U wrestling makes real estate big business
By Andrew Mannix
Coaches, wrestlers and former wrestlers at the University of Minnesota have accumulated large quantities of real estate in near-campus neighborhoods, sometimes selling and renting to one another, while J Robinson has been the head coach.
Over years of transactions, the three-time national championship coach has owned more than $3 million in real estate in southeast Minneapolis.
At least six wrestlers have owned property while on the team. Two others bought property from Robinson months after graduating. Shortly after leaving the team, an assistant coach acted as a real estate agent for a wrestler he helped recruit.
In total, people affiliated with the team have owned at least 55 different properties near campus, according to property records. This includes Robinson, two assistant coaches, a team staff member, a former assistant coach, a current wrestler and seven former wrestlers. All but one of the properties are located in the Marcy-Holmes and Southeast Como neighborhoods.
University Athletics Director Joel Maturi expressed surprise at the number of properties that have been owned by people with ties to the team in a recent interview with The Minnesota Daily.
“To say to you that I’m not concerned would not be entirely accurate,” Maturi said.
When asked about a number of specific transactions, Maturi repeatedly said they needed to be looked into by the University’s Athletic Compliance Office.
When Robinson was asked about real estate transactions conducted with former wrestlers, he first denied that any had taken place.
“I haven’t sold any houses to anybody, and they haven’t bought any houses from me, so there’s no story there,” Robinson said.
When asked specifically about a house he sold to former wrestler Luke Becker four months after Becker graduated, Robinson acknowledged the sale had taken place, but he said “there’s nothing there.”
In a later interview, Robinson declined to answer specific questions for this story.
“You’re making something out of nothing, and I have no reason to say anything,” Robinson said.
“You’re going to slant it the way you want to slant it.”
From recruiting to closing
One wrestler said Robinson discussed real estate with him during the recruiting process.
Sonny Yohn, a recruit who joined the Gophers in 2007, could not speak specifically as to why Robinson brought up real estate while he was being recruited.
Julie Manning, assistant athletic director for compliance at the University of Colorado, said a coach discussing real estate with a recruit is not on its face a violation, but it raises questions.
To be in violation of NCAA regulations, the coach would have to be making an offer to the prospective athlete, Manning said, though she spoke in generalities and with no knowledge of the University of Minnesota coach involved.
“If it was one of my coaches, it would be the last time he’d do it,” she said. “I mean, you just don’t want to play with that at all.”
NCAA regulations prohibit a coach or representative of a team from offering a recruit or his or her family member extra benefits during the recruiting process, other than those specified by the NCAA.
When asked if he thought Robinson discussed real estate as a recruiting incentive, Yohn initially said, “I don’t know.” Yohn later said he didn’t think it was meant as a recruiting tactic.
“He kind of mentioned it’s a good deal for the parents who have their kids living there to kind of search for a house around campus,” Yohn said.
Maturi said compliance will look into the situation.
Yohn did purchase a house in late August 2009.
His real estate agent for the purchase was former assistant coach Marty Morgan, who had recently left the team. Morgan had recruited Yohn out of high school.
Morgan wrestled for the Gophers until 1991 before he joined the coaching staff in 1993. He left the Gophers in 2008 to help train Ultimate Fighting Championship heavyweight and University wrestling alumnus Brock Lesnar.
Yohn said Morgan, who had recently left the coaching staff, brought him to “15 or 20” houses over the course of the summer until they settled on one in the Lauderdale neighborhood, near the University’s golf course. Yohn said his parents paid the down payment on the house.
“I probably wouldn’t have been able to do it without [Morgan],” Yohn said. “He basically did everything for me. I told him kind of what I was looking for, and he searched through and told me what would be the most ideal thing for me, for my situation.”
“He took care of it for me. I kind of wanted someone that had some experience in it, that knew what was going on,” Yohn said. “He recruited me to come here, so he was the one that I trusted a lot, and he knew it would be a good idea for me and helped me out that way.”
NCAA regulations prohibit anyone representing the interest of a college athletics program from offering an athlete an extra benefit, meaning a benefit not available to all students.
Though Morgan had left the Gophers, Scott Abel, former Heartland Conference Division II NCAA compliance coordinator, said a former assistant coach with a long-standing tie to the team is still beholden to NCAA rules. Abel spoke to hypothetical situations and without specific knowledge of the University of Minnesota coaches in question.
