The greatest personal collection of Michigan athletic history can be found in a most unlikely place: in the cold, dingy basement of a three-story townhouse off South Main Street. The floor is cluttered with scrapbooks and boxes of memorabilia. The tables and shelves are like an intricate game of dominos; removing one item would undoubtedly disrupt the chaotic perfection.
“Down the stairs and to the left,” a voice calls. “The light switch is on your left hand side. I’ll be down in a moment.”
After a few minutes perusing the seemingly endless wall of photos, light footsteps are heard descending the stairs, and into this shrine of Michigan sports history walks Red Simmons, the father of women’s sports at the University of Michigan. He takes a seat in a wooden rocker, his leather moccasins tapping lightly against the frigid floor.
Red celebrated his 100th birthday yesterday, but if you happened across him on the street or in the gym — where he still works out five days a week — you wouldn’t be able to tell. His hair is flecked with red strands; his blue eyes shine with the vigor of a man years his junior.
Shifting his weight in the chair, Red pulls up the sleeves of his navy Michigan sweater, revealing what his eyes and hair could not show. For a moment, he unclenches his fists and wrinkles like a mountain range form on his hands.
His age is in his skin.
“It’s old man skin,” he says, only slightly joking.
Red reaches to check the small golden watch on his left wrist. He has dinner plans with his wife, Lois, in a few hours, and he wants to make sure he has enough time to tell his story.
He won the watch in 1932 at the Penn Relays, then considered the National Championships for collegiate track. In those days, it clung tight to his wrist. Looking at it now, hanging loosely on his slender frame, it’s clear the strain 100 years has put on the man. He didn’t have old man skin then, he jokes.
It’s fitting that Red still has the watch. In their 78 years together, this timepiece has seen the unlikely story of a man who changed the face of sports at the University of Michigan. The watch is a witness to the life of this quiet legend.
Ever faithful, the watch ticked on as Red spent 25 years on the Detroit Police force, where he competed in races and perfected his weight-training regimen. The watch was there when Red proposed the idea of a women’s track team to then-Michigan Athletic Director Don Canham — a legend of Michigan athletic folklore in his own right. It saw the discovery of Red’s first protégé on the track, and, for the next 16 years, it loyally calculated the splits of the girls who traveled across the state to be coached by the man who dared to call women athletes.
And after all these years, the watch hands still tick past the hour markers.
“See, it still works,” he says with a satisfied grin.
Red was born January 5, 1910 in Redford, Mich. — a small farming community just west of Detroit. Red’s eighth-grade teacher, Mr. Pontius, spotted a talent in the young man and asked his parents to allow him to attend nearby Redford High School so he could train to be a runner. Pontius had convinced the farmers in town to mow a track into the field behind Beech Road Middle School. And it’s here, in Redford, off 7 Mile Road, where Red and a few other boys would train after school.
Red discovered he had natural talent and soon developed into a great runner. In the fall of 1929 he enrolled at Michigan State Normal College — now Eastern Michigan University — after he garnered the attention of coach Lloyd Olds.
“I didn’t have anything for (the first) month and a half, maybe longer,” Red says. “I hitchhiked … and every day I carried my lunch, went to class and never bought a book.”
He washed wrestling mats in the basement of the school’s gymnasium to pay for tuition — which cost $18.50 per semester.
Red points to a photo in his basement, torn at all four corners and matted behind a dark mahogany frame. It’s a picture of his eighth grade class. “He changed my life,” Red says, pointing to Mr. Pontius in the back row. “If it hadn’t been for this man, none of this stuff would have been here today.” Red looks around his basement, surveying the images, before turning and pointing to himself.
Next to this hangs another memorable image for Red: a photo of his mile relay team at Michigan Normal. Despite being a hurdler, Red wanted a spot on the relay team because he knew it had the best chance at a national championship. For three years he won the fourth spot in the time trials.
At the Penn Relays in Philadelphia in 1932, Red received a perfect handoff and a four-stride lead going into the second leg of the race. The lead lessened during Red’s 400 meters, but it didn’t matter. His teammates knew it would be difficult for anyone to catch him.
After winning the race, the four runners were led to a man seated at the awards table near the far end of the track. The man asked for Red’s name.
“Kenneth G. Simmons,” he responded, as the man pried the glass face off of a small golden watch and wrote his name between the hour markers.
Red checks his watch: an hour until dinner. Plenty of time, he says, for more stories.
