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Cliff Keen, from OSU roots to Michigan legend

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Cliff Keen sauntered through the halls of Michigan's Crisler Center and admired the men he led. Tom Keen, Cliff’s grandson, followed.

A wrestling coach, proud of his 45-year tenure as a Wolverine, Cliff gazed at plaques of his former teams.

He pointed toward each plaque and lectured Tom, emphasizing that success was never measured on the mat.

“He would be talking about what they were doing in life,” Tom said. "‘Oh, this guy became a doctor.’ Or, ‘This guy became a pilot. This guy became a judge.’ He never once talked about their wins and losses. He talked about who they became as a person. I always thought that was the coolest thing.”

Cliff coached 11 individual national champions. Their success after wrestling became his biggest achievement. One of Keen’s pupils: Gerald Ford, the 38th president of the United States.

Cliff, a Michigan treasure whose name still adorns the UM arena, found his start at Oklahoma State, set to face the Wolverines Friday in Arlington, Texas, at the Bout at the Ballpark.

“I do sometimes feel that his Oklahoma State roots get lost,” Tom said. “It was such an important part of his life, life-changing wrestling for Ed Gallagher and learning those lessons from him that later on he was able to impart on so many of his wrestlers and I think why he was admired by his wrestlers.”

An invitation to join the Aggies wrestling team transformed Cliff’s life and the trajectory of amateur wrestling.

Cliff grew up in a family of 10 on a ranch outside Cheyenne, enrolled in Oklahoma A&M in 1920 and encountered Gallagher, the school’s athletic director and wrestling coach.

He excelled in the sport, thanks to ranch-influenced work ethic and skill from Gallagher’s coaching. Cliff became a three-time conference champion (NCAA didn’t host a national championship until 1928). He also ran track and played football. Cliff earned a spot in the 1924 Olympics but didn’t compete because of a broken rib.

Gallagher’s influence as a coach and teacher led Cliff to pursue identical ambitions before hopes of law school.

In 1924, Cliff taught and coached multiple sports at Frederick High School before a familiar contact connected him to the University of Michigan.

For many, that’s where Cliff’s legend began. Sure, he was an Oklahoman, but time and success molded a Michigan man. One move and one hire opened a chain of events that led to a distinctive resume and transformative career.

John Maulbetsch, a Michigan football All-American, coached Cliff on the Aggies’ football squad. In 1925, Michigan sought a new wrestling coach. Maulbetsch recommended Cliff to UM’s athletic director, Fielding Yost. Cliff became Michigan’s wrestling coach and physical education teacher on Dec. 1, 1925. He joined the football team as an assistant in 1926.

There he went, a young coach tasked to elevate a newer program. Cliff used Gallagher’s teachings on the mat but adopted psychological techniques and life values that accompany wrestling today.

He wrote about Gallagher’s influence in a tribute after Gallagher died in 1940. The tribute was republished in Dave Taylor’s book, “Legends of Michigan: Cliff Keen.” Cliff recalled a message from his coach moments before Cliff’s match against Kansas.

“‘This is the biggest event in your life and winning this first match will be the first big monument in your life,’” Gallagher told Cliff. “‘Tomorrow morning, your dad is going to rush down to the news stand and read in the paper where you won your first match. They will receive their first dividend that you have ever been able to pay.’”

Cliff won and felt invincible. That motivation and impact influenced his career.

“And yet, there are so many people who will never know what a tremendous influence a great coach can exert on a boy during this highly impressionable period of his life,” Cliff wrote.

He wanted to win. Regardless of result, coaching equipped him with the ability to shape young minds and careers. His coaching made an immediate impact in Ann Arbor.

Cliff persuaded 95 men to participate in tryouts. He coached the Wolverines to a 3-3 mark in his first season. He quickly planned for stronger results. Keen hosted an intramural tournament to identify talent. Again, he used Gallagher’s teaching, science-based techniques and humility-based values.

“He was never critical and learned from Gallagher that criticism had no positive effect in a sport that was so demanding with such a high attrition rate,” Taylor wrote.

Keen just wanted to grow the sport and help young men. Those principles still hold high importance in Michigan’s program. Last season, the Wolverines celebrated the program’s 100th season. Coach Sean Bormet, a Michigan graduate, carries those values to his team.

“He just had this real dignified presence,” Bormet said. “It just made you stand up a little taller. Whenever you were around him and whenever he spoke. You just puffed your chest out. It made you a little stronger.”

Cliff didn’t just coach wrestling or football. He taught life, said those he molded. Values learned on the Oklahoma prairie, values enhanced via Gallagher and refined at Michigan.

His coaching career was supposed to be short-lived. Cliff attended Michigan’s law school while he coached. He wanted to be an attorney because his brother was a judge.

Time and other circumstances often change plans. One problem emerged with Cliff’s law aspirations: the height of the Great Depression. Coaching presented more stability. He had a family now, wife, Mildred, and two daughters, Joyce and Shirley.

