Whenever Northwestern senior associate athletic director Ken Kraft is around, men’s tennis coach Paul Torricelli knows to get his wrestling moves ready.
“Ken, being an ex-wrestler, always has a specific way to greet me,” Torricelli said. “With a wrestling hold. I’ve been in every conceivable wrestling hold you can imagine.”
But after 51 years of wrestling holds, coaching and working for NU’s athletic department, Kraft is stepping down as senior associate athletic director at the end of June.
During his tenure, Kraft founded a nationally prominent wrestling tournament and earned recognition as a wrestling announcer for ABC and NBC during the 1972, 1976 and 1980 Olympic games.
Even though he won’t be involved in everyday operations, Kraft said he still plans to be involved in NU athletics.
But Kraft said he wanted to leave before he’d been around too long.
“I said, ‘Hey this makes sense,'” he said. “I mean, I’m 55 at least right?”
Kraft, who’s closer to 70 than 55, has seen his role at NU and in the wrestling world change over the years.
He came to NU on a wrestling scholarship in 1953, even though he spent his childhood dreaming of a scholarship to Illinois. A high school tournament in Quad Cities, Iowa, introduced him to NU’s wrestling coach Jack Reilly, who was refereeing Kraft’s match.
They didn’t exactly hit it off.
“We didn’t think he was a good ref,” Kraft said. “But once we found out it was the NU coach we thought he was a better ref.”
When the Fighting Illini never called, Kraft started to look more closely at his future alma mater.
“I was intrigued with this place because it was different,” he said. “I was forced into the choice, but I’m so glad. (The athletic department) cared about all the right things.”
Kraft said he benefitted most from NU’s emphasis on academics. But that focus didn’t get in the way of his athletics. While wrestling for the Wildcats, he compiled the fifth-highest winning percentage in school history with a 38-7-2 individual record and captured a Big Ten title in the 167-pound weight class.
When he graduated in 1957, Kraft took over the wrestling program and groomed two NCAA champions, including his brother Art Kraft in 1960. He also coached 11 Big Ten champions and 14 All-Americans. But his most important feat could be the founding of the Midlands Wrestling tournament, the first major winter wrestling tournament in the Midwest.
Before Kraft founded the tournament, the wrestling team travelled in a station-wagon caravan to Wilkes-Barre, Penn., for the closest major tournament. After a couple of years, Kraft said the drive became too much for him.
“As we drove home, Evanston kept moving farther away,” he said. “I said, ‘Here we are, in the middle of the country, we ought to do something.'”
But the idea didn’t go over so well with the athletic director at the time. But Kraft persevered, holding the first tournament in the West Suburban YMCA in Grange, Ill., later moving into an area high school, before finally moving the tournament to NU.
“I guess Northwestern figured out it was the thing to bring back,” he said.
Wrestling coach Tim Cysewski said the Midlands Wrestling tournament is now the most respected wrestling tournament during the winter.
“Everyone in the Chicago area comes to the tournament,” he said. “It’s kind of like the Mecca of wrestling. People come on campus to see great wrestling and what Northwestern is all about.”
Kraft was inducted into the NU Athletic Hall of Fame on Feb. 13, but his scope of influence wasn’t limited to the school. He served as president and on the board of USA Wrestling, was awarded USA Wrestling’s Man of the Year in 1976 and inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1997.
But it was announcing for the Olympics that Kraft still talks about enthusiastically. Kraft said the excitement of covering the Olympics prompted he and his wife to make a pact to attend 10 straight Olympics.
“I was absolutely enthralled with this thing that brings together the youth of the world,” Kraft said, glancing at the glass case hanging on the wall with his Olympic patches that his wife made for him some years ago.
Kraft got his start as a wrestling commentator when he covered the NCAA tournament for ABC in 1965.
“I took some pride in that only one guy did NCAA wrestling and commentary,” he said. “And that guy was me.”
After the Olympic excitement, Kraft laid down the whistle as coach in 1979 and became an athletic director under John Pont. Kraft said that though he went to as many athletic events as he could, he never wanted to be the one to coach the coaches. But coaches said they could come to him for advice anytime.
“He’s always been the wise man to go to and bounce things off,” Torricelli said. “I’ve always found him to be someone I can go to and talk.”
When he officially retires, Kraft said that it will be the people at NU he will miss the most. But he doesn’t expect to spend his retirement too far away from the place where he said he was proud to have spent “forever and forever.”
“My wife and I say that we’ve been living in our retirement home for 40 years,” he said. “When you do something for 40 years, it’s automatic to get in the car and it just goes. I don’t think I’m cut out for standard retirement.”