The play was set for Washington University in St. Louis football, and it was perfect: An NCAA Division I assistant in the prime of his career, returning to his alma mater and realizing a goal he had set for himself 18 years prior. A head coach, returning to the field he knew as a player, on the campus he knew as home, with the people he knew as family.
It was perfect all right, until the drive for the 2020 season was stalled by COVID-19. But Aaron Keen refused to be fazed by any of it.
“What can you do?” said Keen, who was named football coach on Jan. 7, returning to the program in which he had played under Larry Kindbom as a student from 1990-93 — a program in which he also served as an assistant from 1994-2002 before moving up the ranks coaching at all three NCAA levels. “These are the cards we’re dealt,” he said, “so we’re dealing with them the best way we can.”
Keen was about nine weeks into the job — about to start spring football practice and meet his team in pads for the first time — when life on the WashU campus came to a grinding halt.
Instead of team meetings, there were Zoom meetings; instead of practices on historic Francis Olympic Field, there were consultations on individual workouts. Instead of football, there was uncertainty, hanging in the air like a downfield pass that was destined to land out of reach.
And when the Bears’ fall season was canceled in late July, Keen refused to let any of it dampen his enthusiasm, tapping into the concept of a positive mental attitude, championed for so many years by the legendary Kindbom, who retired last November after 31 seasons as the university’s head coach.
“When we were players, Coach K always talked about ‘PMA,’ breaking ‘positive mental attitude’ down to those three letters,” Keen said. “I probably looked at it as a little corny then. But the more I played for him, I saw the effect it had on me as an athlete, as a student and as a person.
“And as I’ve progressed in my coaching career, a positive mental attitude is something I’ve carried with me,” Keen said. “I’ve preached it to the players that I’ve been around, trying to impact their lives the same way that Larry Kindbom impacted mine.”
It’s a skill that has come in handy when faced with the biggest challenge of his coaching career — a fall without football. Has it sunk in yet? By this point in the season, the rhythms of a football week would have been in place, with the team having played four games. On a Wednesday in October, there should have been depth charts to analyze, matchups to break down and plays to install before packing the buses for the upcoming road trip to Illinois Wesleyan.
Instead, Francis Field is just beginning to come to life with physically-distanced workouts, and Keen, his staff and his players persevere. Instead of wallowing in a lost season, Keen is using the technology that’s available to him to keep in touch with his players not only to talk football, but to talk about what they’re experiencing on a larger scale as well as students and as citizens of the world in 2020.
“It’s helpful to have open lines of communication,” Keen said, “to be able to express things that are important to us as a program or things that are important to us as a society — and allow our players to have a little more voice in those things, to be able to connect with each other and be able to lead on and off the field.”
Keen said he emphasizes to the team to control what can be controlled — and that the rest will take care of itself. “We’ll just keep doing all the preparation and the work required to be able to play at our best and win championships,” he said. “So when we get back to football, we’ll be able to handle whatever comes our way, in the right way.”
“His attitude is contagious,” said Kindbom, who has stuck around the Danforth Campus as an assistant under Keen, the only man he says he would consider staying for, recruiting and helping maintain contacts with former players. “You’re with him for five minutes and you can tell he emits PMA.
“He just keeps responding to what’s in front of him and knows the importance of doing things that keep moving the program forward,” Kindbom said. “No matter the situation, he attacks it head on, saying, ‘Here it is, here’s what we’re dealing with, here’s what we can we do to make this better.’ ”
Big things and small things
Keen arrived on the WashU Campus in the fall of 1990 from Cheyenne, Wyo., with his twin brother, John, an all-state defensive end for Cheyenne East High and the state heavyweight wrestling champion.
As the story goes, Aaron, a quarterback, got on Kindbom’s radar because of his high GPA and valedictorian status, and John, who was being recruited nationally for football, came along for the ride — 1,300 miles of it with their dad, Jim, who was their high school football coach and who drove them from Wyoming for a campus visit in the spring of 1990.
The Brothers Keen fell in love with WashU and committed before the visit was over to play for Kindbom, who had just completed his first season as Bears head coach. John became a starter from the get-go; Aaron arrived as fifth-string quarterback. Even then, Kindbom recalls a tough kid who didn’t let obstacles, including a robust depth chart, stand in his way.
“He was very focused, even from the beginning,” Kindbom said. “Resiliency isn’t just staying with it. He worked so hard to get an opportunity to be able to show what he could do.”
Midway through his sophomore season, he earned the starting job at quarterback and didn’t relinquish it until he played his final game as a senior. By the time he graduated, Aaron Keen held 11 school records, including (at the time) records for passing yards (4,329), pass completions (319), touchdown passes (35) and total offense (4,083) — with many of those passes to his brother.
