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Jim Knowlton made big impact in short time as Air Force athletic director

April 9, 2018 Updated: April 10, 2018 at 8:56 am
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photo - Air Force fans cheer the Falcons on against San Diego State Saturday, Sept. 26, 2009, at Falcon Stadium. The Falcons won 26-14.    KEVIN KRECK, THE GAZETTE
Air Force fans cheer the Falcons on against San Diego State Saturday, Sept. 26, 2009, at Falcon Stadium. The Falcons won 26-14. KEVIN KRECK, THE GAZETTE 

Hungry cadets at the Air Force Academy can find a nutritious snack at any of the Falcon Fuel stations.

Football fans at Falcon Stadium can enjoy a beer at the games, and do so in a stadium undergoing massive renovations.

Long-term sponsorship deals with IMG and USAA will continue to fund the Falcons’ athletic programs.

Coaches are required to teach fewer classroom hours. Recruiting budgets have been bolstered. Vacancies created by previous budget cuts have been filled. An NHL game is being planned for Falcon Stadium. The basketball team played Army at Madison Square Garden, the wrestling team competed on an aircraft carrier and the football team played a home game at the Cotton Bowl.

Related: 
-Air Force Academy athletic director had mandate: Clean up misconduct
-David Ramsey: New Air Force athletic director must drain those oceans of empty seats
-Ramsey blog: Jim Knowlton leaves behind many challenges he inherited

Offices were redesigned to bring the athletic leaders and their financial counterparts into closer proximity. The New England Patriots spent a week practicing at the academy and Colorado is on the football schedule for the first time since the early 1970s.

Jim Knowlton’s primary goal at the Air Force Academy was to expand the footprint and visibility of the Falcons athletic programs. In three years he achieved much to further that goal.

“If you don’t have a plan, you’ll never know when you get there,” Knowlton told The Gazette late in 2017. “Where we’d like to be is the premier athletic department in the country.

“That’s our goal.”

Knowlton left the academy to lead the athletic department at California on Monday, leaving before achieving that ultimate goal but certainly leaving a mark at Air Force.

“He’s leaving us better than he found us, there’s no question about it,” hockey coach Frank Serratore said. “We had him for three years, but we got three years of sweat equity out of him. You hire someone from the outside and by the time they figure the place out and figure out which battles to fight and which ones not to, it could be a year and a half or two years before someone from the outside really gets a grasp of the landscape.

“He was able to come in and hit the ground running.”

Knowlton’s only “revenue” sport hire was his first at the academy, as he hired women’s basketball coach Chris Gobrecht so early in his tenure that the two developed a bond over breakfasts at the Fairfield Inn and Suites where they were both staying while arranging for housing.

Gobrecht directed the Falcons to their best season in at least a decade this past season, as the team won a program-record five conference games.

“His military background was definitely evident in the way he went about doing things, and I liked that,” Gobrecht said. “You hear about people who are all talk and no action. He was kind of the opposite. He was a lot of action and not so much talk. I felt like he got an awful lot done in a short time.”

Knowlton began his time at the academy with “listening days,” that included hour-and-a-half presentations from each of his 27 coaches on where they were and where they were going. He said he would enact the same kind of “enhances, SWAT analysis” at California.

“I’m an engineer by trade, so I’m a trend analysis guy,” Knowlton said.

He then dove in and made sure he always traveled with a gift officer for athletics “attached at my hip.”

Knowlton’s proudest accomplishments at Air Force centered on the department’s efforts in sexual assault prevention that it attacked through healthy relationship education. He was proud of the organized events run by the athletic department. He loved taking team captains on annual trips to Gettysburg, Pa.

But mostly it was the efforts to improve the reach of the program that drove him.

He highlighted the difference in accepting the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy in Washington D.C. in May 2017 vs. the way it went two year earlier.

“Two years ago we went, we got the trophy, and we left,” Knowlton said. “This time we went to the White House and we did seven significant events as part of that White House trip.

“We used that trip to connect and get people excited about what we’re doing. Of course, President Trump brought us into the Oval Office and treated us like kings. When I was in there we called Robert Kraft, the owner of the Patriots. It was unbelievable. It was a great experience for our kids, great experience for the Air Force Academy.”

Knowlton squeezed a lot of those experiences into 37 months.

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