Alumni Spotlight: Jim Kamman
Jim Kamman
Dec. 17, 2014

Former University of Michigan wrestler Jim Kamman (1965-67) ended his collegiate career on top, defeating Oklahoma's Wayne Wells to capture the 152-pound title at the 1967 NCAA Championships. A two-time All-American and Big Ten champion, he compiled a 35-6 career record, including a perfect 19-0 mark as a senior.

During Kamman's competitive career at Michigan, the Wolverines were a national force. U-M posted a near-perfect 29-1 dual record and captured the 1965 Big Ten title before taking second in each of the subsequent two seasons. The 1967 Wolverines also claimed runner-up honors at the NCAA tournament, finishing 11 points shy of in-state rival MSU.

A native of Grand Rapids, Minnesota, Kamman followed the footsteps of his high school coach, Snip Nalan, to Michigan. Nalan was a two-time NCAA champion at 130 pounds for the Wolverines (1953, '54), becoming the Wolverines' first multiple champion in program history. In 1998, Kamman endowed a wrestling scholarship in his former coach's name, the Snip Nalan Scholarship for Wrestling.

Kamman spent four years in the U.S. Marine Corps after college, which included of tour of duty flying combat missions in Vietnam. He received his law degree from Pepperdine University and over the last three decades, has specialized in tax litigation and tax controversy, currently working with the A. Lavar Taylor law offices in Santa Ana, California.

Q. What originally brought you to Michigan? Obviously, there was a strong connection through Snip Nalan. Did that have a lot to do with it?

A. Basically, it was Snip. My dad came to this country when he was five years old. My parents wanted me to go to a good school. I didn't know the difference at the time. I knew I wanted to wrestle in college. When I got accepted to Michigan, my parents were ecstatic that I was going to that quality of a school. I went to wrestle. It was a great education. There was no question that I was academically qualified, but academics were a struggle for me there with the kids that I was competing with. It was the only school I applied to. I got accepted in January. There were other places in Minnesota that I could have gone to wrestle. But to get into a school like Michigan, have an opportunity to wrestle and follow in the footsteps of Snip, it all came together.

Q. What were Snip's recollections about Michigan that made you so interested?

A. Snip was a great storyteller. He had originally wanted to go to the State College of Iowa and wrestle for Dave McCuskey. He actually got a ride to Michigan from Mason City, Iowa, from George Allen, who was an assistant coach to Cliff [Keen] on the 150-pound football team. So, he told countless stories about Coach Keen and Michigan. I got a couple letters from Coach Keen. Nobody else was interested in me.

Q. Did you see any coaching similarities between Snip and Coach Keen?

A. If there's a picture in the dictionary next to "unorthodox," it'd be Snip Nalan. He did everything wrong. He was a scrambler. When you look at coaching trees ... my first coach at Grand Rapids learned wrestling from Findlay Collins when he was in the Army Air Corps at Michigan State. Cliff, of course, goes back to Oklahoma State. They really understood the fundamentals. Cliff was extremely competitive, so was Snip, but they were gentlemen -- honest, had integrity, emphasized school first. I picked up the scrambles and unorthodox stuff from Snip. Cliff would try to talk him out of that, just like he would try to talk me out of it. I can still go back to matches that I won with things that I learned in junior high and from Snip. In the [NCAA] finals against Wayne Wells, he was in so deep in the first period, he's probably still wondering how he lost that takedown that I scrambled out of.

It's a misused term, "Michigan Man," because anybody can be a Michigan Man. It means you do things with integrity. You prepare and do the best you can, but it's always with honesty and integrity. I had never heard the term until Bo [Schembechler] used it, but it's always existed. It's the way [Fritz] Crisler and [Fielding] Yost operated. That type of philosophy runs through it. Snip had to have learned that from Cliff.

Q. Would you call yourself an unorthodox wrestler?

A. No. I went into wrestling because I had no athletic ability. Snip used to always tell me to go out and wrestle smart. You can't make any mistakes, because you're not any good. I was very fundamentally sound from my coaching, and I was able to score a lot off my defense. I picked up enough of the unorthodoxy from Snip so that when it was necessary, it was there. In his case, it was his primary move -- unorthodox and high risk. But, no, I don't consider myself unorthodox. Just enough to get myself out of trouble.