So, he stayed with the Wolverines. “What ifs” surrounded his career. What if Cliff abandoned coaching for law? Perhaps no namesake for Michigan’s wrestling venue. He wouldn’t invent headgear or the Cliff Keen Athletic company. Just another wrestler who made an impact in a different profession. Much like the guys he coached.

Tom, president of Cliff Keen Athletic, wrestled for Michigan with Bormet. The two strive to uphold Cliff’s legacy 32 years since his death.

“He said he learned so much from coach Gallagher not so much on the winning and losing but how to motivate,” Tom said. “How to do things the right way. He talked about doing it with humility, honor and character. That made such an impact on him that he said he would run through a brick wall for him.”

Though Cliff departed Oklahoma for Michigan, he and the family returned each summer. He left Oklahoma but the Oklahoman in him never subsided.

“Never forgotten,” Tom said. “It was always in his blood… They would go to reunions at Oklahoma State and what not.”

Cliff used his connections to recruit Oklahomans. He could’ve returned, too. Maybe. He was certainly an option. Gallagher died on Aug. 28, 1940, from pneumonia.

What if Hank Iba, OSU’s athletic director and basketball coach, hired Cliff?

“It certainly could’ve been a possibility,” said John Hoke, publisher of Amateur Wrestling News.

He wasn’t the only qualified candidate. Gallagher’s coaching tree extended nationwide. Between 1928 and 1942, at least 10 head coaches from 37 teams wrestled for Gallagher, according to Taylor’s book.

“The reason Oklahoma wrestling was good was because of Ed Gallagher,” Hoke said. “When he started teaching and coaching wrestling, he graduated guys from Oklahoma State that went to Oklahoma high schools and then developed high school wrestlers into state champions. They went to Oklahoma State.”

Fendley Collins at Michigan State was a potential candidate, too. He later became a fierce rival to Cliff.

“I’m sure that was a thought on his mind, but I believe he was at Michigan for maybe 15 years when Gallagher passed away,” Tom said. “He was pretty entrenched at Michigan.”

Cliff stayed but was commissioned into the Navy in April 1942 as a Lieutenant. His family relocated to Georgia and Keen taught hand combat to pilots at Pre-Flight School training during World War II. Lessons from Gallagher spilled into the U.S.’s World War II efforts.

“What an unbelievable life,” Tom said. “You couldn’t make it up.”

The OSU connections never stopped. In 1948, Cliff and Griffith coached the U.S. in the Olympics. The achievements continued. Charter member of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, inaugural president of the National Wrestling Coaches Association, U.S. Olympic Committee member and pioneer in wrestling equipment.

“Hard to comprehend really,” Bormet said. “He coached wrestling for 45 years so by the time he retired he was the longest-tenured coach.”

Cliff retired in 1970. He led the Wolverines to nine conference titles and 11 top-five finishes at the NCAA Championships. He remains the program’s winningest coach. After retiring, he routinely visited Michigan practices in his signature three-piece suit and long coat. He stayed close to the program while he served as president of Cliff Keen Athletic. He founded the company in 1958.

“He was just so good at conveying that message,’ Bormet said. “Making young men feel better and more confident.”

Cliff never stopped teaching, even in retirement.

When Cliff was 70, he walked into the athletic office to visit old friends. Middle of winter. Snow covered the ground, and the temperatures were frigid. That didn’t matter to Cliff. He noticed a Michigan wrestler passing him on the sidewalk, stopped and performed a spur of the moment demonstration.

“He said, ‘Hey, I noticed you at your last meet,'” Tom said. “‘I wanted to show you something.’ He starts showing him moves and throws him into a snowbank.”

Cliff and Gallagher’s values built each program. 

“He’s a great part of Oklahoma State and he’s been a great part of Michigan,” OSU coach John Smith said.

Geographical and conference differences separate the teams, but the history and identical principles remain. Humility. Honor. Character.

Universal values for wrestling and sport.

“He always said winning and losing will take care of itself but doing things the right way and doing it with character and honor,” Tom said. “That’s the whole goal of the sport. That’s the greatest thing that our sport provides.”

In college, Cliff befriended Chester Gould, fraternity brother and cartoonist. Cliff became the inspiration for Gould’s popular comic character, Dick Tracy. A sharp jawline and a black fedora. That’s Cliff.

“When we all looked at it, we were like, ‘Gosh, that sure is grandpa,’” Tom said. “He had that stone jaw. It was pretty obvious it was him.”

Cliff’s legacy remains with the programs. Michigan wears Cliff Keen branded singlets and Olympic hopefuls train at Cliff Keen Wrestling Club. Alex Dieringer, one of those hopefuls, won three national champions for OSU. He recently became Michigan’s recruiting and video coordinator and views Cliff as wrestling royalty.

None of this may have happened without Maulbetsch’s call to Yost. Or Gallagher. There’s a reason OSU competes in Gallagher-Iba Arena.

“It’s really cool because I feel like I’m kinda connected to him in that way,” Dieringer said. “I’ve obviously been at both places now. He’s obviously a big part of this sport. Very successful man.”