He gets up from the rocking chair and walks over to an old photograph clipped from a Detroit newspaper in 1937. “Kenneth Simmons, Detroit policeman, captures the 100-yard dash,” the caption reads. Red is pictured on the inside lane, head thrown back, as he pushes his chest forward to beat the other competitors with a lean.
“I call this one ‘Daddy just made 12 dollars,’ ” he says.
Red graduated from Michigan Normal in 1933 with a degree in Education, entering the workforce during the darkest year of the Great Depression. Luckily for Red, the Detroit Police Department had heard of the “Crimson Flash” from Ypsilanti and wanted him for its track team. The police track circuit paid cash prizes back then for the first four spots in each race, and Red was running up to seven events a meet.
He had no intention of staying on the force for long, he just needed some money to get by until he could find a job as a track coach and teacher. He’d make some money in the police circuit races and then be out in a year or two, he thought.
“It didn’t get over in a year. And the next thing you know, I’ve got 12 1/2 years in the police department,” Red says, pointing out the knife wounds on his hands and the bullet slugs in his legs. “They’re still there,” he says. “I promise.” He went on to spend 25 years in the force, leaving in 1959 after becoming pension eligible.
As he got older, Red’s natural speed no longer proved enough to win like he used to. He realized he needed to find a way to make himself stronger and placed a call to the New York Barbell Club. He soon began training with weights. Through studies of anatomy, Red put together a fitness routine that helped prolong his racing career until he was in his mid 80’s. Red would bring this weight regimen with him when he went on to coach women’s track at Michigan, implementing it at around the same time the football team began lifting weights.
Wilma Rudolph was the star of the 1960 Olympics in Rome, setting a world record in the 200-meter dash from the inside lane. Red had made the trip to Italy with his wife, Betty, whom he had met while in college (Betty died in 1974, and Red later remarried, to Lois). The two went only as spectators, watching from the grandstands as Rudolph won three gold medals.
But as he watched Rudolph’s stunning performances as a sprinter, and compared them with the general poor showing from the U.S. Olympic women’s distance team, Red thought he had found the missing link — coaching.
Rudolph succeeded in the Rome Olympics because she was well coached, Red says. Sitting in the stands, he and Betty decided to return to Ann Arbor with the goal of finding a naturally gifted young female runner to coach to Olympic-level quality. And he was going to do it at the University of Michigan.
Red was teaching weight training classes at the University, while also studying to receive his masters degree in Physical Education. He was well acquainted with the Athletic Department.
“I went to talk to the (Michigan Athletic Director) at the time, Don Canham, and he says, ‘Women? Running? Sweating? They’re not supposed to do that,’ ” Red recalls with a laugh and a shake of his head. “But I kept after him and he finally said, ‘Well, how many do you have?’ And I said, ‘I haven’t gotten any yet.’ ”
After receiving the go-ahead from Canham, Red asked his wife to pick out the best female athlete at Slauson Middle School in Ann Arbor, where she taught at the time. Betty chose Francie Kraker Goodridge, who had no idea that she would become a part of Michigan athletic history.
“It was thrown right at me,” Kraker Goodridge says, sitting across from me on a brisk fall afternoon. “(Red asked), ‘Would you like to train for the Olympics?’ I mean, woah, I was 14.”
So with a pair of recycled shoes that Red had pulled out of a bin at Yost, the all-female women’s track club, Michigammes, was born. And although they didn’t know it at the time, Simmons and Kraker Goodridge had laid the groundwork for what would eventually become varsity female track at the University.
Looking back, it’s hard for Kraker Goodridge to imagine the impact she would have on not only track and field at the University, but all sports for women. At the time, women had no place to train; they weren’t even in the conversation when it came to athletics. But here was Red, offering a place for her to grow and compete just like one of the boys.
In the winter of 1961, when every varsity team was fighting for time in Yost, Red and Kraker Goodridge experienced their first taste of adversity, surprisingly, from the man who had initially allowed them in.
“He was kind of a rough character,” Kraker Goodridge says of Canham with a disquieted smile. “He’d look at me and he’d just spit on the track. Literally, right in front of me with just this evil look.”
Amid all the controversy of the day, those who said women and athletics don’t mix, Red pushed on.
