Most mornings you can find former Michigan women’s track coach Ken ‘Red’ Simmons at Crisler Arena, lifting weights, walking steps and occasionally taking laps around the concourse. His fitness routine today is a far cry from a Mike Barwis workout session, but Coach Simmons has a pretty good excuse– he turns 100 years old today (January 5, 2010).
Simmons was a high school track champion at Redford High in Detroit and intended on joining the Michigan track team before the stock market crash of 1929 ended those plans. He eventually wound up running track at Michigan Normal (later Eastern Michigan) in Ypsilanti where he had a successful collegiate career which included a trip to the 1932 Olympic trials.
After school, Simmons joined the Detroit Police Department where he served as an officer and was on the police track team for twenty-five years. During his tenure on the force he became good friends with Olympic legend Jesse Owens and implemented the then-revolutionary practice of including weight training as part of the squad workout regimen. In 1959, just two days after his retirement from the Police Department, Simmons knocked on Fritz Crisler’s door in Ann Arbor to inquire about a coaching position at Michigan. Crisler knew of Simmons exploits on the track and his use of weight-training and hired him in to join Don Canham’s track team in Ann Arbor.
In 1960 Simmons formed the Ann Arbor Women’s Track Club, dubbed “The Michigammes,” who with Simmons’ leadership dominated AAU meets around the country. With the passage of Title IX, Canham tapped Simmons to lead the U-M women’s track team, which he did from 1978-1981.
Since then Simmons has received numerous honors from the University, including the unique distinction of being both an honorary ‘M’ Man and ‘M’ Woman. To this day he and wife Lois can be spotted at Michigan football, basketball and hockey games.
I joined Simmons at Crisler a few weeks ago to discuss his amazing life:
On his plans to go to Michigan: My heart was set on coming to Michigan. In 1927 when the football stadium was opened, two other guys from Redford and I hitchhiked up here to see the game. At that time I thought, ‘Boy I’d love to go to this school.’ And I thought I was going.
On his offer from Michigan: You didn’t have scholarships back then, but out of high school in 1928 the U-M track coach, [Stephen] Farrell, offered me a job which included room and board at a fraternity house. Books, tuition and all that–you had to pay. We didn’t have any money at all. I said I’d have to work a while to make some money for books [before coming to Michigan]. He told me, ‘Anyone who can hurdle as good as you can, you can work a year. But I want you to come to Michigan.’
So I worked that year and then came the big stock market crash of 1929. I was just ready to start and boom! Farrell wrote my folks, he didn’t call, and told my folks, ‘I’m sorry but Kenneth won’t have a job at the fraternity.’ But at the same time, Lloyd Olds, the coach at Michigan Normal which is now Eastern Michigan, came to the house. He urged me to come to Michigan Normal and told us the tuition is only $18.50 a semester and they had a man who could loan me the money. But I still didn’t have any money for board, room, books or anything.
I hitchhiked from [his parents’ home] on Grand River and Seven Mile Road to Ypsilanti every day, carried my lunch, and hitchhiked home at night. That first year I never bought a book, I just went to class.
On meeting Fielding Yost: I met him, I think it was 1927. He was at a high school meet at some point. It was so long ago. My impression was that he was a very sociable man. He’d walk around and talk to you. There was no feeling that he thought he was special. He was just a regular guy.”
On his early days at the Detroit Police department: In 1934 the police department decided to have a Field Day and hire some athletes, and someone said, ‘Get that redhead that was in the Olympic trials.’ I had a lot of mentions in the papers at the time. I was hired by the police department, and I figured I would just stay until the Depression was over. That was a bad time, a very bad time.
They were playing us $12, $10, $8 and $6 for the first four places at those events. And I was making $60-$70 a meet! I was still a regular patrolman but from May 15 to August 15 we went out to the University of Detroit to train. Thousands of people used to watch those Field Days and I ran six or seven events.
On the toughest part of his job as a police officer: I was in a job that was a little nerve-racking. Few people know this but I got knife wounds while in the police department. The only thing I can credit my survival to is that I was faster than anybody. I was quick. [Simmons gestures to a scar on his head]. I had a guy with his hands up, and I had my gun on him. I didn’t know he had a switchblade in his hand. I put the gun away and he brought the knife blade down. I ducked back but the knife hit me on the head and sliced me right here [near the hair line above his forehead].
I didn’t want to stay [at the Department]. Around 13 years later Cass Tech called me and wanted me to start teaching and coaching. I was ready to slam my gun down on the desk and quit! I found out I’d have to do 30 more years [to qualify for pension], they wouldn’t give me credit for my time at the police department.
On his friendship with Jesse Owens: I became friends with Jesse Owns in 1935. In 1930 I set the track record at Yost Field House in the low hurdles, and in 1935 he came along and broke it. From then on we were good friends. I raced him about 20 times but ever beat him. We traveled around the state putting on exhibitions but they didn’t want to see me, they wanted to see him!
On his reaction to Owens success in the 1936 Berlin Olympics: When I saw that in the paper I thought, ‘Oh boy!’ I was certain that nobody could beat him.
Why Fritz Crisler hired him: I wanted to coach, and be involved in sports. Back in the late 30s, no athlete was allowed to touch weights—it was considered bad. I contacted the York barbell club in Pennsylvania and I began to study weight training. But Crisler used to help out at track meets and he knew me. And he knew I was using weights and excelling against much younger people – I was just as good as they were.
Crisler knew that I had been training with weights at the police department. And it was just starting in 1960; men had really not started to lift yet. Crisler said, ‘We’re going to have weight training here for our athletes.’ So he hired me as an assistant to Don Canham on the track team but I was also instructing football players in weight training starting in 1960.
On his impressions of Crisler: “He was very serious. I don’t ever recall him smiling or laughing or anything.
On Canham’s support for ‘The Michigammes’: Don Canham let me use the facilities for the Michigammes and the girls came from all across the state because there was nothing like in the area. Canham said, ‘Just don’t interfere with the men’s track team. You can use the facility when they are not on it.’ And understand this was 16 years before Title IX. It was a different time. Heck, women weren’t even supposed to sweat!
On getting hired at the varsity women’s track coach: Just after Title IX was passed, [then AD] Canham came in a said, “You’re the new women’s track coach. I said, ‘Don, if I take this job, traveling around the country with these 17 to 18-year old girls, my wife’s going to travel with me. I’m not taking that chance!’ Canham said, ‘OK. She’ll be Mrs. Coach but she’s not getting paid!’
On the goal of his daily workouts at Crisler Arena: I’m most concerned with the legs because that’s the thing that gives out. Anybody my age can’t do that [Ed. Simmons demonstrates quickly standing from a seated position several times. As simple as this seems it’s remarkable to watch a 99-year old man do it.] They just can’t do that. Six times around the Crisler concourse is a mile. And I’ll walk and jog that a couple times each week. Just enough to get full lungs.
On what he enjoys most about his workouts: I don’t have a teammate or a classmate left. And that’s what’s great about this place. You are always making new friends. And they’re not even always men, they’re girls too. Our closest friends now are people, like Red Berenson, are in their mid-60s and 70s. That, to us, is young!
On men’s hockey Coach Red Berenson’s recent birthday: Well, he’s just 70 or so, what the hell is that? [laughs] I always say, ‘Oh, to be 80 again!’