“Because he’s a former student-athlete and coach, he’s going to be still classified as a representative of the athletics interest, which is, you know, the definition of a booster,” Abel said.
Manning agreed that a former assistant coach is a booster, and she said this type of relationship with an athlete is cause for concern.
“We understand there are people who make their living that way too, and they’re landlords of housing,” Manning said. “But a former coach? That would raise a red flag for me.”
Morgan said he did not violate any NCAA rules by serving as Yohn’s real estate agent.
“I would be more than free, even if I was working there, to be the realtor in the transaction, because it doesn’t benefit the kid whatsoever. It does for me, of course, because it’s my career,” Morgan said.
“If you want to put in the paper that any student on the campus wants to call me, I would love it. As a realtor you show people houses, you help them purchase it and you get paid.”
When asked if Morgan serving as Yohn’s real estate agent violates regulations, Maturi said, “I think it’s something that compliance will obviously look at. I don’t have an answer to that.”
Deals with former wrestlers
Robinson sold a house to former wrestler Luke Becker for the exact same price for which he bought it four months after Becker graduated from the University in 2003, according to Minneapolis property records.
Becker said negotiations began after he graduated, though he did not remember when specifically.
Robinson owned the house for three weeks before selling it to Becker, according to property records.
“I think it has to be looked at by compliance,” Maturi said when presented with records on the sale. “I don’t know what the definitive rules are or why it happened, but it obviously needs to be looked at.”
Robinson also sold a house to former wrestler Brandon Eggum in December 2000, about eight months after Eggum graduated. Robinson had purchased the house in August of that year. Eggum did not respond to a recent request for an interview.
Manning said she would question a coach about conducting business transactions with former student-athletes, particularly in the case of an athlete who had recently graduated.
“It would appear as if you’re trying to reward that student-athlete for what they did for you during their eligibility years, so yeah, it’s a little bit dangerous when it’s that close [after the athlete graduates],” she said, speaking in generalities.
Becker and Eggum are now both assistant Gophers coaches. Becker currently owns four rental properties, he said. Eggum owns at least five, according to records.
A wrestling real estate culture
Robinson has owned at least 13 houses in Southeast Minneapolis since 2000, according to city property records.
In addition to selling houses to Becker and Eggum, Robinson bought houses from former wrestlers Jesse Krebs and Leroy Vega after the athletes graduated. Both Krebs and Vega had purchased the properties while still on the team. Vega graduated a year before the deal with Robinson; Krebs had graduated four years before the sale.
The two sales took place one day apart, according to Minneapolis property records. Robinson sold both properties on the same day about a year later to one buyer, according to the records.
Jared Lawrence, a former wrestler and current director of operations and strength for the Gophers, has also owned a property near campus, according to property records.
Former wrestlers Roger Kish, C.P. Schlatter and Josh McKlay purchased properties while they were wrestlers, according to records.
Business partners of people affiliated with the team have owned a chunk of southeast Minneapolis real estate as well. Morgan has been involved in at least five business entities with Daniel Moerke, who has owned several rental properties in the area.
Because property records cannot be searched by owner, it is unclear how many total people affiliated with the Gophers wrestling team have owned properties near campus.
Renting to wrestlers
University compliance director JT Bruett said the University investigated an allegation “a couple of years ago” that Robinson was renting to wrestlers at a discounted rate. Depending on the circumstances, this could be an NCAA violation.
Bruett said the University determined that Robinson was not violating any NCAA rules in the rental relationships they examined.
The University also found that Morgan, as an assistant coach, had been renting to a wrestler for a discounted rate because the athlete was the property’s manager, Bruett said. Compliance found that Morgan was giving the wrestler an appropriate rent reduction and not in violation of NCAA regulations, Bruett said.
Morgan, who has owned at least 10 rental properties in southeast Minneapolis, acknowledged the potential danger of renting to wrestlers in a recent interview.
Morgan said he made an exception for Jeremy Larson, who graduated in 2008, because he was more responsible than the average college student.
“Jeremy was married.” Morgan said. “I just needed someone to live in a unit, and I gave him partial discount for helping with the property, and he was exceptional at it.”
NCAA regulations specifically prohibit “free or reduced-cost services, rentals or purchases of any type” or “free or reduced-cost housing.” This does not apply if the NCAA finds the benefits are earned.
