Ken Kraft, whose 47 years working in Northwestern’s athletic department included 22 years as the Wildcats wrestling coach, died Tuesday, the university announced. He was 85.
Kraft, a Big Ten champion wrestler as a Northwestern senior in 1957, took over as coach upon graduation — “I thought it was going to be a one-year job,” he told the Tribune in 2004 — and held the job until 1979.
He helped develop 14 All-Americans and two national champions — one of them his brother Art.
But his most lasting impact on the sport came in 1963, when he founded the Midlands Championships, which evolved into the country’s most prestigious annual amateur wrestling tournament.
It was officially renamed the Ken Kraft Midlands Championships upon the 50th edition in 2012, and it moved from Evanston to the Sears Centre Arena in Hoffman Estates in 2017.
“I give a lot of credit to Ken for having the vision to put it together and keep it going this long,” wrestling legend Dan Gable, a six-time Midlands champion, told the Tribune for a 2012 story on the tournament’s 50th anniversary.
After stepping down as NU wrestling coach, Kraft spent another 25 years as an associate athletic director at Northwestern, three times serving as acting AD (1980, 1987 and 1993).
In a 2004 Tribune story upon his retirement, Kraft described his reaction to never getting the permanent AD job as “high disappointment,” but he never left for another school.
“People said, ‘How can you stay?’ ” Kraft said. “Well, we have to deal with disappointment. If I were bitter or moped around, what a terrible life it would be.
“This is my home. Why would I want to step away from a place I believe in so much?”
Kraft also worked as a TV analyst for Olympic wrestling on ABC and NBC in 1972, 1976 and 1980, and in the 1990s he helped found the Midlands Youth Foundation, now called Beat the Streets Chicago, to bring youth wrestling programs to urban areas.
He was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1997 and the Northwestern Athletic Hall of Fame in 2003, and in 2005 a new NU wrestling facility was named the Ken Kraft Wrestling Complex.
“It is with a heavy heart that we say goodbye to Coach Kraft,” current NU wrestling coach Matt Storniolo said in a statement. “Ken was — and will forever be — a legend in both the wrestling and Northwestern communities. He was so much more than a coach. He was an innovator, ambassador and a role model that impacted the lives of so many.”s
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