Cliff Keen grew up on a farm in Oklahoma. In college, he was an undefeated wrestler, a football player and a track athlete for Oklahoma A&M, which is now Oklahoma State.
He came to Ann Arbor to attend the University of Michigan Law School, from which he earned his law degree in 1933. He then stayed in the community, working at a small law firm in Ann Arbor while coaching the wrestling team. Just a few years after he became the head varsity wrestling coach, he left his law job to focus on coaching full-time.
During his time as the wrestling coach, Keen was also part of the football coaching staff for 33 years and was an assistant coach under the helm of Michigan greats: Fritz Crisler, Fielding Yost and Bennie Oosterbaan.
Keen was also the head coach of Michigan’s 150-pound football team during the 1947 and 1948 seasons — the only two seasons in which the team existed. He won national titles both years and brought the T-formation into Michigan football.
As a wrestling coach, Keen had the longest tenure of any coach in University athletics history and holds the record for the longest career of any collegiate wrestling coach. He was the head coach at Michigan for 42 years, spanning from 1925 to 1970, with a three-year break during World War II where he spent his time as a naval commander.
During his tenure as the head coach for Michigan, Keen led many teams to outstanding success. His accomplishments include 12 Big Ten Conference Championships, 11 individual NCAA champion wrestlers, 68 All-Americans and 81 Big Ten Champions.
In 1977, Keen was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. A few years later in 1980, he was inducted into the University of Michigan Hall of Honor. In 1981, he was inducted into the State of Michigan Sports Hall of Fame.
Statistically speaking, Keen is one of the greatest coaches of all-time at Michigan in any sport. But what makes him truly a legend is his value in building the character of his wrestlers and those around him by setting a positive example with his coaching style.
“You know he was quite a task master, but he had a unique style that he used to motivate people,” Rick Bay, a former Michigan wrestler and Keen’s assistant coach from 1970-1974 and successor, said. “His way was really to always let you know that he thought you could do better, but at the end of the day, his philosophy was even if he had been getting on somebody during practice for one reason or another, at the end of each practice if that had been the case he would take that person aside and say something positive. He always felt like you should leave any coaching situation each day with something positive.
“He was inspirational in a way that was sort of quiet and philosophical … he wasn’t much into chewing anybody out, especially in front of the team,” Bay said. “He would say, ‘You know, it takes a long time to build up someone's confidence, but a person with authority can tear it down pretty quickly,’ and so he coached in a positive way. You know there are coaches who coach negatively that works too for some but not for him.”
Jesse Rawls Sr., an All-American wrestler for Keen during the last years of his coaching career, spoke about the impact that positive coaching and reassurance can have on an athlete through an experience he had with Keen.
“He said to me one day, came up to me (after) I won the match. I did something, I don’t know what, I was losing, I ended up winning and I didn’t quit. I can remember sitting beside him, and he hit me on my knee and he said, ‘Boy you’re one hell of a guy, one hell of a wrestler.’ And that just did a lot for me as a person, because when a coach says you did a fine job and you know that, deep down inside, you tried to do a fine job. That really gave me a big plus sign.
“I went on that year and won the Big Ten Championship without a doubt, and he was very proud of that.”
Keen believed in coaching the fundamentals and he often taught wrestlers by stepping on to the mat and giving demonstrations himself — even at the end of his career, when he was in his late 60s. Even at matches, Keen would sometimes demonstrate a move that he thought would be a good strategy.
“Even though at that moment he’d be in coat and tie and I would too because we were the coaches, we would take our team out and heck, he’d take off his suit coat if it popped into his mind, he’d get down on the mat (and say), ‘Rick jump on top of me I wanna show this,’ ” Bay said. “He was wearing a coat and tie and he was demonstrating on me for the sake of the wrestlers trying to make a point, and of course he’d mess up my shirt and he elbowed me in the ribs while he was demonstrating all this, but that was kind of the way he did it. It was sort of off the top of his head, but he had a lot of experience.”
Even after his retirement, Keen continued to influence Michigan wrestling. In his career as a wrestling coach, Bay incorporated many coaching techniques that he learned from Keen when he became Michigan’s next head coach.
“I used everything I learned from him,” Bay said. “I mean I talked about positive reinforcement, I was not a screamer, I did not swear at my team or individuals on the team, I always tried to treat everybody with respect. I tried to be more organized than I thought (Keen) was, but that was just my own personality.”
Rawls also incorporated many of the coaching techniques he learned from Keen when he coached at Harrisburg University after his playing days.
“If you talk to any of my wrestlers, I would always say, ‘Son do this, son do that’ and I always prepared them for the next step,” Rawls said. “I said that ‘cause coach Keen used to always use these terms.”
Keen’s coaching style also led to a close-knit team atmosphere that was commended by those who wrestled for him.
“We’re going out here, the A boys, and we’re gonna act like men and we’re gonna wrestle and we’re gonna be tough,” Rawls said.
Bradford Stone — my grandfather and a class of 1950 wrestler for Keen — had similarly positive memories from his time competing with the Wolverines. He especially enjoyed the camaraderie of the team.
“That’s what separates wrestling from a lot of other team sports is that you have no one,” Stone said. “Look to your left, look to your right, there’s nobody there, (but) they would always root for you and so forth and you would root for them.”
