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Northwestern wrestling legend Ken Kraft dies, leaves behind a legacy

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Northwestern wrestling legend Ken Kraft dies, leaves behind a legacy

Ken Kraft was there for all of wrestling’s biggest moments throughout the end of the last century.

In 1966, he founded the Midlands Championships, which have since turned into the most prestigious amateur collegiate wrestling event in the country. USA Wrestling’s Man of the Year in 1976, Kraft covered the Olympic Games in 1972, 1976 and 1980. And he revolutionized sports at Northwestern, twice serving as acting athletic director, coaching for 22 years. Ken Kraft never left Northwestern, never stopped calling it his home.

He died last week, leaving behind a wife and daughter — and a University in which he’s built a legacy. NU’s wrestling facilities are named in honor of the late coach.

“It is with a heavy-heart that we say goodbye to Coach Kraft,” coach Matt Storniolo said in a statement to Northwestern Athletics. “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.”

Kraft came to NU in 1955, and compiled a 38-7-2 record as a collegiate wrestler, snapping up a Big Ten Championship in his senior season. He then became coach and spent the next 22 years at the helm of a national powerhouse. It’s where he first met fellow Northwestern great Tim Cysewski.

Kraft recruited the Glenview native out of high school in 1970, and while Cysewski ended up wrestling at Iowa, he’d return to coach at NU in 1981.

“(Kraft) was just one of those guys that felt kind of like a father figure,” Cysewski said. “You felt comfortable around him. Just easy to talk to, easy to be around. He was always that way, even when I made the final loop and started coaching at Northwestern.”

When Cysewski came to NU to serve as an assistant coach shortly after Kraft retired and moved into the Athletics department, he got to know the man he had first met decades prior. When Cysewski was promoted to head coach, he’d hold weekly meetings with Kraft, where they’d match each other in knowledge and passion for the sport, Cysewski said.

“Holy smokes, a small world,” Cysewski added. “You never think that it would come around like that. He was one of the first coaches that recruited me out of high school and now I’m back here being part of the program that he built. Being part of the Midlands Championships. It was something that you never plan on. But it’s a good full circle.”

They were perhaps the two most successful coaches in Northwestern history. In 22 years at the top, Kraft coached 14 All-Americans and two national champions. Cysewski helped produce four individual NCAA champions and 27 All-Americans. His 155 dual victories are the most by a Northwestern wrestling coach.

“I know he lived at home, but he seemed to be at Northwestern all the time,” Cysewski said. “Any thing, any place, any event, he was always there. And you expected him to be there. One of those kind of guys that loved Northwestern.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @gsvirnovskiy

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