Jason Klohs, a southeast Minneapolis real estate agent who wrestled for the Gophers in the early 1990s, said because of his ties to the team, he makes it a policy to never rent to wrestlers.
“I just generally don’t rent to wrestlers because I don’t want to get [mis]construed,” Klohs said. “I don’t know what other guys’ policies are. Some of the assistant coaches may rent to guys. I would assume that that’s probably not done. I don’t know, but I would assume just to keep away from getting into a sticky wicket that it’s probably not done.”
At least one current and one recently graduated wrestler rent to other wrestlers. Yohn rents to three of his teammates, he said. C.P. Schlatter, a former wrestler who graduated in 2008, purchased two houses in the Southeast Como neighborhood while a wrestler for the Gophers.
C.P. Schlatter also rents to wrestlers. His brother Dustin Schlatter, a current wrestler, lives in one of C.P. Schlatter’s houses, according to University records.
An entrepreneurial coach
Touting three national championships and 44 All-American wrestlers since he took the helm in 1986, Robinson is one of the most successful college wrestling coaches in the country.
In the past 10 years, Amateur Wrestling News has dubbed two of Robinson’s recruiting classes No. 1 in the country; nine made the top 10.
Robinson has other business interests as well.
In addition to real estate, Robinson operates a popular summer camp called J Robinson Camps, which offers training in wrestling, basketball and hockey.
Robinson resigned from his position as assistant coach of the University of Iowa wrestling team in 1984 following a dispute over financial control of his camps.
“J Robinson is probably as entrepreneurial a coach as you can get,” Maturi said.
Some of Robinson’s entrepreneurial ventures have involved large amounts of cash, according to public records.
In 2000, Robinson requested information about renting an armored car from American Security Corporation.
The armored car was to make two pickups a week at the Sanford residence hall for six months beginning in May, according to a letter from the security company addressed to Robinson and obtained by the Daily. It’s unclear if Robinson actually rented the armored car.
That same year, Robinson filed a petition in court after the city of Plymouth denied him a permit to carry a concealed handgun. Robinson argued he needed to carry a firearm because he “carries large amounts of cash to his bank or home from his various places of business,” according to documents filed in Hennepin County.
Shortly after, Robinson inquired to University police if carrying a firearm on campus would violate any University policies.
In a letter addressed to Robinson, then-University police Capt. Steve Johnson said the only University policy that addresses firearms on campus is the Student Conduct Code, which does not apply to staff and faculty. Johnson went on to cite city regulations that state a handgun must be “unloaded, locked in a case, and the ammo must be separate from the gun.”
A family business
Some former wrestlers have gone on to become well established in the real estate business after graduating from the University.
Klohs owns 15 rental properties — largely in the University area — and a construction company, he said. Blake Bonjean, who wrestled for the Gophers in the mid-1980s, has owned at least 11 properties in the Southeast Como and Marcy-Holmes neighborhoods.
Klohs said he has been interested in the real estate business since high school. When he was wrestling for the Gophers and saw others affiliated with the program entering the field, he decided to try his hand at it, Klohs said.
Klohs said he thinks real estate is a natural fit for Gophers wrestlers, in part because wrestlers are able to save money by doing the labor and maintenance that other property owners hire out.
Because so many people in the wrestling community are involved with real estate, it’s easy for wrestlers to get advice on how to break into the business, Klohs said.
“It was easy for people to catch on because they had all the information available to them from people who had already done this. Wrestling is a real family,” he said. “Wrestling doesn’t grow without wrestlers helping other wrestlers.”
Yohn said he purchased property because it was a good investment. Yohn also has a younger brother on the team who he said will live with him in the house next year.
Morgan and Klohs both acknowledged that real estate is simply a good investment for students, especially those in a “no-money” sport like wrestling. “No one ever calls me and asks me about my 401(k),” Morgan said.
Both former athletes said they have given advice to wrestlers on how to get into real estate. In a 2007 interview with the Daily, Robinson also acknowledged that he advises wrestlers on real estate.
“Yeah, I talk to some of them,” Robinson said. “I talk to some of their parents and say ‘this is a good thing to do; this is a good idea.’ ”
“Then, if their parents come here to check on their rental property, they can write off their trip. There are a lot of benefits.”
—Briana Bierschbach, Mike Mullen and former Daily reporter Mark Remme contributed to this report.