Kindbom thought so highly of Keen that he hired him for his staff after graduation. Keen was a Bears assistant from 1994-2002, coaching, at various times, quarterbacks, tight ends, linebackers and special teams — and alongside John for a while, too. Aaron Keen spent his final four seasons as offensive coordinator on Kindbom’s staff, leaving when an opportunity presented itself to become a head coach at NCAA Division III Illinois College. After five seasons there, he moved up the coaching ranks at Division II University of Nebraska-Omaha, followed by Minnesota State University; and then six seasons as an assistant at Division I Eastern Michigan University, where he was offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.
At every stop along the way, he took with him more than Xs and O’s. He picked up advice from myriad mentors and coaches, including his dad, whom Keen brought along as an assistant when he got that first head coaching job at age 30 at Illinois College. It’s why having Kindbom on his staff is not only not a problem for him — he sees it as another opportunity to grow and learn.
“I talked my father, who was my high school coach, into coming to coach with me years ago,” Keen said. “And now I have the guy I would consider my second dad, Larry Kindbom, as my assistant.
“How many times does a legend at an institution retire and then stay around in an integral role? The awesome thing for me it’s that he’s the best assistant coach I’ve got on staff, and he always will be,” Keen said. “He is just a grinder as far as the work that he does, and he enjoys recruiting, he enjoys the relationships with players and teaching football.”
That he considers Kindbom like a second father is also a testament to how Keen views the importance of family, not only his wife, Michelle, their sons Brandon and Cody, and daughter Addison, but also the people with whom he surrounds himself.
“If I talk about family, the number one thing that’s involved with that it’s developing strong relationships,” Keen said. “And you get that through strong communications and having strong discussions. And so hopefully we’ve been able to establish that communication with the players and start to develop some of those relationships.”
Keen said that’s more important than ever, especially with the challenges of this fall. “The players haven’t been around me on the field as far as coaching is concerned, they’re still trying to figure me out, and I’m trying to figure them out,” Keen said. “I’ll keep trying to build those relationships until there is a comfort level and we can build a family atmosphere.”
And when his players finally do get to know him, they’re going to like what they see: a man of character, gleaned from role models like another former Bears assistant, a man named Ron Collins. Collins coached Keen in college and currently is an assistant at Ohio University.
“Ron is the first guy that I played for and the first guy that I coached with on the defensive side,” Keen said. “I learned a heck of a lot of football from him, but I also learned a lot about life and how you deal with situations. I feel very fortunate that I was around him for the amount of time I was as a player and a coach.”
Keen’s players will know their coach as a man of resiliency, too. Last year, he learned in an all too personal way that the toughest battles are the ones you don’t see coming. On June 28, 2019, Keen’s brother, John, died of a brain tumor at age 47, leaving behind a wife and three daughters, a law career in Colorado, and an identical twin with whom he shared everything.
Aaron Keen said that in getting through it he leaned on — and learned a lot from — his mom and dad. “Sometimes, it’s a matter of simply looking around you and seeing how people who are closest to you deal with those really tough situations,” he said. “You learn a lot from it. And I think also it helps to provide perspective.
“There are big things in life and there are small things,” Keen said. “I’ve got to remind myself that what I’m doing as a professional might feel important, but there are times I’ve got to take a step back and realize that I don’t need to make small things into big things. My parents have provided me a great example in how I deal with those situations.”
The day he dons the headset
Keen knows from experience that everything is temporary, and that everything passes — including a pandemic. So when the day finally comes, and it will, when he puts on the headset and stands on the Francis Olympic Field sideline, many things will be going through his head — beginning with what it will be like to have Kindbom on the sideline, too.
“The most common question I get is whether Coach K is still going to be wearing a white shirt and red tie as my assistant,” Keen laughs. “I tell people I’ve seen pictures of him coaching for Woody Hayes as a grad student at Ohio State way back when, and he was wearing a shirt and a tie then … .”
But Keen acknowledges he’ll be thinking about a lot of things that first football Saturday. “First, just the positive feeling I have about this university: the community, the athletic department, the football program,” he said. “I’ll be thinking about any number of people that I’ve been around over the years, from coaches to players, the ones I’ve played with and the ones I’ve coached.
“And I’ll think about my own family, my wife and kids, who have sacrificed a lot for me to make this move,” he said.
And no doubt, his brother John. “This is where he would have wanted me to be,” Keen said. “He is certainly going to be on my mind the day I lead this team onto the field.”