Jim Knowlton must do better
Cal's athletic director has not inspired confidence as the athletic department is unexpectedly thrust into crisis.
Ed. note: most of this was written before UCLA and USC elected to leave the Pac-12, which only underscores everything below.
In more than a decade of blogging, I’ve never written a “FIRE SOMEBODY” column before. It’s not really in my personality. I’ve dithered over how to write this article for weeks because it’s not something I’m comfortable doing.
But I’ll be honest: I’ve had concerns about Jim Knowlton’s decisions as Cal’s athletic director for a while, concerns that I’ve largely kept to myself.
But Cal athletics suddenly finds themselves in a crisis moment, mere weeks after allegations of Jim Knowlton’s mishandling of the Teri McKeever situation broke. So I have no choice but to voice my concerns.
Quite simply, if what was reported by Scott Reid and the OC Register is true, it would be a dismissible offense:
Several Cal swimmers and their parents said they have complained about McKeever to Cal athletics director Jim Knowlton and to Jennifer Simon-O’Neill, the school’s executive senior associate athletics director, and senior woman administrator. Those complaints have either been ignored or met with indifference, swimmers and parents said, or in one case dismissiveness.
Four Cal seniors on the 2021-22 roster recently met with Knowlton and Simon-O’Neill and alleged bullying and verbal and emotional abuse by McKeever, according to three people familiar with the meeting. Knowlton told the swimmers that McKeever was just a hard, tough coach.
Darla Carter, Danielle’s mother, recalled requesting a meeting with Knowlton in the autumn of 2019.
“It was almost like talking to a wall,” Carter said.
Knowlton, Carter continued, “said he wouldn’t meet with me unless I was alumni, a graduate or wanted to donate money.”
Perhaps most concerning of all:
McKeever’s bullying and abuse continues, the swimmers and parents allege, despite repeated complaints about the coach’s behavior to Cal’s athletic department and university officials since at least 2014.
If you haven’t read the full article, please do so now, because the allegations go well beyond any kind of reasonable definition of ‘tough love’ coaching. It is true that the article is only telling one ‘side’ of the story, but when one side is made of NINETEEN people with remarkably similar allegations, the idea that this is somehow overblown or unfair beggars belief. In short, it is highly likely that very inappropriate behavior occurred, and it is highly likely that Cal’s administration generally and Knowlton specifically were told. And yet, nothing was done until media revelations forced the hand of the athletic department.
And this is not the first time that Cal’s athletic department generally and Jim Knowlton specifically have been accused of less than sterling responses to allegations of inappropriate behavior from a head coach:
KTVU reviewed emails sent by the Cal athletic department to Sekany’s mother. One, sent by athletic director Jim Knowlton in September 2019 about the rain workout incident, stated “the workout was assessed and determined compliant with criteria for conditioning workouts set forth by the department.”
The athletic department’s statement said it continuously reviews behavior within its programs, capped by end-of-season reviews led by Knowlton, and has policies to “respond quickly and comprehensively” to complaints against coaches.
Back in 2020, Cal claimed to have a review process for these kinds of issues with Knowlton explicitly involved . . . and also Cal has been receiving complaints about Teri McKeever for 7 years and didn’t do anything about it until major media reported on the issue. The statement above and the reality we can observe from recent events do not add up.
There are other, comparatively minor things that, as a fan, I’m not happy about. The process used to hire Mark Fox was questionable at the time and looks worse and worse with each passing year. The general feeling of hopelessness surrounding the men’s basketball program is a frequent source of sadness.
The decision to bring on FTX, a cryptocurrency exchange founded in 2019 in Antigua and Barbuda and headquartered in the Bahamas (naaaaah, nothing shady here!) as a field sponsor was a morally iffy decision at the time that doesn’t look any better as the crypto pyramid scheme continues to collapse.
I also would like to hear more about THIS clause from the deal:
As part of the $17.5 million deal, LEARFIELD will accept the full payment in cryptocurrency on behalf of the university.
Did Learfield immediately sell that Crypto off for real money? Since August 23rd, 2021, Bitcoin has lost more than half its value, so for Cal’s sake I really hope they weren’t stupid enough to hold any of their value in the scam product their field is named after.
More generally, Cal has struggled to succeed on the field in any of the most visible NCAA sports under Knowlton’s tenure:
(Ruey, being the general Cal sports expert that he is, reminded me that I forgot about a Cal softball regional win over Harvard in 2018, so it’s actually two post-season games, but the point still stands.)
And honestly, Cal’s relative struggles on the field isn’t something I want to make a big deal out of, in part because Cal’s athletic department has at times explicitly subrogated winning in favor of more important things like academic success and the student athlete experience.
But when student athletes in two different sports are going to the media because of their negative experience, and they claim that they took those concerns to the Athletic Director and felt that their concerns were ignored . . . well, quite frankly, it seems that we’re failing at the very thing we claim is our mission.
In the interest of fairness, it’s my understanding that Knowlton has been successful in terms of donor outreach and fundraising, and that a lot has been accomplished in terms of endowing various Olympic sports. He’s also generally done a good job providing the football team with better resources. We’ll have to wait to see the financial numbers over the next few years to confirm, but as far as I’m aware the department is in its best fiscal standing for a number of years.
Which is probably why Knowlton got a massive contract extension through 2029, and has almost no chance of being fired any time soon, regardless of his handling of the McKeever situation. For better or for worse, he is very likely to be at Cal for a long time.
Knowlton is receiving just less than $1 million/year in his position. That’s quite a bit of compensation. Presumably Cal’s administration believes that Knowlton’s financial management and donor engagement is worth it. For ~$1 million/year, I’d like to see the non-financial aspects of the Cal athletic department ran with more success.
But all of Knowlton’s efforts to put Cal back on stronger financial ground will be rendered irrelevant if the Pac-12 dissolves and he is unable to find Cal a viable landing spot. All of the effort made trying to wean Cal off of direct campus support would be immediately undone if Cal is left getting paid from a Pac-(insert-number-here) conference TV deal that doesn’t include the LA schools.
I don’t think anybody can reasonably blame Knowlton for this current crisis moment, which was created years ago by Larry Scott and the campus presidents that continued to support him long after his media rights scheme failed so badly.
But it’s Knowlton’s job to steer Cal safely to harbor, and there have been more than enough missteps over the last four years to create plenty of skepticism.
Can't say I was too impressed with how the department handled COVID rules around the football team last year either. We had an outbreak that forced us to essentially forfeit a game (I know we didn't literally forfeit to Arizona, but with so many players out we may as well have). That loss turned out to mean no bowl game.
Unavoidable? Maybe. But a lot of folks within the program seemed to feel like they didn't have good support or clear communication on what the rules should be.
You're right, we're only getting one side of the story regarding the McKeever situation. I lean towards the 'kids are too soft/sensitive today' side of this issue. This sounds exactly like tough love coaching to me. You don't make olympians by being nice.
And I seriously doubt that any official complaints were ignored or dismissed, it's more likely the parents just didn't get the answer they wanted. I've encountered many 'sports parents' in my youth coaching career, and they can be oblivious to reality, and will advocate for their child, even if they know their child is lying. NINETEEN complaints in THIRTY years doesn't move the needle for me.
The main question should be what are we owed as alumni/fans/the public as far as disclosure from the department when these allegations surface. It's possible that some of what comes out might be embarrassing to the university, but could also be embarrassing for the athletes or parents, and would raise privacy concerns. I personally would like to hear every thought that passes through Knowlton's head in every matter, but short of that, I'd like him to be as open as the most open AD in college sports (are there any?).