Coach Jack Keen was one of a kind.

Word of Keen's death recently at age 85 rippled across the community, bringing a flood of memories to those who knew him.

A lot of Jackson County's newer residents probably didn't know Coach Keen. But many have certainly heard stories about him.

He wasn't a politician. He wasn't a rah-rah community cheerleader.

He was, most of the time, quiet, demur and self-effacing.

Despite that, it would be difficult to overstate the influence Keen had on the Jefferson school system and on thousands of students who attended those schools in the 1960s through the mid-2000s.

Jefferson High School is known today as an academic and athletic powerhouse. Much of that reputation was created by Jack Keen.


As outlined by Karl Mealor's wonderful tribute to Keen published here last week, the man was a legend. Stories about him abound, most of them true, or rooted in truth.

Keen came to Jefferson in the mid-1960s during an era when the school began reaching to become something more than just a small town, average high school.

At that time, the school system was, for the most part, run by Morris Bryan, Jr., president of Jefferson Mills. Bryan was a high-achiever, an innovator and well-connected. He put a lot of personal money into the Jefferson School System and ran it almost as if it were a private school.

Bryan had a vision for the school to become something great. To do that, he needed great teachers and coaches.

In the 1960s, he hired several top-flight coaches out of Atlanta area schools, provided them housing and they moved to Jefferson. Keen was among that group and the one who stayed for the duration of his career.

Keen coached at lot of sports over the years, but was best known for being a track and wrestling coach.

Keen had attended Georgia Tech before going into coaching and teaching at the high school level.

One of his classmates had this to say about Keen's college years:

"I remember two of the (gymnastics) rope climbers at Tech when I was there: The late "Bo" Stokes and Jack Keen. Jack, one year my senior, was a pole vaulter as well as a gymnast. When he wasn't pole vaulting or throwing the javelin, he would wander into the gym, pull a perfect front lever on the horizontal bar, and fly up the rope several times. Although I don't recall him being faster than Bo, his style was extremely impressive due to his incredible strength. Back outside, he would frequently walk a barrel upon which he was doing a handstand down the length of the football field. I heard that Jack took the Army Fitness Test and set a new record. On campus, his name inspired a certain awe, if not outright hero-worship!"

None of that surprises me. Keen was the all-around strongest man I ever knew.

Back in the early 1970s when I first began wrestling under Coach Keen, he used me one day as his "dummy" to demonstrate a move.

With my back on the mat, he bent me into a pretzel, my knee way behind my head.

"I didn't know you were so flexible," he said.

"I'm not," I muffled in a painful reply, my chest heaving to breath as he worked me over.


But as impressive as his physical prowess was, Keen's greatest strength was between his ears.

His math classes were legendary. Over the years, he had amassed a series of lectures that he knew by heart. He told the same stories and used the same examples year after year. Keen was a serious man, but some of his stories and examples were funny and he'd laugh along with the class.

One day, he gave a lecture during which he used the word "ain't."

He paused: "I know 'ain't' isn't a real word," he said. "But I'm using it for emphasis."

I was never very good in math, so I struggled in his Algebra class. And he remembered my mediocrity years later.

Toward the end of his teaching career, Keen taught my older son, who is a math wiz (and like Keen, a Georgia Tech grad.)

Keen told him that his math ability certainly didn't come from his father.

Keen was brutally honest.

But Keen's mental strength extended far beyond the classroom.

For one thing, he was the most organized and focused human I've ever seen. He kept copious records and notes of all his athletes and could recite, from memory, facts and data from past events.

To help this newspaper cover his sporting events, Keen would usually write up a detailed listing of recent results and bring to our office so that whoever was covering the sport would have accurate data to pull a story from.

Keen focused on the details.


Of all the lessons Coach Keen taught his athletes, the ability of be mentally tough was perhaps his most notable.

No matter what the sport, Keen taught that the biggest competitor would always be within yourself. Pushing oneself to improve and to grow in mental toughness was the key to athletic success in his book.

I ran cross country under Coach Keen for a few years, not because I was a good runner, but because I wanted to lose weight and get into shape for wrestling season, which quickly followed the fall cross country schedule.

In addition to discussing the biological basis for his training methods, Keen also discussed the mental barrier all distance runners face.

The Vietnam War was still going on when I first ran cross country and Keen used that to make a point.

"Who will be the first to talk (among the runners) when the Viet Cong push the bamboo sticks up your fingernails?" he'd ask rhetorically.

In other words, who is the mentally toughest runner, the one who will endure what it takes to get better and who can focus enough to ignore the pain.


It was that kind of self-discipline and intense focus that I think helped define Coach Keen and set him apart from his peers.

He was smart, but a lot of people are smart.

He was physically strong, but a lot of people have strength.

But very few people are those things and self-disciplined.


He taught something else, too — ethics.

Keen didn't teach ethics as a class or with tiresome cliches so common to the sporting world. He displayed ethical behavior everywhere he went, from the classroom to the athletic field.

One situation I still recall four decades later.

In the late 1970s, Jefferson High School and Commerce High School were intense rivals in every sport. In 1976, both had strong wrestling programs and were evenly matched.

To win a particular match, Jefferson did an unusual move by defaulting in one weight class to allow a lower-weight wrestler to move up to a higher weight class and, hopefully, beat an old rival he'd defeated before.

Although perfectly legal according to the rules, Keen was uneasy with the plan, saying it didn't seem quite ethical. As other coaches encouraged him to make the strategic move, Keen was unsure.

"It doesn't seem right," he said.

In the end, Jefferson did the default and won the match because of the move.

But I don't think Coach Keen was ever really comfortable with it. You could tell that he was concerned just as much about the ethics of the match as winning the match.

And that's how he lived his life. Keen loved to win, but winning wasn't everything.


Amid the chaos around him, Coach Jack Keen was a steady presence at Jefferson High School for five decades, a rock both in the classroom and on the athletic field. He could have been a teacher or coach at just about any college in the nation.

But he stayed in Jefferson and helped build the system into what it has become today.

When he retired, I asked him why at that moment was it time to exit the classroom.

He said that teaching was changing and he just didn't want to adopt the new math mandates.

"They wanted me to use a different textbook," he said, noting that he'd used the same math text for most of his teaching career, including when I was a student four decades earlier. "And they wanted me to move my desks around — can you imagine that?" he said laughing.

It doesn't seem possible that Coach Keen has died. He was Superman.

He was chosen as STAR teacher over two-dozen times and coached thousands of athletes. Many of his former students and athletes have gone on to lead amazing lives in numerous professions.

In that legion of former students, his legacy will live on.


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