From left: Cliff Keen, Rick Bay, Jim Kamman and Snip Nalan at the 1967 NCAA Championships

Q. You were part of some really good teams at Michigan from 1965-67. What was the dynamic on those teams?

A. The things that are talked about now in athletics, like senior leadership, we never talked about those things; they just happened. Cliff didn't have to tell us to go to class. We didn't need to constantly check in every day. I like to think that those teams were arguably the best teams ever at Michigan. I'd put our 1967 team against Rick's [Bay] runner-up teams in 1973 and 1974 and the 2005 team with Ryan Bertin.

I got my start as a sophomore because of injuries -- and up a weight at 157. I had the utmost respect for Rick Bay as a captain and as my assistant coach. I just knew that I didn't want to let those guys down. They were upperclassmen, and they weren't going to let you down. My junior year, I sat out about six weeks with a bad knee, and that was pretty tough. The worst feeling I had in college was my junior year I came back for the Big Ten and only took fourth. If I had won just one more match, we would have been four-time Big Ten champions. Maybe somebody else could have won another match, but I was the one who should have done it. My senior year, we had Bobby Fehrs at 123, I was at 160 and Dave [Porter] was at heavyweight. We were all undefeated in dual meets. We needed two more guys to step up for us to win every dual meet, and somebody always did.

Q. Did that team dynamic trickle down from Coach Keen?

A. Again, it was never something coach talked about. Seldom did I ever get a pep talk from Snip in high school and seldom ever did I get a pep talk from Coach Keen. The attitude was, "You're wrestling at Michigan; this is what is expected of you. We don't have to tell you about it." You breed the competition and the character in the wrestling room. You bring in quality people and quality athletes, it'll build itself.

Q. Did you have high expectations when you got to Michigan?

A. I wasn't really bright and was pretty naive, so I went to Michigan to win a national championship. My goal was three Big Ten championships and three-time All-American. I set the bar really high; I was too young and naive to know that I shouldn't have done that. That's the reason why I was there. I don't like to let people down if people expect something from me. I really had to work at it, academically and athletically. My parents made sure I could go to Michigan. Snip told me I was good enough to go to Michigan. So, I had to be good enough. That's what I thought. I look back now and realize that there wasn't any way I could have let him down. Even if I hadn't been that successful. Same with my parents. But at the time, my expectations were high. It's a good thing that I was that naive.

Q. So, winning a national title as a senior, was that the culmination of reaching your expectations? I know Snip was there for it; was that a great moment?

A. It was great. My parents were there. They only got to see me wrestle a couple times in college. Snip had a wrestler there from Drake. It was great to share that with him. I wish I could share it with him more now when I can look back on it. I saw him before he died at a wrestling event in Minnesota in the 1980s, and I thanked him for sending me to Michigan. He didn't want to take credit for anything; he said, "Jim, I didn't do anything; you did it all." But I didn't do it; it was all these people along the way.


Q. How transformative was your experience with the Marines and in Vietnam?

A. When I first started practicing law, I asked people how to prepare for trial. They all told me that trial is just preparation, preparation, preparation. Well, that's what I learned in wrestling. That's what I learned in the Marine Corps while planning a mission. Be there on time. You have to make weight when they tell you to make weight. If you're not over target on time, people die.

Q. How did you get into tax law?

A. I was a legal officer in my squadron in Vietnam. I decided I wanted to go to law school. A lot of servicemen came back from Vietnam and didn't know what they wanted to do. My law school class was 50 percent veterans. I decided I wanted to be a lawyer. I didn't know exactly what I wanted to do. I got into tax, got hired by the government and got into tax litigation.

Wrestling is like flying is like trial practice. Although there is the team dynamic, you're out there all by yourself in front of the world. In an airplane, I had a pilot next to me -- I was a bombardier navigator -- but I was by myself. In trial practice, you're in front of a judge but you're by yourself. It's about what you say, what you do and how you get there. Those are the things I've gravitated to. Looking back at the things where I've been successful, it's those types of things and goals. I like to be able to rely on myself. Again, most of this is retrospective. I probably didn't realize it when I was 30 or 40 years old. I do now and I get nostalgic. Like Jim Keen and I always say, we have great stories, all true; they just get better every year.

The recently created Office of Alumni Engagement strives to foster a community, recognize the holistic student-athlete and honor the great Michigan Athletics history. This alumni spotlight illustrates the impact that our alumni are having around the world and how they stay engaged with Michigan.

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