InterMat Reads: Legends of Michigan: Cliff Keen

Mark Palmer

11/21/2013
Mark Palmer, InterMat Senior Writer
mark@intermatwrestle.com, Twitter: @MatWriter

Mention the name Cliff Keen and large numbers of wrestlers and fans will immediately think of the company that sells wrestling gear. However, the man Cliff Keen is much more than an entrepreneur who launched that business. Keen was head coach of the University of Michigan wrestling program for 45 years, the longest tenure of any head coach at the Ann Arbor school ... and an assistant football coach for the Wolverines for 33 years, the longest-serving football coach at Michigan.

There's so much more to the Cliff Keen story, as told in the new book "Legends of Michigan: Cliff Keen" by Dave Taylor.

Meet Cliff Keen

Clifford Patrick Keen was born in 1901 in what would become the state of Oklahoma, the third son and seventh child of James and Adelaide Keen. In the early 1920s, Cliff Keen attended what was then called Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State) where he played football, and wrestled for legendary wrestling coach Ed Gallagher, compiling a 31-1 record. After a brief time as a high school coach, Keen was named head wrestling coach at the University of Michigan in October 1925.

Cliff Keen
The story of Cliff Keen at Michigan is one of impressive accomplishments. Among the high points of his Wolverine coaching career: Keen is the only head coach in Michigan history to win a Big Ten championship in two different sports: football (twice, as coach of the 150-pound football team), and wrestling (thirteen times). He was the first Wolverine head coach to serve as an Olympic coach, for the 1948 London Games. As a member of the Michigan football coaching staff from 1926-1958, Keen coached 27 All-Americans. As head coach of the Wolverine wrestling program from 1926-1970, Keen claimed 19 national champs and 69 NCAA All-Americans.

In wrestling, Keen was a man of innovation. Among the new ideas he made reality: individual bout scoring, team scoring for the Big Ten and the NCAA championships, the circular wrestling mat, and mandatory headgear.

Meet author Dave Taylor

Dave Taylor and his wife
Dave Taylor, author of "Legends of Michigan: Cliff Keen," grew up in Ann Arbor, home to the University of Michigan campus ... but, was never a Wolverine.

"I was an above-average high school wrestler," Taylor told InterMat. "I went out for wrestling at Eastern Michigan (University) but my weight class had too much talent, so, after one year, I transferred to Michigan State, where I was an intramural wrestling champ."

After college, Taylor became an insurance salesman ... but then earned three graduate degrees, and launched a second, long-term career as a high school teacher and guidance counselor. From 1989 to 2003, Taylor served as a high school and college referee, officiating at major events such as the Midlands post-Christmas classic at Northwestern University.

In 2010, Taylor retired from education. "For one year, I did nothing," according to Taylor. "Then I decided to write. From my graduate work, I discovered that I enjoy research and writing."

"Originally, I projected the book would be about 300 pages," Taylor said with a laugh. "It ended up at more than 600 pages."

About the book

On sheer size alone, "Legends of Michigan: Cliff Keen" is a hefty book, weighing in at four pounds, ten ounces, and coming in at 628 pages.

So, how can a book about one man -- even one whose career was as enduring and full of accomplishments as Cliff Keen's -- be so sizeable?

"I knew I couldn't market a book that was simply about a guy who died more than 20 years ago," said Taylor.

"I decided that the book would provide a history of 91 seasons of wrestling at Michigan. I also chose to incorporate 43 features to bring the book into contemporary focus." (Feature topics include a tribute to Ed Gallagher written by coach Keen, separate articles on Michigan recruiting pipelines from Cresco, Iowa and Ann Arbor, Keen's experience as Olympic coach, and amusing stories about Keen driving his team to away events.)

For each season, Taylor provides a recap of both the Michigan football and wrestling season, including how individual mat stars performed at the Big Ten and NCAA championships, along with won-loss records for each wrestler that season.

In addition, Taylor saw an opportunity to go beyond writing about Cliff Keen and the University of Michigan, to also incorporate other elements of wrestling within the state of Michigan, including an analysis of Michigan State wrestling (and the Wolverine-Spartan rivalry, especially in the 1960s), as well as high school wrestling within the state.

"We in Michigan have such a great legacy to share," said Taylor.

"Not that many wrestling writers write about history," Taylor continued. "We need more folks recording the past and sharing it with the community."

According to Taylor, there are less than two-dozen books devoted to some historical aspect of college wrestling ... with a good number of those focused on programs or individuals within Oklahoma or Iowa.

More insights into Keen

Over the course of 20 months of research and writing -- and spending countless hours pouring through newspapers, Cliff Keen's scrapbooks and other archived materials, along with interviews with wrestlers and others who knew the man -- Dave Taylor has come to have an even greater appreciation of the subject of his epic new book.

Cliff Keen
"He was truly the father of wrestling in Michigan," Taylor told InterMat.

"He was a special man. Not the kind of coach who criticized or got down on his athletes. His wrestlers loved him."

"On the sidelines during matches, he wasn't a yeller or a screamer," Taylor continued. "He was so composed. Did a lot of body English matside, though. Once fell out of his seat."

"So much of the sport is about relationships -- learning from others, building solid relationships."

"Keen was a person of character, who expected his wrestlers to be of similar character."

Cliff Keen conducted his program with the highest level of integrity ... at something of a disadvantage to the other major college wrestling programs during his tenure at Michigan.

"Everyone who wrestled for Keen up into the 50s didn't get scholarships," Taylor explained. "He helped them get jobs to help pay for school, and into fraternities for a place to stay and for meals." (This is pretty much how things were at Oklahoma State in the 1920s, when Cliff Keen wrestled for coach Ed Gallagher.)

"In the late 1950s, athletic scholarships came into being. Keen had only four scholarships to give, from the late 50s to 1970 (when he retired)," continued Taylor. "The top three programs at the time -- Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Iowa State -- each had 20-30 scholarships. This put Keen at a competitive disadvantage. For Keen to have so much success was truly amazing."

Cliff Keen
"Legends of Michigan: Cliff Keen" is an amazing portrait of one of the all-time great collegiate wrestling coaches ... and not just by sheer size alone. The book provides a rather clear, complete picture of wrestling not just at the University of Michigan, but within the state of Michigan ... offering a historical perspective that had yet to be told.

The book is more than a biography of Clifford Patrick Keen, his life and career, and his place in history as the father of wrestling within the Wolverine state. It is a treasure trove of information, including stats, rosters and spreadsheets -- not to mention hundreds of photos -- that will make "Legends of Michigan: Cliff Keen" a go-to resource for wrestling fans who want to know more about Cliff Keen, the Michigan mat program, and wrestling in general. No serious fan of the sport should be without this book.

To order "Legends of Michigan: Cliff Keen" online, visit CliffKeen.com and type the word "book" into the search box. If you're in Michigan, you can purchase the book at any one of seven M-Den stores, or visit MDen.com.

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