Jerry Hoddy, an All-American wrestler for Keen who wrestled during the last years of Keen’s coaching career, also spoke about how close the team was and how the team had each other’s backs even in difficult times.
“One of his favorite sayings, particularly under duress when we were traveling, was when something would go wrong … (he) had his boys and if we got anywhere and there was some sort of snafu — and about 9 out of 10 times there was — Cliff would get into a dither and you’d hear this booming voice say well I got my boys here,” Hoddy said. “He was just an immense father figure for everybody that came through that program for years and years and years. Everybody cherishes that time and I think most people would say (they) unabashedly loved Cliff Keen dearly.”
That team dynamic not only led Keen’s wrestlers to want to win for themselves, but also win for Keen and the University.
“You wanted him to be proud of you,” Bay said. “That was always a dynamic that was pretty pervasive, so you wanted to win for yourself, but you (also) wanted to win for coach Keen.”
Keen was a man who was true to his word and who highly valued integrity, hard work and old school sportsmanship.
“I first met him in 1968, when he came to Lawrenson, Minnesota (where) we had the Junior College National Wrestling Championship,” Rawls said. “That’s when I met him and that’s when he offered me a scholarship at the University of Michigan. And his words to me — that I will never forget — was that he had never recruited a Black wrestler.
“And he came to Minnesota to recruit the best wrestler in the tournament. And I happened to be the best wrestler in the tournament and happened to be Black. So, we recruited. And he said ‘If you come to Michigan, I’ll give you a full scholarship,’ and my whole life changed. That stuck with me and I will always remember that. And he was true to his word.”
Stone also spoke about the values and integrity that Keen had.
In the Big Ten dual meet, Michigan’s Larry Nelson won his previous round, but not without cost. Nelson was injured and with it, Michigan’s chances of a championship lowered. Stone, who was standing nearby, suggested Nelson make an appearance despite his injury — the appearance would help the Wolverines’ chances of making the conference championships. However, Keen refused.
“And he said, ‘I would not take a chance on injuring a young boy.’ Sports didn’t matter as much as the health of his boys, in other words.”
Keen also believed strongly that being a student came before being an athlete. Hoddy spoke about the importance of academics to Keen.
“He took great pride in his rate of graduation, of the people that went through the wrestling program there at the University of Michigan.” Hoddy said. “He was always talking about (how it’s) not so much what you do while you’re here in Ann Arbor, it’s what you do after you leave.”
Keen also believed that lessons learned on the mat could be used in the athletes’ lives outside of sports as well.
“There was one time when there was a guy named Byron Dean in my weight class and we would wrestle off to see who gets to represent Michigan and who was going to go down and wrestle Illinois,” Stone said. “I actually won the match internally. And I really wanted to get this, now he would beat me 6-3 or 8-4, so that night I couldn’t sleep half the night and I was so charged up, went out there and I beat him 5-0. And I found out that if I just put forth regular effort, I’m sort of average, average at a high level of course, not off the street, but if I really wanted something and really put my effort into it without reservations, how much better I could be. And I carried that over the years. I learned that from Keen while wrestling. Multitudes of us were made better people for having wrestled under Keen.”
Keen cared about his athletes very much and still had strong connections with his wrestlers after they graduated
In 1975, Rawls needed somewhere to train for the 1976 Olympics. Where else but with an elite program at Michigan? There was just one problem: He had nowhere to live, but Keen looked after his wrestlers.
“He said, ‘Let me see what I can do for you.’ I got there Labor Day, which was September 1975,” Rawls recalls. “I called him, and that … Tuesday or Wednesday I had an interview, and Friday I was moving into housing. Just that fast. That’s how much pull that he had.”
At his retirement party after 42 years of coaching, wrestlers decades apart in age came together to share their well wishes.
“And all his former wrestlers that were still living all came back to pay him homage upon his retirement.” Stone said. “It was an evening just full of love and full of respect and that was a remarkable evening.”
“He was an immense father figure for everybody that came through that program for years and years and years.” Hoddy said “Everybody cherishes that time and I think most people would say, unabashedly, they loved Cliff Keen dearly and everything that he did to represent the University of Michigan was a proper thing.”
Keen’s legacy lives on through the University and the sport of wrestling. The wrestling supply company he founded in 1958, Cliff Keen Athletic, is one of the premiere companies in the business and wrestlers across the country use the signature Cliff Keen headgear designed by the coach.
Keen positively impacted many people’s lives during his coaching career and his legacy will live on.
“You gotta say he is one of the great Michigan coaches of all time in any sport,” Bay said. “He was a unique individual. Nothing one dimensional about him. He was dignified. He was a gentleman coach. He coached the way I always felt you should coach. I think the principles he stood for are still important today.”
Even now, Keen commands a high degree of respect in wrestlers of all ages, including those too young to remember his time at Michigan.
“Last year at a shopping mall in Livonia, we saw a teenager wearing a Cliff Keen Wrestling Club shirt.” Stone said. “We asked him about it. He was a high-school wrestler. I told him that I had wrestled for Cliff Keen. He said, with an expression of awe, you wrestled for Cliff Keen?
“I realized, (as) if I didn’t already know, that his influence spanned generations.”
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