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Volume 22 No. 34
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New AD at Cal goes the extra (400) yard(s)

A background as an Army Ranger and military engineer gives Jim Knowlton a unique perspective on taking over one of college’s toughest challenges.
Photo: Kelley Cox KLC Fotos

Jim Knowlton can still hear the rhythmic footsteps and heavy breathing as he and his Army Ranger School classmates ran through the pitch-dark woods at Fort Benning, Ga. A five-mile run for well-trained, elite soldiers isn’t supposed to be a big deal, except that they were doing it on an hour’s sleep, awakened by the jarring sounds of artillery simulators in the middle of the night, with almost nothing to eat in the previous 24 hours.


Following a pair of Ranger instructors in tight formation, Knowlton and the others passed the finish line in a dead sprint. Then he realized something — the instructors had not pulled up. They were still running.


No, Knowlton thought. We ran the five miles. We’re supposed to be finished.


He managed to keep up; many others didn’t, losing their chance to become an Army Ranger.


“The instructors only ran another 400 yards, but we lost more people in those 400 yards than the whole run,” Knowlton said. “At that point, it was no longer about your fitness, it was about how tough you are.”


Jim Knowlton

Athletic Director
University of California

■ Hired:
April 9
■ Age:
■ Previous AD jobs:
Air Force, 2015-18; Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, 2007-15
■ Other experience:
Army Corps of Engineers
■ Alma mater:
U.S. Military Academy, 1982, engineering
■ Family:
Wife, Corey; sons, Jimmy, Patrick, Christopher, Mark, Shawn

Knowlton, the athletic director at the University of California since April, doesn’t talk a lot about those nine weeks in Ranger school or his stints in Germany and Iraq during a distinguished 26-year career in the Army. But it’s with him always, guiding him, instructing his decisions, prompting his leadership, raising his unmistakable conviction to the surface.


He’ll need every one of those attributes to turn the Bears’ program around. His peers told him that Cal, with its well-documented budget crisis and Title IX issues, is the most difficult, thankless job in the country. Who would want to be AD where the athletic department starts every year in an $18 million hole from facility debt and the cloud of cutting sports hovers over the program?


If anything, though, the challenges at Cal attracted Knowlton to the job from Air Force, where he previously had been AD for three-plus years. When she interviewed Knowlton, Carol Christ, Cal’s chancellor, spoke frankly about the Bears’ problems, namely, $421 million in debt, and how they’d jointly attack it.


“He is a problem-solver who likes challenges, so nothing I said about Cal athletics deterred him in the slightest,” Christ said. “Quite the opposite.”


Cal might test every leadership and problem-solving principle Knowlton learned in the Army, but what’s clear is that he won’t be intimidated. This is a guy who told his wife 35 years ago that he’d either come home from Ranger school in a body bag or with a coveted black-and-gold Ranger tab on his left shoulder.


“Cal hit the jackpot when they got him,” said Jim Sharman, one of Knowlton’s best friends at West Point, from where Knowlton graduated in 1982. “He rises to the occasion. The tougher the challenge, the more you’ll see him use the skills he’s developed over the last 40 years.”


■ ■ ■ ■


To understand Knowlton’s relentless belief in Cal is to know where he came from and how his experiences shaped him. 


The resolve that helped Knowlton get the Cal job was forged from nearly three decades in the Army, where he was promoted to major below the zone and eventually rose to the rank of colonel. Below the zone means he was promoted ahead of schedule for his performance and potential.


He captained the hockey team at West Point, studied engineering, and after graduation made it through Ranger school, where his weight plummeted from 175 pounds to 129 during the grueling nine-week survival and leadership course. Soldiers were so sleep-starved that they’d lean against a soda machine so they could close their eyes for a few minutes — the course is built on identifying those who can fight through adversity like hunger and sleep deprivation, and still function at a high level.


“It’s one way to lose weight, but I’d stick with Jenny Craig,” Knowlton said with a laugh.


Knowlton was deployed to Aschaffenburg, Germany, outside of Frankfurt in the early 1980s. Part of that station’s job was to monitor the infamous Fulda Gap on the volatile Czech border during the Cold War.


