The eruption of emotions that flooded out of the Knox College dugout on May 4 when junior Phil Tallman’s walk-off single hit the ground was a rare moment of joy for Knox athletics, as Prairie Fire baseball had just finished the season at the top of their division.
Four years ago, the baseball team was 0-12 in conference and just 8-24 overall. The division championship signaled not only a success for the program but a potential turning point for Knox athletics in general.
Since 2003, Knox teams have managed a win percentage of just .196, causing the program to fall far behind its Midwest Conference counterparts. Starting with the 2002-2003 academic year, neither the men’s nor women’s programs have finished better than seventh in the All-Sports Standings.
After years of questions about the shortcomings of the Knox athletic program, administrators are now offering solutions with a new institutional emphasis on full time coaching staffs and expanded recruiting efforts.
Jake Ayers ‘06, a member of the 2002 football team, the last team to finish with a record above .500, offered one of the common explanations.
“Just like there are three different levels of college athletics, you could say there are three different levels of Divison III athletics,” he said. “The Midwest Conference has in general been in the bottom tier, and with Knox’s academic and financial considerations, it has been hard to compete [recently].”
The origins of the recent struggles can be traced back to the retirement of former Knox athletic director Harley Knosher, according to Athletic Director Chad Eisele.
“When Coach Knosher, who had been running things for 30, 40 years, retired in 2000, there were some things we needed to learn with him not being here,” Eisele said. “And that took a lot of time.”
But with the period of doldrums now extended over a decade, a new voice has provided the impetus to realize the athletic program’s desire for a full-time coaching staff.
“At some point, we have to be ambitious in every possible respect,” President Teresa Amott said. “We would not tolerate mediocrity of aspiration in academics. And I don’t think we should tolerate mediocrity of aspiration in athletics either.”
Amott is “pathetically ill-informed,” she said in an interview with TKS, with regard to athletic strategy. She never played team sports, as she was a student before Title IX. And she lays no claim to strategic decisions in Knox athletics.
But that has not stopped her efforts to find the resources for and convince various constituencies on campus that Knox’s sports programs deserve full-time coaches. To her, a coaching staff is an “investment” that will “pay off for the institution.”
Perhaps the most visible shift in the coaching staff during Amott’s tenure as president was Eisele’s decision to step down as football coach, paving the way for a national search process for a full-time coach.
“Chad has given it his all, but it’s just not possible. The days in which you could be a half-time AD were 30 years ago,” Amott said, asserting that Eisele’s range of responsibilities was “pretty much why we put half the points on the board.”
Having coaches with split responsibilities was not limited to the football program. For instance, current Assistant to the Athletic Director Kim Schrader filled the role of head volleyball coach for five years. Eisele admits that it was a disadvantage for the program as a whole.
“Not too long ago, when we had all these part-time coaches, we had to coach them on how to be a coach,” Eisele said. “With our new, experienced coaches, we haven’t had to teach as much, meaning they can just go out there and spread their knowledge.”
With increased stability in coaching ranks, Knox can now improve its performance in the core aspect of the college game: recruiting. Just as investment in facilities like Alumni Hall will likely help admissions efforts, the athletic department must have something to show recruits in a competitive market for student-athletes.
“In the NFL, you get draft picks, and you have personal choice in who you want. In college, you get out of recruiting what you put in,” former head football coach and current Defensive Coordinator Andy Gibbons said. “It’s a tough business.”
According to Ayers, who returned to Knox as recruiting director for Knox baseball from 2009 to 2010 and currently holds an assistant coaching position at Juniata College in Huntingdon, Penn., “[Recruiting] is a numbers game, and sometimes it comes down to quantity. There are always injuries and people that want to leave the school for non-athletic reasons, and other programs have had the [quantity of players] to handle it.”
For football specifically, Ayers’ point may have the greatest support. While the 2012 Knox roster featured 60 athletes, the rosters of the top five teams in the Midwest Conference standings were significantly larger, with peers like St. Norbert and Illinois College at 116 and 138, respectively.
Beyond filling out the depth chart, larger recruiting numbers increase the quality of competition inside athletic programs, Eisele said, as individual players have to bring an game like mentality to practices.
“You have teammates being pushed by teammates, which just hasn’t happened [at Knox] in the past,” he said. “We have a great group of athletes that are fully committed to their sports, which is one of the biggest steps in a winning program.”
One of the biggest factors in attracting more student athletes will be expanded use of off-campus recruitment.
As TKS reported last winter, the faculty approved a policy which now allows Knox coaches in-home and in-school visits, which is a vast improvement compared to past years, said Eisele.
“We couldn’t go to high schools to recruit. We couldn’t go to the athletes’ homes,” Eisele said. “We could only talk to the kid after an athletic event of theirs or if they were already on campus.”
With increased efforts to get to know recruits personally, Knox has seen improvements in the levels of commitment among recruited athletes, with sports falling just behind academics on the proverbial list of priorities, by Eisele’s estimation.
“Before, sports were maybe fourth or fifth on that list, with a lot of casual athletes who weren’t committed to their craft,” Eisele said. “Nowadays, athletes are focused on not only becoming the best students they can be, but the best athletes they can be.”
Amott seconded Eisele’s stance on promoting athletics with academics, not only for the athletes themselves but the school in general.
“There are students going to other schools when Knox would be a great experience for them,” she said. “I see the athletics piece twofold: one, it’s about the student experience. And the other piece is admissions and really broadening our appeal so we aren’t just looking at students who say, “I want to go to a place and I could care less about athletics.”
Money where your mouth is
In addition to the baseball team’s success this season, the women’s basketball team posted their most conference wins since the 1998-1999 season, while the men’s soccer team won the most games for the program since 1999.
But this still did not drastically change Knox’s positioning in the All-Sport Standings, with men in ninth and women in 11th for 2012-2013. In order for Knox’s stature to improve, it is going to take continued efforts from all 21 of the Prairie Fire’s athletic programs, not just an isolated set of solid performances.
“There has to be a decision made by everyone that we want success across the board year in and out. And that requires a commitment from everyone,” Eisele said. “That’s not by lowering academic standards or anything like that. It just requires holistic, conscientious commitment. … We need to succeed first, and the support [will be stronger].”
Specifically, the men’s basketball (.259 win percentage since 2003-2004), football (.210), women’s soccer (.186) and volleyball (.109) programs will have to ramp up their efforts.
“We’ll always have spots of excellence, but I would like to have more of them and make them consistent so that students for whom the student athlete piece is important will consider Knox rather than ruling us out,” Amott said.
Managing Editor Charlie Gorney and Enterprise Editor Matt McKinney contributed to this report.
Correction: A previous version of this article listed Kim Schrader as Assistant Athletic Director, she is officially Assistant to the Athletic Director.