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Shortly after 3:00 p.m. on Martin Luther King Day, J Robinson arrives for wrestling practice. He strides to the center of Rod Wallace Field, an indoor sports facility on the University of Minnesota's Minneapolis campus. A bear of a man, he walks in a bow-legged gait, his tree-trunk legs leading up to a chest that seems to begin at the waist and end just below the chin. His ears, mangled by years of abuse on the wrestling mat, are puffed with cartilage--a classic physical characteristic as commonplace, and definitive, as a ballerina's tutu.
Two dozen members of Coach Robinson's Gopher wrestling team are running 50-yard wind sprints on the artificial grass. To shed weight, most of them are conspicuously cloaked from head to toe in sweats; the thick fabric conceals the perspiration that is already running like a stream down their lean, muscle-bound frames. As assistant coach Marty Morgan puts them through their paces, Robinson surveys the scene intently, hands on hips. It takes him just 30 seconds to sum up the situation. "Hold it!" the 54-year-old former Olympic wrestler screams. "Get the fuck back there! He said fucking sprint! That's a fucking jog you're doing there!"
Without dissent, the athletes hustle back to the wall. "Go!" Robinson commands. He then begins barking, admonishing his charges in a rapid staccato. And they run. Hard. "C'mon! Let's go now! C'mon! C'mon! C'mon! Push yourself! Push yourself! Get up there, Eric! C'mon, Casey! Don't save anything! Don't save anything! C'mon, Beck! You gotta put the heat on this week! You gotta put the heat on this week!"
To Robinson's way of thinking, anything worth saying once is worth repeating. This philosophy is reflected in his practices--monotonous, fever-pitched workouts that get shorter but more intense as the season progresses. The ultimate goal is to replicate the seven minutes of pure physical fury that is a college wrestling match. For the next 45 minutes there is little in the way of variety. The overall edict never changes:
Sprint. 50 yards. 100 yards. Once around the field, then twice, then three times--sometimes alone, sometimes with a 200-pound teammate literally riding on your back. All the while Robinson bears witness with a stopwatch, verbally chasing his wrestlers around the turf.
Breaks are just long enough for the wrestlers to contemplate the fire burning in their chests. There is no time for water. When the sprints conclude, they are bent over at the waist, faces pink with exhaustion, sucking for air like a pack of rabid dogs.
The grapplers adjourn to the weight room. Immediately. For the better part of an hour they incessantly pump iron: squats, clean and jerks, chest pull downs, bench presses. It is the second workout of the day. Just after breakfast, the team held a punishing 90-minute drill session on the mat. "These guys pay a price that, I guarantee you, 99.9 percent of the general population has never known for one day," says assistant coach Mark Schwab. "These guys are some powerful shit."
The toll Robinson's recruits pay in practice has resulted in high dividends. Under Robinson's tutelage, which began in 1984, the University of Minnesota's Division I wrestling team has emerged as one of the elite programs in the country. They captured a Big Ten Championship in 1999, breaking the University of Iowa's 25-year stranglehold on the title, and have finished their last four seasons among the nation's top three teams. Only the top prize has eluded the Golden Gophers: a national championship. This season the team is on a quest to reach that last milestone. And it's well within their reach. In January, Robinson's team won the National Duals, a mid-season dust-up between the top teams in the country. Since then, they've been ranked number one in the country. Minnesota boasts four returning All Americans, and two of the most highly touted freshmen in the country (one of whom, Garrett Lowney, was an Olympic bronze medalist in Sydney, Australia). The Gophers are ranked in the top ten nationally at every weight class but one, a distinction that no other team can claim.
While Robinson's career at Minnesota has been marked by unprecedented success, it has also stirred controversy. In 1990, the coach was accused of providing such things as transportation and meals to prospective recruits, which is against NCAA rules. Rick Bay, then the U of M's athletic director, put Robinson on probation and reduced the number of wrestling scholarships from 11 to nine. Robinson insisted that he had done nothing wrong. Last year, the coach again turned heads when his longstanding criticism of women's athletics became media fodder. "I don't say I'm controversial," Robinson clarifies. "I just say I tell the truth."
To become national champions, the Gophers must first survive a Big Ten season that culminates with a weekend road trip that begins in Madison and ends in the crucible of college wrestling, Iowa City. There they will wrestle the six-time defending national champion Iowa Hawkeyes, a dynasty Robinson helped build as an assistant coach in the late Seventies and early Eighties, then left abruptly, another controversy in his wake. When the two schools met earlier in the season at the National Duals, the outcome wasn't determined until the final match, when the Gophers eked out a victory. Looking for revenge, thousands of Iowa fans--more than a few of them aware of Robinson's history--will pack Carver-Hawkeye Arena for the rematch. "Iowa's got a real rowdy crowd," says Minnesota senior Brad Pike. "They'll be booing. It's gonna be loud. And that's what drives us. They were dead silent after we beat them [at the National Duals]. No one was talking. When Iowa's silent, that's what we like."
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