This has been quite a golden year for Ken Kraft.
The former Northwestern wrestling coach and his wife, Marjo, celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary July 7.
The Midlands Championships, a tournament Kraft founded to avoid a schlep, celebrates its 50th anniversary Dec. 29-30 at Welsh-Ryan Arena.
And he could celebrate having another wrestler complete a Golden Slam. When 2010 Midlands champion Jordan Burroughs won a 2012 Olympic gold, he became the sixth to have Midlands, NCAA, world and Olympic titles.
At 77, one might think Kraft might be enjoying all this from the figurative rocking chair perspective of a golden ager.
Instead, Kraft is in his office at Ryan Field nearly every day, making sure the tournament — now called the Ken Kraft Midlands Championships — is worthy of the top athletes it attracts.
"I give a lot of credit to Ken for having the vision to put it together and keep it going this long," said Dan Gable, the wrestling icon who won six straight Midlands titles and was named the tournament's outstanding wrestler five times.
Kraft did it despite the original opposition of a tight-fisted athletic director, Stu Holcomb, who rejected the idea of having the tournament at Northwestern because he feared losing money.
So Kraft looked elsewhere, and the Midlands began at the West Suburban YMCA in LaGrange. It immediately outgrew the YMCA, spent eight years at Lyons Township High School and finally arrived in Evanston in 1972, six years after Holcomb retired.
According to Kraft, just one of the previous 49 editions has finished in the red — and that happened because schedule conflicts with the basketball team pushed it to the weekend before Christmas.
"We started under difficult circumstances and couldn't be held back," Kraft said. "It was meant to be."
Its origin is rooted in the 28-hour round trip drive Kraft and his Northwestern team made to a 1962 Christmas tournament in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. On the way back, the coach wondered out loud why there was nothing similar closer to home.
That story might sound apocryphal were it not for testimony of 1964 Wildcat captain Dave Kreider, one of six wrestlers in the station wagon Kraft was driving.
"Coach Kraft wanted our opinion in the car as to whether or not he should develop a midwestern Christmas tournament," Kreider said in an email. "So the seeds were planted that day."
It quickly grew into what six-time Midlands champion Jim Scherr called "the Rose Bowl of college wrestling."
"When I was in college and trying out for the Olympic team, Midlands brought the best mix of collegiate and international stars into one building," said Scherr, a 1988 Olympian who went on to become chief executive of the U.S. Olympic Committee.
Mount Carmel grad Joe Williams, a 2004 Olympian, is the all-time Midlands winner, with 10 straight titles from 1994 through 2003. Growing up in Harvey, he couldn't wait to compete in the tournament and kept coming back after winning the last of three NCAA titles for Iowa in 1998.
"Having that many good athletes in one tournament was an eye-opener for me as a kid," said Williams, now a financial services representative in Coralville, Iowa. "Some people thought it was tougher than the NCAAs because it was an open tournament."
In recent years, Midlands has become essentially a college event. This year's tournament will have teams from almost half the country's 77 Division I wrestling programs.
"It has maintained the utmost of quality," two-time Olympic champion Bruce Baumgartner said.