Jefferson is mourning the loss of one of its coaching legends and pillars of its community.
Former Jefferson High School coach Jack Keen passed away Saturday (July 25) at the age of 85.
"Coach Keen was Jefferson," said former Dragon wrestling coach Doug Thurmond, who both wrestled and coached under Keen.
The highly-regarded Keen, who grew up in Atlanta, came to Jefferson in 1965 and spent 43 years at the school. He guided Jefferson to multiple state championships in wrestling (four), track and field (six) and cross country (three), winning 13 titles overall with 12 runner-up finishes.
He was inducted into multiple state and national halls of fame for his coaching achievements. Keen was also a co-founder of the Georgia Olympics and served as an athletic director for Jefferson.
Keen was a revered mathematics teacher, as well, earning Star Teacher honors 27 times.
"He was a great man, he was a great coach, but he was probably even a better teacher," Thurmond said. "Just an unbelievable guy, an amazing legacy."
Jefferson athletic director Bill Navas said Keen was admired by both his colleagues and students.
"His reputation as both a coach and teacher is renowned," Navas said. "Everyone that knew coach Keen has a coach Keen story with a consistent theme. That theme was about being pushed further than they thought possible and achieving more than they thought they were capable. He was a mentor to his coaching and teaching colleagues and to his students and athletes. He was a legend. It's truly a sad day in Jefferson."
Keen earned an undergraduate degree from Georgia Tech and a masters degree in mathematics from Arizona State University. He began his 50-year coaching career at North Fulton High School in the late 1950s and would go on to coach 111 individual state champions and 115 individual state runners-up.
James Pinion, who ran track for Keen in the late 1960s and later took over the Dragon track program in 1989, remembers a coach who taught technique better than many but got results by hard-wiring the virtues of hard work into his athletes.
“It was his attitude toward being disciplined and staying with the routine and just trusting in good, hard work, that really was his strong suit, I think, in coaching, more so than the technique that he taught,” Pinion said.
Pinion called Keen “the most organized person that I’ve ever been around.”
“From his classrooms to the field to wrestling, whatever it was, he was just very organized,” Pinion said. “There wasn’t anything it seemed like that was left undone.”
While Keen's background was in track and field, he was able to study wrestling and turn Jefferson into a power. He ended up coaching four state championship teams, laying the groundwork for the unprecedented dynasty it would become under Thurmond in the 2000s. He also inspired a host of wrestling-coaching careers.
“He gave us the love of the sport,” Thurmond said. “There’s numerous people that ended up coaching wrestling because of coach Keen as well as track … Yes, he did lay the foundation, but he laid it for a lot of guys, not only at our school, but surrounding schools.”
Keen, a college pole vaulter, was also known for his own athletic prowess.
“He was always a physical specimen,” Thurmond said, noting that Keen was also a competitive rope climber in college, “and always kept himself in great shape, too, and inspired other people to do the same thing.”
Pinion remembers Keen, on his 65th birthday, wearing street clothes and easily clearing three vaults, the highest of which was 10 feet.
“I thought he was going to keep going up,” Pinion said. “He said, ‘That’s it. I just wanted to see if I could still do that.’”
A SOFTER SIDE
While athletes at times could be scared of highly-respected Keen, he possessed a gentler side, according to Thurmond. Thurmond said he saw that side of Keen while working as his assistant coach.
“He had a really good sense of humor,” Thurmond said. “You would never know that when you were his student because everybody was always scared of coach Keen. Everybody had so much respect for him, they were scared of him. What I treasure the most is the time I had with him as an assistant coach … that’s what I look back on and can’t help but smile.”
Pinion had a similar experience, saying Keen “became one of my best friends that I’ve ever had as time went by.”
Like Thurmond, Pinion said athletes could be fearful of Keen at times, but said that the coach was actually one of the most gentle people he ever met.
“You really had to get to know him to see that side of him,” Pinion said.
Due to COVID-19 concerns, a small, private family service for Keen is planned, according to his obituary, but a visitation and celebration of Keen’s life is planned for a later date.
Pinion pointed to the vast legacy Keen leaves behind.
“I don’t have any statistics, but if you could get your hands on it, you’d be amazed at how many of his students became teachers and how many of them became coaches … that might be his greatest legacy,” Pinion said.
Thurmond said Keen’s influence is immense and will continue to be.
"From what he gave to his students, his student athletes, it lives on," he said. "Coach Keen lives on because of what he gave as a teacher, as a coach and as a mentor."