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|Wrestling legend Cliff Keen was coach and friend to late President Gerald Ford|
By Gary Abbott USA Wrestling
Gerald Ford, the 38th President of the United States, who passed away at the age of 93 last week, had a connection to the sport of wrestling through one of the legends in the sport.
Ford was an outstanding football player in college at the Univ. of Michigan, a three-year letterman as a center and linebacker. During his years at Michigan, his offensive line coach and mentor was Cliff Keen, an assistant football coach during Ford's career as a Wolverine. In fact, Ford considered Keen "his coach" and maintained a friendship with Keen throughout his life.
The name Keen is legendary within wrestling. Cliff Keen is a member of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, one of the true pioneers of the development of the sport nationally. He served 42 years as the head wrestling coach at Michigan, the longest tenure of a coach in NCAA wrestling history. He guided numerous championship teams and athletes during his storied wrestling coaching career, making an immeasurable impact on the sport.
Many people did not know that while making history as a wrestling coach, Keen also spent 33 years as an assistant football coach with the Wolverines, serving under head coaches Fielding Yost, Fritz Crisler and Bennie Oosterbean. During Gerald Ford's football career at Michigan, from 1932-34, it was Keen who coached Ford as the center on the offensive unit. It was Keen who helped Ford improve to national athletic prominence, and Keen continued mentoring Ford as he pursued his career after college.
All of the recent news articles brought back many memories for Jim Keen, the son of Cliff Keen, and a leader with the National Wrestling Hall of Fame and USA Wrestling. Jim Keen witnessed first-hand the friendship and respect between these two great men.
"It was a very strong relationship," said Jim Keen. "Dad was the Michigan line coach for 33 years. Gerald Ford was the center for Michigan. He made the All-American team. Gerald Ford always considered Dad his coach. He actually called him 'my coach' in public."
People are often not aware of Ford's outstanding football achievements. He won three letters for the Wolverines, and was a member of two Big Ten and National Champion teams there. In 1934, he played all eight games at center for Michigan, and was selected the team's Most Valuable Player. He was offered a chance to play professional football, but pursued a law degree instead. Later in his life, Ford received numerous awards for his football career.
The wrestling community is very aware of Keen's abilities and achievements as a wrestling coach, but many do not know about his success as a football coach.
"They had four national championship football teams while he was there," said Jim Keen. "There were other greats that he coached along with Gerald Ford. He looked at coaching, whether it was football or wrestling, the same way. He saw it as a way to mould character and to use athletics as a tool to develop self-discipline."
After Ford graduated from Michigan, he went to Yale Law School and served as an assistant football coach there. In addition, Ford also went into the U.S. Navy where he served during World War II. According to Jim Keen, his father Cliff was involved in helping Ford get his opportunities both at Yale and with the Navy.
Ford and Cliff Keen developed a friendship and trust which continued during their lives after football.
"Over the years, he called the house all the time, checking in on Dad," said Jim Keen. "Ford asked him a lot of things, and used to bounce things off him. Dad's perspective on things were very similar to Gerald Ford. Dad was a straight shooter about everything."
Ford also had a loyalty to Coach Keen, making him a guest often when he returned back to Michigan.
"Every time Gerald Ford came to Ann Arbor, he called Dad the first thing," said Jim Keen. "Anytime he was at a banquet or function at the Univ. of Michigan, he invited Dad to sit next to him. I also went a few times to these events. One time, when I was out of town, my wife Mary went to one of them."
Cliff Keen took a coach's pride in Ford's accomplishments in his professional career, including his outstanding legacy of public service.
"He was very proud of that," said Jim Keen of his Dad's thoughts about President Ford. "Dad didn't banter it around, though. He was never braggadocios. That was not his style. This was Dad's philosophy of coaching. The most important thing in coaching was to produce good citizens, good people in life. He cared about the things that wrestling and sports teach, such as self-confidence, self-respect, hard work and humility. It gave them the tools to be good citizens. He emphasized that school was the road to success for his athletes."
Jim Keen remembers what it was like to spend time with Gerald Ford, including when he was serving as our nation's president.
"He was easy to be around, like any of your normal friends," said Jim Keen. "I think that relationship meant a lot to Dad, and it also meant a lot to Gerald Ford," said Jim Keen.
Jim Keen has many personal memories of his time with President Ford, in addition to what he learned from his father. One of the thrills of Jim Keen's lifetime was when he presented President Ford with an award at the halftime of a Univ. of Michigan home football game, representing his father.
"He was unassuming as a person, but you could tell when you talked to him that he knew what he was talking about and he could size up something in a hurry," said Jim Keen. "There were similar characteristics of my Dad. They could get right to the point."
Jim Keen saw many similarities between the personality and attitudes that Ford had as a person that were also possessed by his father.
"They both had a lot of perspective and a lot of civility. My Dad rarely uttered a swear word or profanity and I rarely saw my Dad get mad. He could be stern and direct, as a coach has to be. You knew when he wasn't kidding around. With both Gerald Ford and Dad, you always knew they were extremely honest and had a lot of integrity," said Jim Keen.
However, Jim Keen also remembers a lighter side to both great men.
"Both Dad and President Ford had a great sense of humor. They were very clever, very funny in a way that was really neat," said Jim Keen. "There are some guys who emphasize integrity but get dull. These guys were very fun to talk to."
In recent days, as the national media told the story of Gerald Ford's life, and the nation remembered one of its Presidents, Jim Keen was also thinking about how important Ford was in his family.
"I know Dad was very proud of him, and visa versa, because Gerald Ford told me that himself," said Jim Keen.