A Q&A With Cal Athletic Director Jim Knowlton, One Year In
It's been just over a year since the May 21st, 2018 start date of Cal Athletic Director Jim Knowlton, and he took the time to sit down with GoldenBearReport for a Q&A on a myriad of topics. Knowlton touched on a variety of topics around the athletic department, including new facilities, various ideas he's put into action, and more.
You guys hosted an interesting event a couple weeks ago, with Convoy of Hope and the Coaching Core, which had a lot of student athletes running a camp for underprivileged kids, how did that come about?
We have a great relationship with Wally Haas, and Wally Haas is a huge, I guess he would be called the founder of ‘Coaching Core,’ I’ve gone to their banquet, they’ve had one of our coaches honored at the banquet, and I’ve gotten to know Wally through lunches. He came to me and told me ‘we do this event, but we’d like to blow it up.’ He brought convoy of hope, that was the first time they’d ever worked on a college campus like ours. I think we had 400-500 disadvantaged kids, we had so many different things for them, we had 90 student-athletes out there, supporting them, teaching them in Memorial Stadium. In addition to that, we did this panel with Mark Fox and Justin Wilcox, we had Wally and Joan Ryan (former SF Chronicle sports journalist). It was fabulous.
With the Coaches Convoy event upcoming in southern California, is that kind of event something you want happening frequently with regard to alumni interaction?
I think it’s huge, and I think our alumni are craving to know about what’s happening in the department. I just went over my one year mark and some of the things we’ve done as part of this outreach is the Knowlton’s notes, I do a weekly update to the chancellor and I’ve been everywhere from Hong Kong to Shanghai and New York City, and Boston with Jaylen Brown and DC, and it’s really ‘how do we get out there and share the story of what’s happening?’
Right now, I think we have a magnificent chancellor, she has got this university moving in a really neat direction, and we’re in lockstep with her, and it’s ‘how do you let alumni know that we’ve had some ups and downs, but right now we’re really on a good path and we have a lot of good things happening in the department.’ And in order to let them know, you’ve got to get out there and you’ve got to talk to them, you’ve got to share with them, and you’ve got to connect with them.
With it being about a year and change since coming in, what have you found to be the best way to connect to alumni so far?
It’s multi-dimensional, and the first thing I learned early on was that our alums, our fans are really passionate about Cal and Cal athletics, and that’s great because you can’t teach that passion, that has to be something that’s inside of you, that’s really great, we have these passionate fans. I’d like to say there’s one easy way to do it, but there isn’t, you’ve got to do it at multiple levels.
It’s being in person, bringing coaches with you, so I’ve been down to southern Cal with Justin (Wilcox), now we’re going to be down with Mark (Fox), Lindsay (Gottlieb), and Justin with alums on this Coaches Caravan. It’s talking through communications, through the website, we’re really trying to spread the word in multiple ways, because we think we have a really good story. It’s a great time to be at Cal and we’re really having some unique successes as well.
What do you think are some of those unique successes so far?
We’ve worked hard on our budget, the chancellor and I and the provost are all now in agreement on what the budget should look like for the next five years. That’s huge, because we feel that’s been a point of contention for years and years and years, and we’re now at a point where we’ve got a plan for the five years and it’s going to help us reduce institutional support required each year, which will be really good for us and the campus.
I feel we’re really making some strides in the gender equity area, really developing a plan that’s helping us embrace gender equity and to be able to go to our student athletes and say we’re doing a good job balancing the needs of all of our student. We’ve been very student athlete focused with the Cameron Institute that we’ve just begun to put together is really going to be focused on student athletes from a career development, community engagement, and leadership development, personal development perspective. That’s going to be really big for us.
Academically, we had a really good year. Seven of our teams had a perfect 1000 APR, which ties our record for all-time, and 15 of our sports had their highest ever APR, so we’re like, ‘wow, we’re on a good path with the academics and the APR,’ we had over a 3.0 average for our 30 teams, which is really exciting.
And that’s not an easy thing…
No, you can imagine, all you have to do is go on one of our trips you can see everyone with books out and studying, whether it’s the football team, the field hockey team, you don’t go on these trips without grabbing your book bag and continuing to study.
I think those are pretty good indicators and we’ve had, my first week we won a national championship last year, and I told my buddies, ‘wow, this is an easy job (laughs), I’ve been an AD for a long time, and to win a national championship my first week at Cal, I don’t even want to get to the second week.’
We just did a head coach retreat, if you could have seen them the first five minutes (of the coaches rowing), you’d be saying ‘I’m glad they didn’t have to tow them back.’
