Close Mobile Menu

Big Changes Ahead: Q&A with Cal’s New Athletic Director

December 17, 2018
by Kelly O’Mara

26-year Army veteran Jim Knowlton wants to make major changes at Cal Athletics in the next year.

In May, new UC Berkeley Athletic Director Jim Knowlton took over a tough job, spearheading a department in upheaval.

Cal Athletics currently finds itself burdened with about $439 million in debt from the Memorial Stadium renovation, including millions annually in debt servicing, making it one of the most indebted athletic departments in the country. Although Chancellor Carol Christ announced earlier this year the campus would take on just over 50 percent of the debt (the portion related to seismic upgrades of the stadium), the athletic department still faced an $18 million deficit last year and grappled with the ongoing question of whether to reduce the number of varsity sports. An outside report commissioned by Christ in the spring outlined the challenges in balancing the budget by 2020 and complying with Title IX.

But Knowlton, a graduate of West Point, sees opportunities in these challenges. The 26-year Army veteran comes to Cal after a three-year tenure at the Air Force Academy, where he signed large sponsorship contracts, funded a stadium renovation, and headed up more conference championships than in any other two-year period in the school’s history. Before that, at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Knowlton won the Division III Athletic Director of the Year award.

Rushing in from a recent morning workout at the football training facility, the former Army Ranger sat down with California to talk about his plans for the future of Cal Athletics.

You spent the first three months doing a listening tour. What did that involve and what did you hear?

About a month before I got here, I sent a ten-slide Powerpoint. It was really a SWOT analysis of the internal athletics department—strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. Then I gave each of the 30 sports and the 15 business units 75 minutes to come to me and let me know where we are, what we need to work on. From that, we’re working on an execution plan for each sport, which takes all of those issues [into account]—some of them we can fix quickly, some of them we fixed in the first week.

Like what?

I’ll use crew for an example. They had five priorities and four of them we’ve already solved. One was they needed transportation, so we were able to purchase a vehicle through donor support.

We’re developing an execution plan for each of those major issues. That’s going to help lead to development of our vision statement and then our strategic plan.

And you’re not planning on having that strategic plan for at least a year?

It’s going to take probably 12 months. That’s a challenge for me. The organization gave us all this great feedback and now they want to know what’s next. And you’d like to roll out the strategic plan the next day, but in order to do that you have to talk to everybody.

So, the other part of my listening days was meeting with our alums. I think I did 15 different welcome events—in New York City, D.C., San Francisco. I’ve been down in Menlo Park, L.A. Just trying to meet alums, trying to listen and talk about the vision of where Cal Athletics can be, and how critically important it is to integrate with the rest of the University.

What are the top priorities?

Here are my five top priorities right now. Of course, the budget issue is first, which the Chancellor and I are working through. I’m really confident we will be in a far better place in another six months. Part of it is, we’ve cut costs incredibly, but how do we rev up this revenue-generation machine?

And Title IX prong one [proportionality], is a big challenge that everybody’s very aware of. We have three years to fix it, and I think we have a pretty good plan on what we’re going to do. So that was two.

Jim Knowlton // Photo by Marcus Hanschen

Three was really a morale challenge. We lost 210 people out of 300 in the last three years. It’s really hard to have systems in place, to have enduring processes, when you’re having that much turnover. It really, really hurts. So we’ve done a lot of things to bring our family together, from the Student-Athlete Welcome Back barbecue to every month we’re doing “all calls” to bring everyone together.

The fourth thing has been communicating. How do we communicate both internally and externally? We’ve already started things like my monthly letter, Knowlton’s Notes. And then the staff meetings and the coaches meetings and even a weekly update to the Chancellor every Sunday night—not ‘Hey, we won this game,’ but, ‘Here’s how we are integrating with the University.’ Because I don’t think people know we’ve got a lot of other things going besides just playing basketball. Right now, we have a helmet that’s being designed in one of our engineering labs that, initial data suggests, is twice as good as anything on the market. Those are collaborative efforts, and that’s more them than us, but it’s all a lot of partnerships.

Then the last thing I picked up on is we, as an athletic department, sort of pull ourselves away from the University. We’re getting beat up by our budget, we’re getting beat up by a lot of things, and I feel like it’s critical for us to re-integrate the athletic department. So I meet with faculty, pretty much every week. I meet with the chair and the vice chair of the Faculty Senate. We’re trying to use football as a way to celebrate all of Berkeley. We’ve got everything from demonstrating with the Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship to having the Formula SAE car last home game, then the solar car. We also have three sports in their uniforms doing demonstrations at Goldman Plaza or Maxwell Field. The first week, we had the gymnastics team. They spent half their time talking to kids while doing handstands. We’re doing concerts—we want people to come early, so we’ve had a concert before home games. And then we’ve also been talking to students. I met with the president of the ASUC. I met with the Interfraternity Council. [We asked] what can we do to get you at our games?

Do students not get free tickets anymore?

They don’t. What we found was when we gave them free tickets the percentage that actually took advantage of it was almost zero. So here’s what we did instead: $99 gets you all home games for football, all home games for basketball—we’re talking about less than $2 a game. But at home games, we also give you a piece of Under Armour gear. It’s a loss leader for me, but I want people to have a little buy-in, and I think it’ll start paying dividends. Last home game, we sold out the student section, and that was the first time in a couple of years. That’s important. The energy this last game was great.

What is the typical day of an athletic director?

