Jim Knowlton, the Air Force Academy’s new athletic director, has a lot on his plate moving toward his first season at the helm of all things Falcon sports. Knowlton replaces Hans Mueh, who retired after filling the role since 2004. Knowlton is a graduate from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and his most recent duties came as athletic director at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., a position he’d held for seven years. Knowlton spoke with the Business Journal about developing leaders, letting go of the past and focusing on the future.
You served at Fort Carson in 1992. Did your time in Colorado Springs then shape your decision to return?
I was stationed in the Springs at Fort Carson and at Peterson [Air Force Base], and I think back to those years and the things that made an impact, like the community. I fell in love with the people. I coached a lot of youth hockey … which helped me become more connected. As a battalion commander, I had the opportunity to meet with community leaders as well. Those connections were a huge influence in my coming back. It felt like I was coming home.
Many athletic directors have their hands full focusing solely on athletics. The mission at the Academy is different from most schools. How does that affect your position?
It’s incredibly exciting. The life lessons I’ve learned through athletics and competition have been a key component in molding me into a caring and compassionate leader. I’ve had the opportunity to supervise our intramural championships last week and saw the bloody elbows and skinned knees. The cadets are getting after it and are competitive at the intramural, intercollegiate or club level. Even the [physical education] courses and boxing and wrestling — each piece … is teaching life lessons and developing leaders of character for the Air Force. It makes a lot of my work very exciting.
What are the most significant challenges at the Academy compared to your tenure at RPI?
At any school the most important resource is student-athlete time. Cadet time is much different from most other schools in that there is not much of it. … I have to use that cadet time as effectively as I possibly can because it is so cherished and valuable and different from other schools. Another challenge is, the Academy really is a younger school, so we are working on teaching alums about philanthropy. We used to be fully funded, but we’re not anymore. … Other schools [have been raising money] for years, but for us it’s a new challenge. We need a change in our paradigm and culture that I didn’t see elsewhere.
There are many opportunities to excel on the field, and that’s one of the hallmarks of the Academy.”
Do you believe recent controversies involving athletes and alleged sexual assaults at the Academy have damaged the brand?
Well, that’s something that happened five years ago and a lot has been done since then. Many of those cadets did not graduate from the Academy and many were suspended. The Academy has been very deliberate moving forward in its education of cadets and teaching them about healthy relationships. I think [Superintendent Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson] has really created a learning culture at the Academy that’s helped everybody better understand healthy relationships and sex assault prevention. The [athletic] department is taking great strides as well. I can’t say everyone is perfect, but [the Academy] has done a great job educating its cadets and leaders. We won’t look in the rear-view; we’re focused on where we’re going. … Overall, from the superintendent down, there’s been a change in the culture. What I’ve found in six weeks here has been a truly healthy environment at the Academy.
When people think Air Force athletics, it probably goes football, then hockey or basketball, depending on the year. But everyone is an athlete at the Academy. Talk about the range of athletic opportunities for cadets.
Every cadet is an elite athlete. One thing I’m working on is a nutritional initiative, and not just for intercollegiate athletes. We have 4,000 elite athletes that need the same kind of nutrition. … We have 1,000 athletes competing at the intercollegiate level. … There are 15 competitive clubs that compete both on and off base. And everyone goes through the PE program and jumps off of our 10-meter platform [into the pool]. There are many opportunities to excel on the field and that’s one of the hallmarks of the Academy.
What are some lesser-known sports spectators can take advantage of?
Many don’t realize we have 27 intercollegiate sports and two more not under the NCAA umbrella, those being boxing and our cheer teams. We have competitive water polo, swimming and diving, men’s and women’s tennis in the very competitive Mountain West Conference. Our baseball team just had one of its best years in history; lacrosse plays with a high level of competitors. There’s fencing, soccer — our rifle team is one of best in the country and we have great golf and track and field. There’s really a lot you can see at the intercollegiate level and most events are free. With an ID at [security level Alpha], anyone can come in and participate as a fan at any one of these sports.
Back to football — the team was 10-3 and won its bowl game last year following an abysmal 2013. No pressure, but any predictions for this upcoming season?
[Laughs] I predict we will play Army and Navy. I won’t go out on a limb any more than that. I talked with [Head Coach Troy Calhoun] at length and we’re really excited. Troy is an excellent leader and the team reflects their head coach. I would love to see them be successful this year.
Any plans to update Falcon Stadium or any other venues with the new visitors center in the works?
Renovating the stadium is an important project and will be one of my priorities moving forward. Some [renovations will be done in] bite-sized pieces and some of those will be big bites. Right now we’re spending time looking at what can get the biggest [return on investment] for the fans and cadets and we’ll move from there. There is an initiative to work on the Blue and Silver Club in Falcon Stadium as soon as commencement is over. We also did a ribbon-cutting three or four weeks ago on a second driving range at the golf course. … There are a couple things going on with a couple more in the queue.
What’s your favorite sport and why?
That’s like asking which one of my five sons is my favorite and why. In my first six weeks here, I have 27 favorite sports. Then I have two more favorite intramurals, and favorite PE classes. I walk around campus and pinch myself many times. The energy the cadets bring is contagious. I think my favorite sport is the one I’m watching at the time. Sometimes it’s water polo, sometimes it’s boxing or basketball or fencing. We have so many fantastic athletes to develop.