But yeah, they did a nice job, and we’re constantly talking about ‘how do we all pull in the same direction, all get on the same sheet of music.’ We brought in experts on mental health, on millenials, did a lot of talking about comprehensive campaigns and fundraising, we talked about marketing and promotion and really we brought the family together and that was really important to share.
One of the best pieces was we spent lunch with every coach talking about one of the things they do really well, sharing best practices. Coaches loved it, because someone’s doing a great job engaging faculty, where every student athlete on the team invites a faculty member to a practice and a reception, and all the other coaches were like ‘what a great idea.’ So how do we share some of the best practices that are going on on our teams, so everybody can take advantage of those.
You talked a bit about the Cameron Institute, how did you get him onboard with the current vision for that?
It’s fascinating, because in my first week, Friday of my first week, he sat in that seat right there and he challenged me, ‘you, we, don’t do a good enough job with student athlete development. There are some areas that we could be much better at, I am challenging you, as I have with ADs before you, to develop a plan on how we’re going to improve student athlete development.’
It probably took about four or five months, we benchmarked all the schools in the country that do it well, and came back to him with a plan. He gave us what I call the ‘Cameron commandments,’ he gave us some feedback, we tweaked the plan, went back to him, pitched it at the Bowl Game last year, then probably about a month ago, we did the final pitch, he agreed to it, he signed it, then the next day, he paid it off.
Now, we’re so grateful because that’s transformational for our student athletes. Now we’re building it, and he’s going to be on this advisory board with me as we look at ‘what is it going to look like as we build it up and how are we going to optimize it so that it’s really giving all 850 student-athletes a four-year engagement while they’re here at Cal.’
What was some of the feedback you got from the coaches on this program and were they in the pitch meetings?
We had included them in different parts along the way, but they were absolutely thrilled, because I think any coach that’s been around here would say, ‘we’re premier in academics, we’re premier in athletics, we should be premier in student athlete development.’ This puts us past premier, we now have the ability to be better than premier in student athlete development.
You touched on the APR numbers as well, how much do those shape your decision making in maybe coaching hires (with Mark Fox being known for graduating players in particular)?
I think whenever you hire somebody, you look at the body of work, and I think 90 plus % of our student athletes go pro in something other than sports, so when you come to the number one public school in the country, you expect to leave with a great degree and graduate once you commit to the school. I think these (APR and graduation rate) are indicators on how we are doing providing the student athletes with a great academic experience, developmental experience. You know, the APR is not the perfect indicator, but it’s one of the indicators we’re using. GPA is another indicator that we’re using and when I hire people, coaches particularly, it’s very easy to see ‘how you’ve done at other schools with APRs, how did you do with GPAs, how did you do balancing the requirement to be successful on the court with the requirement to make sure your students get a good education.
Where did the idea for the Coaches’ Retreat come from?
I’m always trying to find a way to build teams, that’s what I love to do, and I’ve done it in my previous life in the military. I went down and saw what a great boathouse we have and it kinda just grew from there. I’d like to say I came up with all these great ideas, but I’m surrounded by these incredible, smart people. Once we made the framework, different people had different ideas, and our senior women’s administrator (Jenny Simon-O’Neill) is a rower, so one thing led to another, so the next thing you know, we’ve got a boat with coaches in it, and you’re saying ‘this is really neat.’
How is the process of getting the softball facility together (targeted 2021 finish date)?
I wish I could say it’s absolute smooth sailing, everything is easy, but we’re moving forward. We’ve got a design, we’re doing fundraising. We’ve got to get to 30 million and we’re probably at 25.5 or so, we’re getting close. It’s more of a gender equity fundraising campaign, and when you talk to our alums about ‘how do you provide great facilities for everybody,’ this resonates with alums.
It’s just getting out in front of the right alums, and it’s hard with our beach volleyball, (Cal is currently working on a beach volleyball facility), because they have three graduates. When we say ‘let’s talk to all the graduates who have gone through and played beach volleyball,’ there are three and they graduated last year and they’re in their first job.
So we’re really working on ‘how do we come up with the resources for these facilities,’ beach volleyball will be done in 2020 and softball in 2021, and I’m gonna feel really good about both those facilities, because we can host the NCAAs in softball, host the Pac-12 (Championship)s in beach volleyball, and it really elevates both sports to another level.
Something like that should help from the standpoint of TV for softball, as ESPN really promoted the Women’s College World Series over the past month
And it’s getting bigger and bigger, it’s really exciting and we can be in that discussion.
