found a natural connection to wrestling, first as a competitor at Oklahoma State and as a 1972 Greco-Roman Olympian before becoming a coach. His coaching duties don’t stop only on the college mats, but also for many who attend his annual J Robinson Intensive Camps.
“I like doing what I’m doing,” said Robinson, who laughs when people asking him about a future retirement. “I get to do the summer camps, which are a big part of my life. I like helping kids.”
Robinson does not make a big deal about the age difference between he and his wrestlers or their previous lack of experience.
“I think every year I have a young team,” Robinson said. “The thing that people forget is that your challenge as a coach is different every year. You can have a young team come in and the next year they are a little bit older and they are veterans, but every one of these kids is really in a different place.
“As they grow and the team grows, it’s not the same team you had the year before. It’s a constant change from year to year. You have to be flexible and meet the needs of those changes.”
And that was especially true this past season as Robinson got everyone on the same page.
“The things that had to change was the way we wrestle,” said Robinson. “The guys we put on the mat had to be more aggressive with more of a level of expectation. Everyone wants to win. But are you willing to do what it takes to put yourself in a position to win?”
Robinson compares a strong team to a strong rope that is made up of many smaller threads being woven together.
“The rope has always been strong,” Robinson. “Sometimes you get off course and have to come back.”
Robinson is also quick to credit his assistant coaches like Brandon Eggum, Luke Becker and Jayson Ness, whose younger brother Dylan finished second at 149 pounds as a redshirt freshman.
All three of those coaches were also former wrestlers of Robinson.
“It’s an extension of philosophy through our program,” Robinson said. “We have a coaches’ meeting once a week and find out different things that coaches do as far as training or weight training.
“Your program is the sum of people, not one. That’s your strength.”
And another one of Robinson’s strengths is his patience; a quality which is sometimes rare in an older coach.
“You have the curse of knowledge,” laughed Robinson. “When you’ve done something for so long, you tend to have less patience. It’s more dependent on the relationship of the other side and if they are listening or not. If they are listening, you tend to have more patience. If they are not listening, you have less patience because history teaches you the majority of times that will not work out.”
But perhaps it’s the fact Robinson is around so many young people that he may relate better to them than someone his own age.
“You can’t help but look at things different because you are never around people your own age,” Robinson said. “I think high school teachers would tell you the same thing. I laughingly tell people it’s ‘Groundhog Day’ for me. I wake up every day and deal with the same problems as any 18-to-25-year-olds.
“If you raise a family, the problems you have with your first two-year-old and your fourth two-year-old are the exact same thing. So what’s the difference between those who are 18 to 25?”
When you are J Robinson, age means nothing when it comes to excellent coaching.