Sometimes when the family patriarch is not around, things do not always run so smoothly. But in the case of Minnesota Golden Gophers wrestling, the house appears to be in perfect order.
With the season in high gear since the beginning of the January, Minnesota head coach J Robinson has not been around as much as he would like. His 27th year has not been an easy one.
A streptococcus infection that began in his mouth spread to his leg in early January. Robinson then had an artificial knee removed at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and spent 12 days in the hospital. Surgery is nothing new — Robinson has had somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 surgeries, 35 of those on his knees.
Most normal men might have called it a season, watched from afar, and put things in the capable hands of his assistant coaches. But there he was last weekend, sporting a big smile while negotiating Williams Arena on a pair of crutches as his Gophers beat Iowa and Oklahoma State to claim the 2013 NWCA/Cliff Keen National Duals trophy.
“A lot of the credit has to go to [assistant coaches Brandon] Eggum, [Luke] Becker and [Jayson] Ness,” said Robinson, who now has 404 coaching victories. “While I have been gone they have done a great job of keeping the team moving in the right direction. I gave a little bit of guidance here and there, but those guys deserve a lot of the credit for where we are today.”
All three staff members know a thing or two about Minnesota wrestling.
Eggum was a three-time All-American for Robinson. The 2012-13 season marks the 12th the head assistant coach has been a part of Robinson’s staff.
“It has been very beneficial to me to be able to work for [Robinson],” Eggum said. “He is a very interesting guy to talk to; 15 minutes can turn into a couple of hours very easy. Being around the program for 17 years I know how things work.
“Everybody on this staff knows their roles and we didn’t change anything with coach not being around as much.”
Minnesota finished the dual season 16-2 with losses to Iowa and Oklahoma State. They avenged both on one Saturday while claiming a second consecutive National Duals title.
“The coaching staff knows what they are doing,” junior 184-pounder Kevin Steinhaus said. “Coach Robinson knows when to have his teams ready, knows when the right time to peak is. This time of year is about battles, about grinding, just like he is battling and grinding right now.”
“[Robinson] teaches that mentality, about being tough,” Eggum said. “We have some grinders, some scramblers, guys with different styles. But that toughness, that stems from [Robinson].”
Ness, who won an NCAA title while wearing Minnesota colors in 2010, has found, in his second year on the staff, that coaching is about much more than double legs and half nelsons.
“Everybody has this preconceived notion about what coaches actually do,” Ness said. “That they just watch film and coach. There is so much more to it.
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“I fell into a good spot pretty quickly. I get to work with three great coaches who have been around the program. [Robinson] is about as good a mentor as you could ask for. His toughness rubs off on everybody.”
Becker was a national champion in 2002. He joined the Gophers’ staff right after graduating from Minnesota. He, like many in the wrestling community, knows that the boss is about much more than Duals or NCAA Championships.
“One thing that has always impressed me about [Robinson] is that he is such an ambassador for the sport of wrestling,” Becker said. “He is about making sure the sport is better after he is gone. It has never been about what is best for him or necessarily Minnesota, but about wrestling as a whole.
“Before the season starts we have a plan. We each have our own thing and Coach trusts us. We work together really well.”
When teams are good, coaches get the credit. When teams are bad, the coaches get the credit. In three victories last weekend, Minnesota looked like a team being coached very well. Against the previously unbeaten Oklahoma State squad, Minnesota had a pair of pins, an overtime decision, and a come-from-behind victory.
“When all 10 guys show up it makes you look like a genius,” Eggum said. “And any coach will tell you that it is never about being perfect. [Against Oklahoma State] we won some close ones, got bonus points when we could, just wrestled hard at every weight.
“Our guys prepared very well and they all understand how hard the surgery has been on Coach. And I think the team wrestled for him, wrestled for each other like good teams do.”
Since Robinson’s arrival before the 1986-87 season, the Gophers have won three national championships, going back-to-back in 2001 and ’02. Minnesota will go in search of its eighth Big Ten team title March 9-10 in Champaign, Ill. Two weeks after that it will be off to Des Moines, Iowa, for the 2013 NCAA Championships. If the Gophers wrestle like they did last weekend there is no doubt they will be in the conversation well into Saturday.
Robinson plans to be walking a week after Des Moines.
“It is all about perspective; there are a lot of people who have it a lot worse than me,” said Robinson, a witness to tragedy at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, Germany, and member of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. “If all I have to do is endure five weeks, I am happy.”