Cal Chancellor Carol Christ was a big part of the reason why Knowlton took the job: “I needed to be comfortable that she would have my back.”
Photo: Nathan Phillips KLC Fotos

“Was it tense?” Sharman said, repeating a question to him. “You’re not talking about quarterly profits or a winning season. You’re talking about life and death. Yeah, you could say it was tense.”


Later, while stationed in Berlin, Knowlton was there to watch history as the Berlin Wall came down in 1989.


When asked about his duties in Germany, Knowlton chuckled and replied, “That’s classified.”


Knowlton served part of that time in the ’80s as a combat engineer, a position within the Army Corps of Engineers that’s intended to keep troops safe. Combat engineers clear mine fields, detonate IEDs, build bridges and destroy them.


As Sharman said, “Engineering is problem-solving. You take one big problem and make it a lot of little problems, and then you go about solving the little problems. … That’s the thing about Jim. Whatever the challenge is, he’s going to figure it out.”


One of the misconceptions that rankles Knowlton is that the Army is all about taking and giving orders. Sure, there were times as a company leader when he’d put a finger in the chest of a soldier, but the vast majority of his time was spent “listening, learning, collaborating, educating,” said Michael Barbero, Knowlton’s roommate at West Point. “He’s very much from the school of being a servant leader.


“He’s not going to Cal to do this by himself. He wants ownership from everyone.”


Cal also presents another opportunity for Knowlton to rally the troops and build a team, just like he did at Air Force, just like he did as a company leader in the Army, just like he did as captain of the hockey team at West Point.


There’s a saying in the Army that defines teamwork: Do you want to be the best company leader or do you want to lead the best company? It speaks to the importance of building a team with a common vision, something Knowlton is doing in the early days of his administration.


“I just want to help people visualize what we can be,” Knowlton said. “Other people see obstacles; I see opportunities.”


■ ■ ■ ■


Despite its difficulties, Cal is still a power five AD job at an elite academic institution with 450,000 living alumni. That makes the job loaded with potential for Knowlton to show what he can do on a big stage in the Pac-12 Conference.


In just six months at Berkeley, Knowlton already has made an impression on the Bears’ followers and those who work with him. He laid the groundwork with a whirlwind first 60 days, meeting with 500 Cal alums up and down the state, in groups big and small. What struck those around him was his boundless enthusiasm for the Bears. He’d often address his audience by saying that “my feet still haven’t hit the ground.”


At football games, Knowlton stays on the move, circulating through tailgates, climbing the stadium steps, stopping randomly to talk to students, alums, ticket takers and ushers. Knowlton then gathers his guests in his suite at halftime and goes around the room asking each person to identify themselves and answer a fun question — “What makes you famous?”


“I’ve really been struck by how he transforms a room,” said Jennifer Simon-O’Neill, senior associate AD at Cal. “He carries himself with a lot of confidence and that confidence is contagious. So, when he says we’re going to get something done, you believe him. He’s brought a lot of hope, excitement and optimism.”


Jim Knowlton has spent much of his first six months on the job preaching a contagious brand of excitement and optimism to alumni, coaches and Golden Bears athletes.
Photo: Ariel Nava

Simon-O’Neill knows the pulse at Berkeley as well as anyone. She’s lived there since she was 3 years old and her father taught there. Having worked in athletics more than a decade, Simon-O’Neill has lived the ups and downs of budget deficits and cost-cutting for Cal’s 30 sports.


“We historically have been known, not only for our successes, but also for our challenges,” she said. “Jim talks about embracing the challenges and how he hasn’t seen anything we can’t solve. It’s been good to have a new set of eyes.”


Christ already is investing in the future of Cal athletics. Earlier this year, the chancellor decided that central campus would pay 54 percent of the $18 million in annual facilities debt, most of which mounted from renovations and reinforcements to the football stadium. That will save athletics $9.5 million per year and give Knowlton a nice boost in his quest to balance the budget by 2020.


It also fortified his belief that the school is committed to a robust athletic department. Christ and Knowlton say cutting sports will be a last resort as a means of balancing the budget.


“I had heard from many folks that this was the hardest Division I AD job in the country, so yeah, I was concerned until I met with the chancellor,” Knowlton said of the interview process. “She turned out to be the reason I came. I told her that this is going to be a hard job and I’m going to have to make hard decisions. I needed to be comfortable that she would have my back. She said she would.


“For someone who has spent a lot of time in a foxhole, that really is important to me.”