Friday, February 20, 2009

'It's starting to hit me now'

Track coach Jim Knapp will retire after season, honored today

Issue date: 2/20/09

By Anthony Fenech
Staff Reporter

Jim Knapp says a lot of things.

At the track he says, "Hurry every chance you get." At his house, he says, "You can stay here."

Wednesday afternoon, the veteran track coach said nothing as he sat in his office, slightly reclined in his chair. He lifted the glasses from above his ears and was at loss for words while thinking about this being his final season.

"I don't think it's hit me yet," he answered. "But I've wondered about that."

Knapp then paused for a few seconds while fiddling his left hand on the chair's armrest before admitting, "As we approach Friday, it's going to become a little more obvious."

He then fell silent for another short period of time before continuing on in the deep, stern voice that has guided the men's track team for 24 years.

Fourty-eight hours before today's Jack Skoog Open, Jim Knapp's spring retirement finally sank in.

Knapp will be honored pre-meet in what promises to be a packed Jack Skoog Track inside the Indoor Athletic Complex, with his family, friends, and more than 75 of his former athletes in attendance.

Irregular route

He guided CMU to four Mid-American Conference Championships and won eight Coach of the Year awards. His plaque also hangs in three Halls of Fame.

But it is something that Knapp does not have that makes his 37-year coaching career so impressive.

After a college career that began in 1968 as a linebacker at Ferris State, Knapp graduated with a master's degree from Michigan State before joining Jack Finn's Northwood University football team as an assistant coach.

"That was my life," he said of football. When he was a kid growing up in Big Rapids, Knapp remembers sitting at the top of FSU's Taggart Field, dreaming of competing on the field below.

"I told myself that some day I was going to be out there," he said. "It wasn't, 'I hope,' it was 'I know.'"

One day, Finn pulled him aside and told him he was going to be the school's first-ever track coach.

"Never been on a track team, never coached track or anything," Knapp said of his qualifications at the time.

"I was excited," he said. "I was young and arrogant enough to think I could do anything."

Knapp read any book he could get a hold of, attended clinics and talked with anybody and everybody. He found a mentor back at his hometown college, fellow FSU Hall-of-Famer Ray Helsing. Although he didn't compete in track, Helsing met Knapp in the FSU athletic department.

Today, much like Helsing did, Knapp has mentored a large group of college and high school coaches, including MSU head coach and CMU alum Walt Drenth, Knapp's first assistant coach.

"I learned a lot of things from him," Drenth said. "I think everything that makes a coach a great one, Jim exhibited."

Four years later, after Knapp started Northwood's track and field program from scratch, the team won conference champions. Nine years later, a broom closet in the corner of CMU's Finch Fieldhouse called for his occupancy.

Becoming a Chippewa

Former Athletics Director Dave Keilitz signed Knapp as the head coach of the Chippewas in 1985.

Throwing coach Larry Levine still recalls the 2003 MAC outdoor championship victory against Eastern Michigan. It was a meet that saw the program finally run past the Eagles, which had previously ruled the conference. After the meet, the team surrounded Knapp and honored his first win by shaving his head.

"He got scorned out there," Levine said, laughing. "Man, he looked like a lamb."

Two years later, the 2005 squad, dubbed by many as the best team in MAC history, swept both indoor and outdoor track, and that fall, Craig Fuller's men's cross country team took the conference as well.

Two athletes that surrounded the 2005 team were in the track bay Wednesday, one watching runners and the other running.

Assistant coach Matt Kaczor graduated as a distance runner in 2004 and attended most of the team's meets that year. He said the team could not be stopped.

"They would do anything just not to let each other down," Kaczor said of his senior year. "It was great how much they cared about each other."

Knapp said the team had everything it needed to win, including confidence.

"There was no doubt in my mind we were going to win," he said.

Johnie Drake, one of the Chippewas five All-Americans that season, crouched in the middle of a pack of five sprinters, all waiting for Knapp's signal above.

"Ready ... set." Knapp said, standing only a few feet away.

And then whack! Knapp slammed the right arm of a life-sized, metal piece of track equipment.

"It's better than having that gun powder in here," he said.

Drake, who lives and works in the area, often trains at the track. He has competed in national and worldwide competitions, and will be trying out for the U.S. National Team soon. He will run Friday's open as an unattached runner.

"I want to put on a great performance," Glenn said. "With the alumni there and all, and to represent Coach Knapp and let him go out with style."

From Finch Fieldhouse, which he feels he can now nickname "The Dungeon," Knapp moved an office in the newly-constructed IAC nearly one decade ago.

A father figure

"In track," Knapp explains, "You are a lot closer to the athletes. ... A lot of guys will call me Dad [tonight]."

Knapp once told junior Greg Pilling that a scholarship awaited him when he returned from a two-year missionary he embarked on after high school.

Earlier this year, first-year assistant coach Troy Irvine drove down from Maine after he had been offered the job by Knapp over the phone.

Irvine went straight to the track, then to Knapp's house to meet the coach in person.

"It was my first day here," Irvine said. "He said, 'Here's a bed, you can stay here until you get yourself situated.'"

Knapp said the relationships he made with his athletes are unforgettable.

"To watch these kids blossom and mature in four or five years, it's an incredible thing," Knapp said. "To be a part of that time span and to be able to affect or impact that is an incredible responsibility and a wonderful opportunity."

Moving on

Late last August, Knapp moved his workspace yet again, from the basement of the IAC into the new track and field offices overlooking the indoor track bay.

His office was mostly bare, only a few half-packed boxes and a transistor radio sat neatly on and around his desk. He looked around and said his "memorabilia box" was in Atlanta, where he will move to be with his wife, Mavin, "To do something else," as he puts it.

Sitting behind an L-shaped maroon desk with a cream top, Knapp talked about how he internally made the decision to retire two years ago, just before Fuller announced his retirement.

"It's extremely important to me that I leave the program in good shape for the future," he said, noting the strong freshman and sophomore classes the Chippewas carry.

In his 35-plus year track career, Knapp has worked under three different administrations at three different locations at CMU.

"It's going to be tough, Friday night," he said about being honored. "There isn't any question about it. I'm very competitive and I'm very emotional."

Approximately 20 minutes later, standing under the track's scoreboard watching some sprinters warm up, someone tugged at the left arm of my coat.

"I think it's starting to hit me now," Knapp said.

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