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Air Force athletic director Jim Knowlton leaving for California

April 9, 2018 Updated: April 10, 2018 at 10:08 am
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Air Force Athletic director Jim Knowlton speaks Tuesday, April 21, 2015, during a press conference at the Air Force Academy to introduce the new women's basketball coach Chris Gobrecht. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

Jim Knowlton was a frequent visitor to the top of the Manitou Incline, the 1-mile hike that ascends a lung-crippling 2,000 feet into the thin air above Colorado Springs.

It’s unmatched in rapid ascent. And challenge.

So it is fitting that after just three years as Air Force’s athletic director, Knowlton is climbing to the next step in accepting the same position at California.

For an athletic director that Air Force hired from private Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, it’s a stunningly rapid ascent to the top level of college sports. But it also represents an enormous challenge, as the Bears operated under a $16 million deficit last year.

“I am thrilled to join the University of California, Berkeley family!," Knowlton said from California prior to an introductory press conference on Monday.

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Knowlton, a 1982 West Point graduate who retired from the U.S. Army in 2008 as a captain, took over Air Force athletics in March 2015. During his time he spearheaded fundraising efforts that have led to ongoing renovations at Falcon Stadium, spurred by a pair of $5 million gifts. He has lauded the athletic department’s performance in the Learfield Director’s Cup standings, which measure success across all sports. Air Force programs won nine conference championships in Knowlton’s first two seasons, the most during a two-year span in program history.

He has also launched a concert series at Falcon Stadium which has brought Tim McGraw and Blake Shelton to the academy, brought video rooms and updated offices to various programs and made branding for Air Force athletics a priority.

“We’ll miss him and his guidance and leadership,” basketball coach Dave Pilipovich said.

Knowlton thanked leaders at Air Force, RPI and West Point as he was introduced at Cal on Monday.

“By virtue of his experience, values and personal attributes, Jim stood out in what was a large and deeply talented pool of applicants,” UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ said. “He is an excellent communicator who thrives on challenges, and shares my commitment to excellence, integrity and diversity. I am certain he will be the thought partner I sought, and the leader our campus needs at this pivotal time so that we can, together, usher in a new era of excellence for Cal athletics.”

Knowlton’s tenure at Air Force hasn’t been without its issues, with an outside firm recently brought in to review teams and practices after suspensions and investigations into its lacrosse and swimming programs. He was also at the helm in January when Air Force cancelled athletic events during a brief government shutdown, while programs at Army and Navy continued to play. He also drew indirect criticism from football coach Troy Calhoun for taking an Air Force home game against New Mexico in 2016 to the Cotton Bowl in Dallas.

Calhoun refused on Monday to interject any direct opinion into the decision around the game, which the Falcons lost 45-40.

“Any decision that a chain of command makes, you’re going to follow in that direction,” Calhoun said. “At the ground level, that’s where we work at, we work at ground level; those are decisions that are made in other places.”

Knowlton reached out to coaches on Sunday to tell them that he will be accepting the position in the Pac-12.

Current Cal athletic director Mike Williams had informed the school’s chancellor in August that he would not seek an extension to his contract and intended to step down as soon as a replacement was found.

At Cal, Knowlton will oversee 30 sports. He will officially begin his tenure with the Bears on May 21.

“Cal has all the ingredients to be incredible on and off the field and I'm excited for the challenge to have our athletic teams and student-athletes win the right way at the highest levels,” he said. “We will excel in the classroom, on our campus and in our community, and incorporate dignity and respect in all we do."

Air Force director of public affairs Lt. Col. Allen Harritage said an interim athletic director will be named in the upcoming days.

There is no timetable to hire a permanent replacement.

“Jim Knowlton has been a key component in our mission to develop leaders of character to lead our nation and Air Force for three years,” Air Force superintendent Jay Silveria said in a statement. “And though his leadership led to plenty of wins on the athletic fields, it is the character he instilled in cadet athletes that will be his legacy. We wish him all the best at UC Berkeley, who should feel very fortunate today for having this tremendous leader join their team.”

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