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University of Minnesota
October 6, 2009
Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug and Gopher wrestling coach J Robinson share a moment at a Gopher practice.
Photo: courtesy Mary Christensen-White
U wrestling coach J Robinson shares his relationship with Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug
By Ryan Maus
Norman Borlaug was many different things to many people. He was a scientist, a Nobel laureate, a life-saver, a father, and a husband.
But to University of Minnesota wrestling coach J Robinson, he was just his friend Norm.
At first glance, it seems like an unlikely friendship. Borlaug, a U of M alumnus who passed away at age 95 on September 12, was one of the most influential people of the 20th century. His work spearheading the "Green Revolution" is estimated to have saved hundreds of millions of people worldwide from starvation. He was honored with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.
Robinson is equally as respected in his own field, as one of the most accomplished head coaches in the history of collegiate wrestling. His teams have won three NCAA championships and he has coached eight individual national champions and 44 All-Americans in his 23 years at the U.
Borlaug and Robinson bonded over a shared passion—the sport of wrestling. Before Borlaug became a world-renowned scientist, he wrestled for three years for the Gophers under then-head coach Dave Bartelma.
Robinson met him about a half century later.
"When I first got the job here [at the U of M] in 1986, I was down the hall in an office, and this guy came in and introduced himself as Norm Borlaug," says Robinson about the first meeting between the pair. "He just sat down and we probably talked for about an hour, talked about sports, talked about wrestling. He told me all the things he did, and his time wrestling here.
"He said 'My name's Norman Borlaug, and I was a history major.' I'm thinking 'Borlaug, Borlaug...' It didn't really dawn on me who he was until he left."
"He was a wrestler, an alumnus, a friend," says Robinson. "He was one of those special people you meet throughout your life that, even if you see them 20 years later, your face lights up. There was a magic there, a connection there."
The meeting marked the start of a friendship that would last for more than 20 years. Borlaug, who once recalled that he won "nine of 11 bouts" during a stretch of his Gopher career and who was also a referee at the first-ever Minnesota state high school wrestling tournament in 1938, would often speak to the Gopher wrestlers during his visits to Minnesota, imparting important lessons to Robinson's athletes. He was a guest of honor at the Minnesota-Iowa dual meet in 2002 at the Xcel Energy Center, and would often write the Gophers to congratulate them on their national success.
"The legacy he'll leave for the wrestling team is that there's life after wrestling," says Robinson. "The skills that you learn in wrestling are transferrable to other things in life. Yeah, it's great to be an NCAA champion or Olympic champion, but there are other things to come."
Robinson, who spent a day with Borlaug late this summer in his Texas home, especially admired Borlaug's humble nature.
"He really enjoyed his roots," said Robinson of the Cresco, Iowa, native. "He never forgot who he was and where he came from, and that's what kept him so grounded. He was a very gentle and unassuming person."
"The guy won awards and associated with presidents, but you would have never known," he adds.
Robinson is one of several scheduled speakers at the October 8 memorial for Borlaug at the McNamara Alumni Center, and the lone non-academic. While others can speak to Borlaug's lifetime worth of monumental achievements, Robinson will eulogize him the only way he knows how—as his friend.
"He was a wrestler, an alumnus, a friend," says Robinson. "He was one of those special people you meet throughout your life that, even if you see them 20 years later, your face lights up. There was a magic there, a connection there.
"That's what made Norm Borlaug so special to so many people. Because of his roots, he connected with so many people. That's who he was to me—he was my friend Norm."