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William B. Knapton

Excerpt from: Beloit Daily News (February 21, 1997); by Jim Franz
A Legend to Leave His Mark

     It's ironic that after so much success during his career as a head coach, Bill Knapton's final Beloit College team will have one of the poorest win-loss records of his long tenure.

     Knapton's snake-bit Buccaneers are suffering through a 6-15 campaign filled with heartbreaking last-minute defeats.

     Some may even look at this as a lost season.

     Judging strickly by the bottom line, however, is a lot of what's wrong with his profession, Knapton says. It will be something he won't miss when he retires after 40 years of coaching at the college.

     When the final buzzer sounds Saturday against Lake Forest, Knapton will miss another aspect of the game much like the passing of a loved one.

     "For 45 years there hasn't been a day that goes by that I don't sit down and do some X's and O's," he said. "The planning for basketball is fascinating. What you can do with those X's and O's... I don't know if I'm going to be able to get away from that and not have a huge void there."

     Knapton's own competitiveness often made the games a pressure-cooker.

     "I've never had great love for the games," he said. "I've never had great love for the competition itself. It's too much pressure. It's almost a negative. That's not what I enjoyed about the game. I enjoyed the practices, the kids. As far as the game itself, I can't really say I ever enjoyed that part of it, that it's life and death. When you put this much into it, the game is too important. It means too much.

     "The losing just kills you. How can you enjoy that?"

     Fortunately for Knapton, the 1996-97 season is an aberration considering his coaching career as a whole. It will snap a string of 20 straight winning seasons at the college. He will retire with 556 victories, third among all NCAA III active coaches and fifth all-time. He has had 31 winning seasons. His 343 Midwest Conference victories and 10 league titles are more than any coach in the 75-year history of the league.

     Knapton was once a stellar athlete himself. He grew up in tiny Bloomer, Wis., where he was a stellar halfback in football and forward in basketball. The school didn't have baseball, but he played it in the Navy after graduation.

     His skills earned him a minor league contract with the Chicago Cubs his freshman year at La Cross State and he quit school to seek his fortune in major league baseball.

     Playing in Class D league ball changed his mind, however.

     "I hadn't seen much of left-handed pitching before that," Knapton says with a laugh. "I couldn't handle it."

     He went back to college where he captained both the basketball and baseball teams. He's a member of that school's Hall of Honor.

     After earning his degree in 1952, Knapton coached at Stevens Point High School. He led the Panthers to a two-year record of 42-7 and a state championship in 1953-54 when the team was 25-2.

     He then served as an assistant for three years at Marquette. The 1954-55 Warriors finished 24-5 and were ranked as high as fifth in the nation.

     But by 1957, Knapton was convinced Division I basketball wasn't for him.

     "I asked myself, 'Do you want to stay in Division I?" he said. "I didn't. I always had a feeling for smaller schools because I went to one in La Crosse. I loved that atmosphere."

     The legendary Dolph Stanley had just come to the end of the line at Beloit. The vacancy was just the sort of position Knapton was looking for.

     Not that the situation at Beloit was tremendous. Stanley had directed the Beloit program to national prominence, including a National Invitational Tournament appearance in 1951. In 12 years at Beloit, he compiled an incredible 238-57 record.

     The success came with a price. Beloit was drummed out of the Midwest Conference for what was deemed an over-emphasis on athletics. College President Miller Upton, hoping to return to the conference, put enough pressure on Stanley that he left to become athletic director at Drake University.

     "The community and the college were divided on what the philosophy of the college should be," Knapton said. "One faction believed Beloit should be another Bradley (University) while the other thought Beloit should be back in the Midwest Conference. The decision to go back didn't please a lot of people."

     Knapton inherited a top-notch team from Stanley in 1957-58 -- and a fearsome schedule. The team finished 12-9, but warranted a bid to the then-Collegiate Division post-season tournament.

     The college refused it.

     "They wanted to prove to the Midwest Conference that they were more interested in getting back into the league than competing in postseason tournaments," Knapton said.

     After that season, the Bucs struggled for several seasons.

     "The first few years were really tough," he said. "I thank Beloit College and Miller Upton for having the gumption to stay with me. We were average at best for quite some time."