No day is the same. A lot of my time is spent traveling and meeting alums. But when I’m here, it’s 12–14 meetings. Part of it’s mentoring coaches, too. I had two minutes this morning with our football coach, but I met with him yesterday, and I was just thinking about one thing as I went to bed last night: Make sure you’re taking care of yourself. Sometimes it’s just little things. Really, it’s “How do I spend time with all of them?” I have five sons and if you talk to any of them, they’ll say, ‘Oh, the other four are Dad’s favorites.’ But it’s “How do I give each one of them enough love and direction and attention so that they can thrive?” And that’s it with 30 sports, too. I’m trying to catch them all, a practice here, a game here, or meet with a coach. How do you make sure everyone feels like they’re a part of this team?

The report the Chancellor commissioned back in the spring stressed the importance of balancing the budget by 2020. How are you going to do that?

We’re generating a lot of revenue in Athletics. We’re also partners with Parking and Cal Dining and many others that benefit from the things we do. What we’re really looking at it as how do we have an athletic department that has institutional support but can manage their budget, generate revenue, and thrive on this campus? I’ll use the University of Virginia as an example. Virginia is a peer of ours, and they have $22 million of institutional support each year. There are 1,500 schools in the country that have athletics and only a handful don’t have institutional support. We don’t want to be Alabama; we don’t want to be Ohio State. [But] just like [the University] supports the Engineering Department or the English Department, we’re all part of this team that needs some support to be successful.

The Chancellor has said the campus is taking on about half of the stadium debt, but it still leaves $7–8 million per year?

Knowlton with the women’s basketball team // Photo courtesy of Kelley Cox KLC Fotos

It’s almost $10 million of debt service each year.

How are you going to make that up that gap?

It’s not a gap per se. If you looked at it like that, every one of our organizations on campus has a gap, because the English Department requires money to pay all of their professors. Every one of us has some kind of institutional support. What is it for Athletics? Once we’re sort of set on what the institutional support is, then we’ll be able to say, “OK, this is our mark, now we’ve got to generate more revenue.”

And what ideas do you have for doing that?

We’re already implementing a lot of different things. Concerts are a perfect example. Piedmont Avenue in front of the stadium is shut down two hours before a game, and we’re looking at taking one side and making it a celebration with pop-up restaurants and microbreweries and wine. We’re looking at what can we do to monetize the California Memorial Stadium.

Is alcohol going to be served in the stadium?

We won’t do it if we can’t maintain the family environment that we’ve really grown to appreciate. But we also hear from lots of our fans that it’s part of the fan enjoyment, the fan experience. And if we can do that in a responsible way, then certainly that’s something we’re going to look at.

Another big topic is Edwards Stadium and whether it’s going to be turned into housing.

Well, the Chancellor’s already picked her sites for housing and that was not one of them. We’re looking at it, looking at the priorities of the institution, and trying to figure out how can that land be best used—understanding there’s not many places on campus to put a track if it’s not there. So you basically lose six teams: indoor track and field, outdoor track and field, and cross-country—all men and women’s. It’s hard to support those programs when you don’t have a track.

The University is changing the way it meets Title IX requirements in the next three years. My understanding is it’s 100–120 spots that either have to be added for women or cut for men. How will you do that?

We’re not going to cut sports, so it’s really managing rosters. And there’s a possibility we could add another women’s team.

You’re not going to cut sports?

That’s our last resort. At this moment in time, cutting sports is not one of the options we are considering.

There are problems in sports that are far bigger than Cal, like the concussion issue. You talked a lot in your press conference about athlete safety. What role do athletic directors have in that?

When we look at athlete safety there are 20 different components of it. There are the rules of the game, and we’ve changed some of the football rules already—whether it’s targeting or kickoffs. People would be surprised to know our football team has really one day of contact each week. And certainly, we’re constantly looking at equipment. As you heard me say, there’s research on helmets. There’s research on all sorts of different pieces. There’s monitoring of the force the helmets receive. There’s now spotters watching the game just with eyes on whether someone got hit. I think we are trying to be very, very cautious.

There’s also the debate about whether or not college athletes should be paid.

Well, we’re talking about it. We’re in the discussion. And it’s really: “Do you believe in the amateur model?” And if you believe in the amateur model, which I am a firm believer in, you believe these are great opportunities, game-changing, life-changing, transformational opportunities for student-athletes. Many times, people don’t really know what a student gets for being a student-athlete. When you really calculate what an institution invests in each one of our student-athletes, everything from the nutrition piece of it, the training piece of it, there are so many components. You have so many pieces that we’ve surrounded our student-athletes with. It’s not just room and board.

The bottom line is there’s probably not a student here who’s not struggling in some way, shape, or form. Again, it’s resources, as it is in any family. I’m not going to show you today, but I have this crystal ball. … In 30 years, we’re going to be funded incredibly well, we’re going to have endowed scholarships, endowed head coaches. We’re going to have very good facilities that support not only our student-athletes but the students at large, and the education will continue to be the best public education in the country.

This is not an easy job. Why’d you want to take it on?

Well, the headhunter called me twice and I said, “No.” And the third time he called me and said, “I just met the Chancellor. You will love the Chancellor.” So I came and interviewed with the Chancellor and I said, “Yes, there are great opportunities here at Cal.” And the challenges are all solvable with the Chancellor. She’s a great partner. Her vision is incredible, and I think she has got this University starting to move in a very positive direction. I’m just excited to be part of that. 

Kelly O’Mara’s work appears regularly in Triathlete magazine, espnW, Outside, and Competitor, and on KQED in San Francisco. She also competes as a pro triathlete, writes the triathlon-ish newsletter, If We Were Riding, and co-hosts the podcast of the same name.

Share this article