“Truly, he danced to a different drummer,” former Michigan football coach Lloyd Carr says of Red. “He wasn’t interested in the mentality that was there at the time that he began to work with women. He’s one of those guys that followed his passion and certainly personifies, in my judgment, the idea that if you follow your own dreams then you’re going to make a huge difference.”
In early summer, before Kraker Goodridge’s junior year of high school, she took a hard spill on the outdoor cinder track at Yost when she looked behind her during a workout and lost concentration. In a flash, her body crashed against the cinders. Slowly, she returned to her feet, covered in blood.
Red jokes today that it was a lesson learned in always keeping the focus on what’s in front of you — in life and track.
There’s a consensus among those who know Red well, that one of his greatest strengths as a coach was never making track the focus of life. Rather, life became the focus of track. While Kraker Goodridge did go on to become a two-time Olympian, Red understood that not all of his athletes would be as successful as her.
Kraker Goodridge later became a coach and coordinated women’s athletics for 26 years, first at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, then at the University of Michigan and Wake Forest University, and she says Red’s advice went with her wherever she went.
“I don’t know what I would have been in my life,” Kraker says. “That’s what every young woman that he’s touched over the years would say. Whatever their level of success as a runner was, it was that it gave them something so special that it determined the course of their lives.”
Red grabs a small photo album off the desk behind him. The pages are filled with images of young female runners like Kraker Goodridge, all wearing Michigammes track uniforms, their faces lit up with bright smiles.
Despite its official passage four years earlier, the University fully implemented Title IX in 1976. That same year, Canham called Red into his office and offered him the job as the head coach of the women’s track team. Though Red had been waiting nearly two decades for this opportunity, he still had one demand.
“I said right away, ‘Well, I would like that but I’m not taking this job traveling around the country, I’m not going out on the road under those conditions alone. My wife is going with me or I don’t take it,’ ” Red recalls telling Canham. “Canham says, ‘Fine. She’s Mrs. Coach.’ ”
Lois calls down from the kitchen, reminding her husband of their dinner date.
Red peeks at his watch — there’s still 15 more minutes, enough time for one last story.
In October 1995, shortly after Lloyd Carr had been named head football coach at the University, Red knocked on his office door. Asking only for a minute of his time, Red gave Carr what the former football coach considers to be some of the greatest advice he ever received.
Opening his hand, Red placed a small medal on Carr’s desk. “Read what it says,” Red told Carr.
“Health. Family. Friends.”
“He said, ‘Lloyd, when you’re through coaching, make sure that you still have these three things. They’re the most important things in life,’ ” Carr recalls during an interview in his office. “I will always be grateful to him for taking the time to reach out to me.”
For all the seasons Carr coached, the medal stayed in a desk drawer in his office.
“I think his motivation comes from being able to take a young person and help them gain the confidence and the belief that they can do special things. To me, that’s what coaching is,” Carr says. “It’s about teaching and motivating and being there when the down times come. Because for every athlete, in any sport for any length of time, you have to deal with injury, you have to deal with defeat, you have to deal with personal problems.
“Red understood the big picture. He understood that there’s more to life than just track and field.”
Ten years ago, for Red’s 90th birthday, former-Michigamme Ann Forshee-Crane presented him with a photo album. Inside, on yellow paper, she wrote, “Dear Coach, We met over 30 years ago. I was a scrawny pig-tailed kid with braces, you looked just as you do now.
“You offered me the opportunity to be an athlete long before girls and women were defined as such. You taught me to set goals, work hard and not be afraid to sweat.
“It’s impossible to adequately put into words how significantly you impacted the course of my life. For thirty years I’ve called myself a runner. I’m married to a runner. I’ve coached other runners.
“Thank you for the start you gave me … Thank you for being ahead of your time.”
To the left of the photo album sits a large portrait of Forshee-Crane and Red from the ‘70s. A wrinkled smile stretches across his face as he looks at the photograph. “Look at those dimples,” he says nostalgically.
Watching Red gaze at the photo, a thought comes to mind. Maybe after all these years, it turns out that Red wasn’t ahead of his time. Maybe, instead, he was right on time. Right on time for athletes like Kraker Goodridge and Forshee-Crane. Right on time to convince Canham to allow him to train young women in Yost Fieldhouse. Right on time to become the first coach of female track and field at the University of Michigan.
“You know,” he says, looking at his Penn Relays watch just before he flips off the light and starts to climb up the stairs to meet his wife, “I think it works even better now than the day I got it.”
Yes Coach, some things just get better with age.