I know you’ve touched on a basketball facility as well, how is the planning for that coming?
It’s one of those where it’s a multiple step process, but the chancellor has identified it as one of the comprehensive campaign priorities, and I met today as we looked as long-range development planning and the master planning, it’s all about finding where that should go, the next step is finding a design, but we’re moving. We’re on the go, and it’s one of those facilities, after we finish the (beach volleyball and softball) facilities, it’s our number one priority.
How do you feel your relationships with Coach Wilcox and coach Fox have developed in your time here, because I’ve seen you at a handful of football practices?
I think it’s what I try to do with every coach, I’m trying to be a partner, trying to be a resource, trying to help set our coach and our teams up for success, because at the end of the day, it’s student-athlete centric, and we want to provide a great experience for them. I really admire both, I really admire all our coaches, especially Justin and Mark, and I look forward to seeing them both doing great things here.
Do you have a favorite moment from the football team in your year here?
You know what, I really enjoyed the USC game, I don’t know why it’s my favorite moment, but it was, knowing that we hadn’t won there since 2000, they were up 14-0 at halftime and there was a little skirmish between teams after halftime, and our kids just flipped the switch and said ‘we’re not going to be denied.’ It’s one of those moments where, that’s why you play the game, and I was really proud of our student-athletes, our coaching staff, and the village that helps support the football team.
I’m hoping that when we win the Rose Bowl, that will be my favorite moment, but I’ll have to wait a couple more months for that. I like what Justin’s doing, he’s doing the right things that continue the climb, and that’s what’s exciting.
What other things around the athletic department are you looking forward to getting done?
I’m also excited about what we’re doing with our women’s track and field locker room, that’s going to be upgraded this summer as well and again, our women’s track and field locker room, teams had to walk through the middle of it to get to their locker room, very uncomfortable, not fair, it’s putting some doors and walls, access to the bathroom in a different way. As I walked around and looked at how our student athletes lived in locker rooms, little investments can make a big difference in the quality of their experience.
Have there been any other small things like that that you’ve noticed elsewhere?
I think every one of them we’re looking at how do we do this. I have an action plan for all 30 sports….
And you have that big board over there (a massive whiteboard covered in notes)
and I use that big board a lot, and I think we’ve seen a lot of things, some of them are easy fixes, some of them are ‘we don’t have an assistant coach, how do we work that, or we’ve authorized it but never had it,’ we’ve got guys coming in saying we don’t have enough guys to cover all of the sports, some of them are ‘we need our facility upgraded here and there.’
Every coach, if they’re worth their salt, is coming in and saying ‘these are the things I need to get to the next level,’ and if my goal is to be in the top third of the Pac-12 in everything we do, then compete for Pac-12 and National Championships, it’s a partnership, what else can we do to make our program better.
I know that you played hockey in college, but what sports did you play growing up?
I’ve really played just about everything in my lifetime to date. I played hockey in college, I played baseball in high school, hockey and soccer in high school, and since, I’ve run triathlons and marathons. I play all raquet sports. I’ve got five sons and I wanted my sons to be exposed to everything, because when you’re moving every couple of years, you don’t know what sport will help them integrate themselves into the school and to make friends. When you move to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, it’s soccer, when you move to West Point, NY, it was hockey, and when you move to Colorado, it was hockey and lacrosse.
I wanted them to feel comfortable doing everything, so all my kids were comfortable, they weren’t exceptional at any except hockey, they’re all college hockey players. There’s so much that you learn from team sports and when you move a lot, you want them to be involved in team sports, but you better do more than just one sport.
How much has competitiveness derived from playing many sports and getting your kids into many sports influenced the way you approach your job here?
I think it’s part of it for sure. I’ve been a servant leader my whole life, and coming to Cal it fits really well with who we are and what’s important to us, and I think when you sprinkle a little competitiveness in there and a little accountability, it’s how do we all work together and how do we all become exceptional, and that’s really my goal. I want to be the best athletic department in the country, and there’s lots of ways to look at that, but at the number one public university, there’s lots of opportunities to be exceptional in a lot of different areas.
I’m competitive, I don’t apologize for that, I still play hockey on Sunday mornings, go out there and slash a few, take a few slashes. I think if we’re going to do it, we’re going to give it our best shot, and a place like Cal, which demands excellence on the academic side, I look at the faculty and the awards they get, they’re world class. I’d like to see the same thing on the athletic side, and make sure we continue to push the envelope like our counterparts on the academic side.