J Robinson wrestling real estate probe

U of M coach J Robinson gave wrestlers help beyond the mat
courtesy of Gopher Sports

EDITOR'S NOTE: The author broke this story as a student journalist for the Minnesota Daily. This is a follow-up to his original report.

On December 10, 2009, Mark Rotenberg read a story in the Minnesota Daily newspaper about a culture of real estate growing out of the Gophers wrestling team.

According to the story, current and former coaches and wrestlers owned a big chunk of housing near the University of Minnesota. Some conversations and business deals between coaches and current or recently graduated wrestlers had raised the eyebrows of athletic compliance directors.

This was all news to Rotenberg, the U of M's lead attorney. Rotenberg talked with U of M compliance director J.T. Bruett that day. By that evening, Rotenberg announced that the college would launch an internal investigation into the wrestling team.

"I thought it might indicate a possible violation of NCAA rules," says Rotenberg. "I thought that we needed to look into it."

At the time, Rotenberg projected that the investigation would wrap up by early January. But it dragged on. On January 8, Rotenberg said he wasn't sure if anyone had even been interviewed yet. Then the dense property records took longer than expected to sift through, pushing the process months past the original deadline.

In late May, the U finally released a six-page report of the findings. It confirmed that head coach J Robinson had bought houses from and sold to recent graduates of the wrestling program. Additionally, a former assistant coach helped a current wrestler negotiate the purchase of a house near the U of M campus.

But because the coaches offered the same help to others not affiliated with the team, their actions didn't violate NCAA rules, according to the report.

NCAA regulations bar coaches from giving student athletes extra benefits. In this case, coaches can do business with wrestlers as long as they don't give them preferential treatment, says Greg Walter, compliance commissioner at the Summit League.

"To me, if they were market-value transactions, then where's the benefit?" Walter asks.

One of the report's findings contradicts the Daily story that triggered the investigation. The report maintains that coaches didn't discuss real estate with any prospects during the recruitment process. But Sonny Yohn told the Daily last December that head coach J Robinson first mentioned the benefits of home ownership to him during recruitment.

Rotenberg wouldn't speak specifically about Yohn, citing state data laws.

"I can tell you that our interviews covered all of the specific allegations of the Daily report," says Rotenberg. "We determined that any conversations that might have involved real estate did not violate NCAA rules."

The Daily reported that throughout Robinson's tenure as head coach of the Gophers, people with ties to the team owned more than 55 properties near the U of M campus. Robinson had owned more than $3 million in properties, and has done business with at least four former athletes.

In one case, Robinson sold a house to former wrestler Luke Becker four months after he graduated. Property records show Becker paid the exact same price for the house that Robinson did when he originally bought it. According to the report, Becker paid a closing cost and "believes he paid a separate amount of interest" to Robinson, but he couldn't confirm this with paperwork.

While no NCAA violations were found, additional business dealings between coaches and players surfaced during the probe. In the mid- to late '90s, Robinson loaned money to three staff members to help them buy houses. Two of them were former Gophers wrestlers; the third had wrestled for Northern Iowa. The loans ranged from $1,000 to $5,000, and Robinson told investigators the staffers paid him back through installments and working at his summer camps.

During the probe, U investigators consulted with the NCAA and the Big Ten.

"Something of this nature is not a customary thing you run into every day," says Chris Peacock, who has worked as a compliance director for several universities but was not involved in this case. "A lot of the NCAA rules aren't so clear, and sometimes it's hard to determine if something like this was considered an extra benefit or a recruiting inducement, so you talk to their people with expertise."

The U shipped the report off to the NCAA in late May. The timing was convenient—it was just after news broke that they had offered Robinson his first multi-year contract in more than a decade. It also came just after the U's spring semester ended.

Rotenberg says there was no strategy behind the timing of the report's release. "No. We released it when it was ready to go. I didn't hold it for even a day."

Now that the investigation is over, Rotenberg says there are no plans to change how the U of M monitors business dealing between coaches and students.

"We run an institution of higher learning," Rotenberg says. "We're not an investigative or spy agency here. The university assumes that the coaching staff will carefully follow all NCAA rules and run the program by the book. If there are indications that that's not happening, then we will investigate again." 

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