Racine County Sports Hall of Fame: Kleven was a master of the mat

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Racine County Sports Hall of Fame: Kleven was a master of the mat | National | gazettextra.com


PETER JACKEL Oct 22, 2023

As he closes in on his 84th birthday Nov. 5, Duane Kleven does not carry on as if he has been retired from coaching for more than 40 years. He does not concede to his advancing years and stays close to the Middleton home he has maintained for close to half a century

The man who led the Park High School wrestling team to state championships in 1967 and '69 can still be found on golf courses regularly (he shot his age when he was 80). He has worked tirelessly in various capacities for the University of Wisconsin athletic program.

Oh, and there's something else. Kleven dances. A man with six grandchildren, who was widowed in 2007, regularly hits the dance floor with dance partner Patricia Bender.

"I like to dance," he said.

And even though he has achieved so much since leaving Racine in 1969, his memories from five glorious years at Park have hardly faded.

"Without those kids in Racine, I wouldn't be where I am today," Kleven said. "I came there in 1964, I became the head coach in '65 and we won two state championships in the next four years."

Things were so different back then, for better and for worse.

On the plus side, student participation was so robust back then that Case High School was coming to life from a blueprint to relieve the congestion at Park and Horlick. Athletic programs were being nourished by junior high school feeder programs, which were discontinued in 1983.

But there were also challenges. Athletic facilities, for one, were nowhere near as impressive as they are today.

As a then 26-year-old Kleven tried to make something out of Park's wrestling program in 1965, he had to improvise in the face of challenging conditions.

"The first wrestling practice we held was on the hall floor," he said. "We didn't have a mat, we didn't have a room to practice in. But the administration was wonderful. Jim Thompson, my athletic director, and the principal, LeRoy Ludeman, gave me all the support.

"The Racine School Board was very pro athletics at that time, realizing how important athletics were for the young men of Racine."

So Racine did its part to foster this surge in wrestling excellence. And so did Kleven. He certainly had the background after becoming the first wrestler to earn a state medal at Stoughton High School, which has since won 10 state championships. And he wrestled for the University of Wisconsin from 1957-60.

Within two years after taking over the program in 1965, Kleven led Park's program to its first state championship. It was the afternoon of Feb. 26, 1967 when Park's little guys — 95-pound Rufus Johnson and 112-pound Lonnie Woods — won state championships to lead the Panthers.

Park's championship was secured only when Woods scored a 5-3 decision over Horlick's Bob Langlois in the championship match. During the regular season, Langlois had defeated Woods three times in five matches.

Among the others producing points for the Panthers were Arvester Jones, who was second at 133 pounds, and Ernie Abbott, who was fourth at 103. Kleven had discovered Jones as a wrestling prospect in a physical education class.

"We had terrific kids with a lot of character and greater senior leadership — especially the two champions," Kleven said. "Rufus Johnson and Lnnie Woods were our two captains.

"Rufus was especially strong. I get emotional when I think about it, but he told our pep assembly before we left for state that we were going up there to win. We didn't win it easily, but we won it."

Two years later, it wasn't nearly as close. Behind undefeated state champions Frank Velasquez (29-0 at 95 pounds), James Abbott (28-0 at 120) and Tom Adams (28-1 at 133), Park piled up 54 points to defeat runner-up Milwaukee Pulaski by 22 points.

"He was an outstanding motivator," Adams said. "He led you to believe you could do anything and we did. He believed that if you wanted to be the best, you must compete against the best. So over Christmas break, we would travel to Illinois or Iowa, wherever the best wrestling was, and practice against the best teams.

"For instance, our senior year, we went to West High School in Waterloo, Iowa, which is the home of Dan Gable (Gable went 64-0 at West and went on to coach Iowa to 15 NCAA championships). That's how we got better. We always competed against the best."

After his four years of excellence at Park, Kleven earned the opportunity to coach at UW-Oshkosh. After one year there, it was on to Wisconsin, where he coached nine NCAA champions and 25 All-Americans. He led the Badgers to fourth place in the 1976 NCAA Tournament — the Badgers' highest finish to date — and was named the 1977 NCAA Coach of the Year.

Among the many wrestlers Kleven impacted profoundly at the college level was Lee Kemp, who was placed second nationally as a freshman and then won three straight NCAA championships at 158 pounds from 1976-78. He went on to win gold medals at the World Championships, the World Cup, the Pan American Games and the World Super Championships.

"I'm glad to God steered me to Duane Kleven because we were doing things that had never been done before," said Kemp, who now lives in San Luis Obisbo, Calif. "He was very insightful, he was very organized, which was perfect for me, he was very authoritarian, but it wasn't over the top, and I think young men need that.

"I owe a lot of the discipline I have today with being involved in that program. Duane was more like a businessman who wanted to coach. He probably could have done a lot of things in his life. He was a lot more than a coach. He was a father figure."

While Kleven hasn't coached in more than 40 years, he has continued to make an impact. Among his positions have been Director of the Camp Randall Memorial Sports Center, Associate Athletic Director of Men's Varsity Sports and was also director of Special Events before retiring in 2002.

When he returns to Racine Thursday for the Racine County Sports Hall of Fame induction ceremony, he will be back where it really all started. And he'll return as a man who made an enormous impact on the sport of wrestling.

"I'm in seven halls of fame — two are military and five are athletics and this one might be the might be the most important to me," Kleven said.
Seek excellence and truth instead of fame -John Prime
Courage is grace under pressure - Ernest Hemingway
Advocating "matside weigh-in" since 1997
"That's why they wrestle the matches"


My brother was at the event last night.  Tony Romo and Tony Azarian were also inducted.  Great event! 


Impressive, it's always good to remember the past because in many ways it can shape what we see now.  It seems like we could use more and more people like Coach Kleven in our world....