Coach Simmons during our interview at Crisler in 2009 (MVictors photo)
It was very sad for me to see the press release this morning. We lost a great man and incredible tie to the history of athletics in this area. Simmons ran track with Jesse Owens and Willis Ward and was a pioneer in weight training and in women’s athletics at Michigan. For football fans: I’m confident he’s was the last living person to see the inaugural game at the Big House in 1927.
Here are a few videos I took of Simmons during our interview:
Part 1: On his friend, track legend Jesse Owens
Part 2: Police Department
Part 3: Hired by Fritz Crisler
Part 4: Working out at Crisler Arena
Part 5: More Workout at Crisler
And here’s a link to several quotes from our interview a few years back, a few of my favorites:
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 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!’
Full press release on Simmons’ passing from the athletic department:
Former Women’s Track Coach Red Simmons Passes Away at 102 Years Old
ANN ARBOR – Former University of Michigan women’s track and field coach Kenneth “Red” Simmons passed away today (Friday, April 13) at 102 years of age. Simmons was the first coach in the history of the women’s track and field program and coached the squad for four seasons (1978-81) before retiring.
Simmons was born Jan. 5, 1910 in Redford, Mich. He started from humble beginnings, serving in the Detroit Police department for 25 years before devoting his life to women’s track and field. Simmons started the Michigammes and became the first varsity women’s track and field coach at the University of Michigan.
As a teenager, Simmons starred at Redford High School, earning All-City honors in football. But for Simmons, track was his sport. He was a two-time state champion in 1928, winning both the low and high hurdles.
Simmons was going to attend the University of Michigan but the stock market crash in 1929 prevented him from having a job to help with tuition cost. He ended up at Michigan State Normal College (now Eastern Michigan), running track and washing wrestling mats to pay for his schooling.
A member of the victorious mile relay team at the 1932 Penn Relays – then considered the national championships – Simmons graduated with a degree in education from Michigan Normal in 1933. Prior to his graduation, he participated in the 1932 U.S. Olympic trials.
Following his graduation from Michigan Normal, Simmons joined the Detroit Police force as a detective. While on the squad, he also participated on the department’s track team, often out-running competitors half his age. He soon started weight training, something that was just becoming popular and accepted as a way of training.
In 1959, Simmons retired from the Detroit Police Department and began teaching physical education at U-M. A few days after he retired, he was offered a job at the University of Michigan by then-athletic director Fritz Crisler. Crisler hoped that Simmons would teach Michigan athletes his training methods. While teaching weight training, first aid, boxing and wrestling classes, Simmons completed his master’s degree in physical education.
In 1960, after a trip to the Olympics, he, along with his first wife Betty, started the first Ann Arbor Women’s Track Club, "The Michigammes." Their idea was to allow women the chance to compete. His first member, Francie Kraker Goodridge, went on to become the first native Michigan woman to qualify for the U.S. Olympic team. She competed in the 800 meters at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City and in the 1,500 meters at the 1972 Games in Munich. All told, the Michigammes produced three Olympians, in Goodridge, Sperry Jones and Micki King, even though Jones and King punched their ticket to the Olympics in other sports. Jones competed as a kayaker at the 1968 and 1972 Games, while King won a gold medal in diving in 1972.
With the passage of Title IX legislation in 1972, the need for the Michigammes slowly slipped away. The recruitment of many of its top performers to newly formed varsity programs across the country made it hard to keep the group together. With Simmons having proved his mettle as a coach with the Michigammes, he was selected as the first women’s track and field coach at U-M in 1976.
The Wolverines gained varsity status in 1978. In his four years as coach (1978-81), the Wolverines gradually improved, finishing fourth at the unofficial Big Ten Conference outdoor meet in 1981. He coached the program’s first All-America selection (AIAW), Penny Neer, before retiring from coaching in 1981.
Simmons attended sporting events on both the EMU and U-M campuses. He was inducted into the Eastern Michigan Hall of Fame in 1978, became U-M’s first honorary ‘M’ man in 1990 and was the inaugural inductee into the Michigan Women’s Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1994. The Wolverines have hosted the "Red Simmons Invitational" every year since 1981 in his honor.
Simmons won four Senior Olympics gold medals in 1995 at the age of 85. Simmons and his second wife, Lois, continued to support Michigan Athletics with their time and generosity, funding several scholarships and awards.
Following are comments from U-M Athletic Department Personnel:
Michigan Athletic Director Dave Brandon
Red Simmons was a fixture at many sporting events and was always supportive of the department and our coaches. He lived a long, productive life and made a positive impact on the lives of thousands of others. Red will be missed by our athletic department but his legacy will endure as an accomplished coach, a wonderful person, and a great Michigan Man.
Michigan Women’s Track Coach James Henry
As I approach the middle of my 28th year as a head coach and prepare to have my 25th wedding anniversary celebration in a week, this has hit me like a ton of bricks. The person who has made me who I am today has just passed on. I feel heartbroken. I feel a little dazed and confused because I would not be the person I am today if it wasn’t for Red putting me in the position to have the type of life I’m leading now. I’m doing what I love to do and that’s coach and help kids and Red is responsible for that.
He built a legacy of integrity, hard work and honesty. He has made my job easy because I live by his example as an individual and as a coach."
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