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Amateur Wrestling Pauses To Honor Wolverine Coach

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Amateur Wrestling Pauses To Honor Wolverine Coach

By Mike Tressler

The final matches of the Wilkes College Wrestling Tournament were held up for a while as the amateur wrestling world paid honor to one of its foremost citizens, Michigan Coach Cliff Keen.

Keen was presented with a trophy Saturday by a grateful gathering of people connected with the sport. Specifically, the award was for Keen’s service to the 1948 United States Olympic team. But it signaled more than that.

It was for serving as president of the Collegiate Wrestling Coaches Association.

It was for his help to the U. S. Navy in its wrestling program, which included rewriting the Navy wrestling manual.

It was for these and many other contributions to wrestling and all sports in general. It was for his many years of giving and receiving, mostly giving.

The honor was given at an appropriate event. The Wilkes College Tournament in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. is the world’s largest open amateur wrestling tournament. A total of 137 wrestlers from colleges and clubs were gathered to compete in the two-day event.

For 37 years, Keen instructed his wrestlers in the fundamentals and finer points of an ancient and honorable sport.  He’s still at it, in his 38th season.

In 1952, he became the dean of Big Ten wrestling coaches with the retirement of Harold “Mike” Howard of Iowa. Keen started at Michigan in 1925.

In 1946, he was named to represent one of the 12 NCAA districts on the Olympic committee. Later, he was selected to manage the American team at the London games.

Keen’s squads have won 10 Big Ten titles and have a finished no worse than third 31 times.

Although his teams have often started slowly, they have been noted for strong finishes—the stamp of a true teacher. Three years ago, Keen was selected to the Amateur Wrestling Hall of Fame. 

In 1942, Keen was granted a leave of absence from Michigan to head the Navy’s wrestling program at the Georgia Pre-Flight school.

Keen was born June 13, 1901, in Cheyenne, Okla. He graduated in 1924 from Oklahoma A&M, (now Oklahoma State), where he was a standout in three sports, wrestling, football and track. Wrestling at 158 pounds, he was never defeated in three years and won the Southwestern Conference title twice and the Missouri Valley conference crown once. He was a center on the football team and a hurdler and shot-putter in track.

Before coming to Michigan, Keen was athletic director and coach at Frederick, Okla. High School, where his teams won the Southwestern scholastic titles in football and wrestling.

He has seen several of his boys go on to Olympic teams and one, Ed Don George, went on from the 1928 games to become world’s professional champion.

In 1938, Keen received a law degree from Michigan.

The former Mildred Smith accompanied Keen to Michigan. She had become his wife in 1924. The Keens have three children, daughters Joyce Keen Moore and Shirley Keen Leahy, son Jim, a Michigan senior and member of the mat team, and five grandchildren.

Mrs. Keen has been Michigan’s most loyal wrestling fan through all the years with the Wolverines. She hasn’t missed a home meet since 1925 and has often traveled with the team. Several years ago, at the Big Ten championships at Ohio State, Mrs. Keen was met at the door by the Indiana, Michigan State and Minnesota coaches, who escorted her to her seat and remarked: “Now we can start, Mrs. Keen is here.”

Keen has cultivated a close and warm relationship with his wrestlers. Each year, the Keens send a personal card and schedule to several hundred alumni who have trained and competed under the veteran mat mentor. In 1955, his 30th year, Keen was surprised at the annual team banquet by the visit of 15 of his former team captains. One had come from Venezuela for the occasion.

There’s an interesting sidelight to Keen’s latest award. The Wolverine coach was so busy trying to get his squad in order for the tournament that he neglected to send the Michigan entry in on time. Tournament Manager George Ralston, of host Wilkes College, made a hurried call to Ann Arbor to make sure that the Michigan mat coach would be in attendance. The presentation was supposed to be a surprise but Ralston’s call let the cat out of the bag. Keen knew that “something was up.”

“Be prepared, Cliff Keen, more things may be up.”