Friday, May 1, 2009

FENECH | Farewell to Knapp

Our first conversation went badly.

"Who are the key players, er, guys, er …," I stammered over the phone to men's track coach Jim Knapp.

He interrupted before I could finish the question.

"We don't have any key athletes," he said, sternly. "We're a team."

Gulp. Nothing like a good first impression.

Right then and there was my first track lesson, courtesy of a cold conversation on an even colder December night: They are not players and it is not a game.

Our second conversation went worse.

"Can you hear me?" I asked, weaving around in a computer chair, searching for one iota of a signal in my dead zone room.

"I … can … he-," said Knapp, barely audible under a cloud of static.

"Can you hear me now?" I repeated.


By the time I sprinted up the stairs, the call had ended.

Shortly thereafter, our conversations became better, our signal clearer and his answers longer. I made jokes, he fake-laughed, which in turn made me laugh.

The first thing I told him was that I knew next to nothing about track, other than people running very fast and jumping very high. He seemed to appreciate that, answering all of my questions from that point on with a track explanation, however stupid or matter-of-factly they were.

One day, I asked him why there are not more scored meets in track and field. (Lesson No. 2: You don't win or lose in track. You improve.)

It seemed as if it was an innocent question, but it drew the ire of Knapp, who went on a lengthy rant about how the sport is suffering because of its non-appeal to those who want a winner and loser, which is probably 99.9 percent of sports fans.

"They put $20,000 into a scoreboard here," he said that day in his office. "And we use it once or twice a year."

Covering the Jack Skoog Open in January, where he was being honored for his retirement, I learned a lot about Knapp the person and Knapp the coach in the days before. I talked to friends, family and athletes and grew to appreciate the gruff, Jim Leyland-esque persona I talked to the first couple of times.

It is why, for all of those frustrating nights trying to squeak another 100 words out of a weekly team improvement story, I was not in that much of a hurry to move along.

Track and field, while definitely not as money-hungry, popular or mainstream as some of CMU's other athletics, offers you the opportunity to get to know people unlike the others.

You can pick up the phone and give Sean Anthony a call or you can see Riak Mabil on campus and chill with him, talking about everything from spitting rhymes to faster times. You can ask Knapp about how his family is doing, how his last trip to Atlanta was.

It is more personal in track.

Track and field is way more difficult than perception has it. It is not only about running fast or jumping high, it is about perfect execution in the discus and all of the steps that go into a pole vault. It is about how to come off the block flawlessly and it is about technical stuff and its about mental stuff and it is just ... crazy.

Tuesday, I stopped by Knapp's office in the Indoor Athletic Complex for the last time. I was only in there a handful of times, but the place looked exactly the same a week before his retirement as it did three months before his retirement.

I said thanks, told him to enjoy his retirement and about what I was doing over the summer. He told me to keep in touch.

Our last conversation went just a little better.

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