Years ago, a young kid marched off the wrestling mat at Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor having been defeated, pinned. His grandfather came over to him and offered words of encouragement. Many wrestlers would take Grandpa”s words of unconditional love for granted, but Jim Keen Jr. listened intently. After all, they were coming from the most successful wrestling coach in Michigan history.
“Grandpa always believed that wrestling was highly educational and developmental,” Keen Jr. said. “Even after losses he”d say that you could chalk this one up to experience.”
Cliff Keen left an enormous mark on the sport of wrestling. Keen, the man for whom Michigan”s wrestling arena is named, coached the Wolverines from 1925 to 1970. Afterward, he worked as founder and president of Cliff Keen Athletic Products, the largest wrestling equipment and apparel company in the United States. He went to work until the day that he died.
Whether guiding one of his 12 Big Ten Championship teams, studying for his law degree from Michigan, serving as a Naval commander during World War II or running Cliff Keen Athletic Products, Keen”s favorite attribute was self-discipline. He always raised his athletes to be in better conditioned than the competition.
For this reason, if Keen was alive today, he”d be a big fan of the 2001 Wolverines.
“He”d call them “a fine group of boys,”” Keen Jr. said, recalling one of his grandfather”s favorite phrases. “He”d be impressed with their accomplishments off the mat too. He always recruited athletes with more than just wrestling ability.”
Like many Michigan alumni, Keen Jr. believes that this group of wrestlers could be among the best in Michigan”s history.
“Their potential is up there with any of them,” Keen Jr. said. “Joe McFarland brings a lot of excitement with him people have high expectations.”
No wrestler epitomizes the Keen-like discipline more than captain and Big Ten champion Otto Olson.
“He”d like the same thing (about Olson) as I do,” Keen Jr. said. “The guy got run over by a car for pete”s sake. You could whack him with a two-by-four and it wouldn”t faze him. In his first match back from injury, I thought he was going to kill the kid.”
McFarland, a former Michigan wrestler, never got to wrestle for Keen but he did have the privilege of meeting him.
“I remember the first time I met him as a high school kid from Cleveland,” McFarland said. “I knew I was wearing Cliff Keen headgear (Keen invented the wrestling headgear), I was in awe. It”s incredible how many former wrestlers of his have nothing but praise for Coach Keen.”
The relationships that the living Keens have with Michigan wrestling are a great example of the program”s family-like atmosphere.
“We are Michigan people,” Keen Jr. said. “Michigan has continued to be part of our blood.”
McFarland and Keen”s son Jim and grandsons Tom and Jim Jr. have a close, personal relationship with McFarland. Jim Jr. is now the president of Cliff Keen Athletic Products.
“The whole family is really a class act,” McFarland said. “I am grateful to be friends with them. It is something I hold dear to my heart. They”ve all gone through the University and graduated from here.”
While Keen never achieved the insurmountable amount of success that Iowa coach Dan Gable did, he developed Michigan into a historical power some consider him a Gable before Gable. His 12 titles came at a time when the Big Ten Championship was the highest honor for a team to win the national tournament was after the season and thus, not as important.
“Gable was able to do at Iowa what no coach has done in any sport,” McFarland said. “But they are both legends in their own way, and they”ve inspired a lot of athletes.”
McFarland is proud to be part of a tradition that includes Cliff Keen. Jim Jr. is thankful for his biological lineage.
“I never saw it as big shoes to fill,” Keen Jr. said. “It is great that people thought so highly of him. You realize that you were privileged to know him.”