     The league, at least, welcomed the Buccaneers back into the fold.

     "The turnaround for us came when Dave Hendricks enrolled at Beloit," Knapton said. "He was a little guard from Cuba City who was a tremendous shooter. He's one of our 1,000-point scorers and helped us become quite competitive again."

     Knapton won his first conference title in his 10th season on the job, in 1966-67, when the Bucs shared the title. The team won the title out right the following season.

     After that, however, the college adopted a tri-semester plan that made recruiting next to impossible and virtually wiped out the competitiveness of the athletic program.

     "It put a damper on all sports at Beloit College for a period of about four or five years," Knapton said. "Winning became secondary. You were just trying to put teams on the floor. Many of the kids who played at that time weren't even starters in high school. They were out of intramurals or off the football team. One year we had starting only one kid who had started in high school. And he wasn't very good."

     In the mid-1970s, with the tri-semester plan abandoned, Knapton resuscitated the basketball program. His career reflects the upswing. It took him 19 years to win his first 220 games. In the next 16 the Bucs won 271.

     "Beloit College has been in great transition athletically over the years I've been here," he said. "We saw basically a Division I philosophy exist here, then an extreme Division III philosophy with practically no recruiting, then the tri-semester plan which almost eliminated competitive athletics.

     By the mid-1970s there was a gradual return to what I would now call a wholesome, competitive stance. We have tremendous support from the administration. I look at our coaching staff and the facilities and they've been upgraded tremendously."

     He considers his 1976-77 team, with starters Alonzo Jackson, Mike Kujak, Mark Hanzlik, Dave Grady and Roosevelt Coleman one of his best teams due to its tremendous agility and quickness.

      His 1980-81 team, however, accomplished something no team had done before. For five weeks, they were ranked No. 1 in the country.

     "With that record (24-2), being number one in the nation and the chemistry we had on that team, it made it a coach's delight," he said. "Everyone fit in perfectly; they were almost interchangeable parts. They were a team you just enjoyed in so many ways."

     That team's trademark, he said, was its toughness.

     "They were talented and they were physically and mentally tough kids," he said. "They were physically strong players. They were athletic, but the trademark of the 1980-81 team and something that was handed down was the physical nature of that team. Mark Smith, John Erikson, Mike Waterlander, Tom Snapp, Mike Hargrove... those were tough kids. You just didn't cut to the basket without knowing you were going to run into someone.

     "That's the way you like to play basketball. When you get skinny kids who aren't physical you can't play that way."

     While that may have been his best squad, Knapton's favorite may be the 1994-95 team that rose from a 2-6 start to win a conference title when Josh Rosen hit a 35-foot bomb at the buzzer to beat rival Ripon, 61-58.

     From 1976-77 until this season, the Bucs won nine conference titles and finished runnerup seven times. They didn't have much luck, however, when it came to the NCAA tournament. It seemed like they were always missing a key component come tourney time.

     "In '79-80 at North Park, Mark Smith had the flue and missed the opener against Jersey City State," he said. "In '76-77, Mike Kujak broke his finger. In '81-82, Tom Snapp injured his leg and in 82-83 Bob Talaska tore up his knee. It's too bad we were so snake-bit."

     Knapton would likely have retired a few years ago, at age 65, but when the opportunity to serve as president of the National Association of Basketball Coaches came along, he couldn't pass it up. Now he is absolutely certain it is time to walk away and begin planning a vacation to Europe with his wife Joan, not to mention refining his golf game. The Knaptons have already purchased a condominium in Florida.

     He has only one piece of advice for his successor:

     "Recruit, recruit, recruit," he said. "That's been difficult for me recently. Everyone who talks to a kid says Knapton is gone so you don't want to go there."

     He is a firm believer that a coach is the main attraction when it comes to recruiting.

     "There are very few schools that can attract a player on their reputation alone or the programs they offer," he said. "Everyone offers good programs. I tell them we're great and they go to Rockford College and they say they're great.

     "The coach recruits them on the basis of a personal relationship with that kid. Kids want to feel wanted and that there is a coach there they can rely on and enjoy playing for."

     For 40 years, that man was Knapton.


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