Robinson places focus on taking Minnesota to elite levels

The architect of the nation's top-ranked wrestling team knows he has a problem.

J Robinson can't focus on one thing at a time. He can't single-task. And no matter how hard he tries, the Minnesota coach can't finish one job without drumming up a dozen other ideas some might think border on excessive or absurd.

"I'm self-diagnosed [with] ADD [attention-deficit disorder]," Robinson said. "Sometimes the problem I have is shutting my mind off. It continually spews out ideas and thoughts. There are a hundred projects I'd try if I had the resources."

There are probably a few he'll try without.

This is, after all, a man who nearly 25 years ago wound up going to Oregon intent on capturing a couple of wild horses and came home with 36 and two buffalo.

This is a guy who once bought a Christmas house, decided he needed a collection and had a village of 23 by the end of his first weekend of gathering.

This is J Robinson -- a 61-year-old coach who spent 15 seasons trying to put Minnesota at the top of the college wrestling world, and now the guy can't sit still long enough to relax and enjoy the view.

"He goes to the extreme with everything he does," Minnesota assistant Joe Russell said. "And that's not all bad."

It certainly hasn't been for the Gophers.

Minnesota begins the chase for a fourth NCAA title in eight years as the consensus No. 1 team in the country. The Gophers have nine starters returning from last season's national championship squad, including five seniors -- Mack Reiter (133 pounds), Manuel Rivera (141), C.P. Schlatter (157), Gabe Dretsch (174) and Roger Kish (184) -- who came from five different states to form the nation's top-ranked recruiting class five years ago.

"They wanted to come in as the No. 1 recruiting class and they wanted to come in and win a national championship, so you have a commonality and a bond between them," Robinson said. "I think that makes a big difference when you get up in the morning and you have a purpose in your life and you're going in a common direction with a bunch of other people to help motivate you from day to day."

Robinson, however, has a different set of purposes you might expect from a coach at the top of his profession.

The architect of the nation's top-ranked wrestling program is fixated with improving the sight lines around him. He can't help but think back to something his parents told him when he was young.

"You're either part of the problem or you're part of the solution," Robinson said. "I don't want to be part of the problem. When I'm all done with wrestling and I walk away, I want to say I fought the good fight, I did as much as I could and you couldn't ask me to do anything else."

That's why Robinson has been near the forefront of wrestling's fight against the proportionality standard for Title IX compliance. That's why Robinson has drafted plans for how the sport can raise millions by putting surcharges on wrestling camps and tournaments. That's why Robinson led a crusade to bring wrestling closer to the mainstream and onto more television sets across the country.

Robinson's ideas and influence have helped the sport land a deal with CSTV, which will launch the first regular national cable wrestling highlight show in January.

"He's a stubborn old mule, and when he puts his mind to something, he usually gets it accomplished," said Iowa State assistant Tim Hartung, Robinson's first two-time individual NCAA champion at Minnesota.

"One of the things that amazes me about the man is how many things he can balance at one time. He's involved in big, big projects and I don't think any other coach in their right mind would try to take all of that on, and if they did, handle it and be as successful as he has in all of the arenas he puts his effort into."

It took awhile before Robinson was successful at Minnesota. He arrived in 1986 with a background blended from wrestling's two most-storied programs, but the Gophers failed to win a Big Ten dual meet in his first season.

Robinson competed at Oklahoma State, wrestled on the 1972 Olympic team and served as Dan Gable's top assistant at Iowa when the Hawkeyes started a run of nine straight NCAA titles in 1978.

Robinson came to a Minnesota with a vision that the Gophers could one day stand alongside Iowa and Oklahoma State, the powers that have combined for 54 NCAA titles. Nobody questioned Robinson's imagination or track record for doing what others said couldn't be done.

This was, after all, the guy who went to Oregon planning to bring back a couple wild horses and came back with a home rodeo.

"With the horse deal, I asked everybody about it and they said, 'No, don't do it. You don't have anywhere to put them,'" he said. "I listened to people and after awhile, I said, 'Here's something I've always wanted to do.' I went and did it and it was one of the most fun experiences of my life."

Then there's the Christmas house collection, which has grown to nearly a hundred and fills three rooms in Robinson's home.

"That's kind of him in a nutshell," Russell said. "He's done a little bit of everything, and when he does it, he goes full bore. If he's going to be in it, he's going to be the best at it. He's going to be the best Christmas house collector there is or the best mustang wrangler there is. Whatever it is, he wants to be in that elite group."

Andy Hamilton covers wrestling for the Iowa City Press-Citizen.