Honoring J, then wrestling for a title

The Big Ten dual season championship is on the line when Iowa visits on Sunday.
  • Daily File Photo
February 17, 2011

In his quarter century with Gophers wrestling, J Robinson has vaulted the program to new heights. The team will return the favor Sunday, putting Robinson on a pedestal rather than the other way around.

When the No. 3 Hawkeyes come to Williams Arena on Sunday, Robinson will be honored for his 25 years at the helm of Minnesota wrestling.

There figures to be plenty at stake for Robinson and his Gophers this weekend. For starters, Iowa is carrying a 76-dual unbeaten streak, matching the longest since Oklahoma State’s 14-year streak that ended in 1951.

Robinson attended Oklahoma State as an undergraduate and coached at Iowa for eight years before taking over Minnesota.

The three programs, by all accounts, are the three most dominant in the country’s history, and Robinson has strong ties with all of them.

Robinson told his assistant coaches this week that halting Iowa’s unbeaten streak before it can topple that of his alma mater’s will serve as extra motivation.

“The biggest thing about J is, he’s not just a good wrestling coach, but he’s a great ambassador for the sport,” volunteer assistant coach Luke Becker said. “He wants to make sure that our sport survives another 100 years.”

As part of his promotional and marketing ingenuity, Robinson developed the “Border Brawl” in 2002, in which Iowa and Minnesota clash annually in a much-hyped dual, adding to an already intense rivalry.

It has helped wrestling’s popularity in the area, head assistant coach Joe Russell said. Russell said that the teams crafted the idea of wrestling for a “Governor’s Belt” when former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura was in office.

Minnesota (15-3-1, 6-0-1 Big Ten) has not beaten Iowa since 2007, and Becker said in the meantime Iowa has misplaced the actual belt. Now the teams just wrestle for pride.

Much more than pride is on the line this Sunday, however, as the winner of the dual will also be crowned the Big Ten dual season champion. Both teams are unbeaten in the Big Ten this season, and Iowa recently knocked off then-No. 1 Penn State.

“Iowa definitely has proven they’re a team to beat this year by beating former No. 1 Penn State. They’ve also been real tough in the Big Ten,” Russell said, referring to Iowa’s immaculate 7-0 mark in the conference (they’re 14-0-1 overall).

While there figure to be plenty of close matches — a remarkable eight bouts will feature two top-20 wrestlers — arguably the most anticipated will be at 141 pounds. No. 2 Mike Thorn will face No. 3 Montell Marion, who both dropped extra time, sudden victory decisions to No. 1 Kellen Russell last weekend.

That won’t be the only crucial weight for the Gophers on Sunday, though — 125, 133, 165, 174, 184 and heavyweight will all have relatively tightly contested, ranked opponents squaring off.

“It’s been a couple of years since we’ve been able to win a Big Ten dual season championship here at Minnesota, we just have to keep getting better and hopefully we’ll get that championship,” Becker said.

Becker also noted one of the main reasons for Robinson’s success is his ability to surround himself with good people.

Every member of Robinson’s coaching staff is a former Gophers wrestler, and it has two new members this year, with Jayson Ness and Dustin Schlatter graduating to the coaching ranks.

Ness wants to be a college coach, and he said it was an easy decision to stick around after graduation to help out the program.

“Getting to learn from him was one of the main reasons I wanted to stick around to coach,” Ness said. “J was really a major draw for staying at Minnesota.

“You look at our staff and it’s all alum who have had some success, and the fact that he’s able to keep those guys around speaks to his what kind of guy he is,” he added.

When Robinson arrived in 1986, he brought with him an expectation of dominance that instantly changed the culture of Minnesota wrestling. The five Gophers wrestlers to go undefeated in a season, and the six who earned All-American four times, have all come under Robinson, in addition to the team’s only three national titles.

Robinson, a National Wrestling Hall of Fame member, recently signed a five-year contract extension that will keep him around until at least 2014.

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