When he got the chance every college basketball coach dreams
about, Bill Knapton said, "No thanks."
It was a spring afternoon in 1959. Knapton was in his tiny
office at Beloit (Wis.) College. On the phone was Moon Mullins,
athletic director for Marquette, in Milwaukee. Eighteen months
earlier Knapton had left Marquette, after three years as an
assistant, to go to Beloit, a small liberal arts college located
90 miles west of Chicago. "Are you interested in being
interviewed to be our head coach?" Mullins asked.
Knapton didn't flinch. He liked Mullins. He liked Marquette. He
didn't like life in the fast lane: Boosters breathing down your
throat. Recruits begging for clothes and cars. Players begging
for nicer clothes and snazzier cars. A guillotine overhead.
Knapton wanted none of it. "That life wasn't meant for a
newlywed wanting to start a family," he says, looking back
without regret. Knapton and his wife, Joan, have been married
for 39 years and have four children. "I wanted to be a lifer,
and to do that, you have to be in a situation where winning is
not the only thing. Not that I don't want to win--nothing else
means much. But I wanted a place where there was more to it."
Deep down, Knapton wanted to get back to his roots. He was born
in Bloomer, a small Wisconsin farming town, and grew up during
the Depression. After high school he spent two years in the Navy
and then used the GI Bill to attend the University of
Wisconsin-La Crosse, where he starred in basketball and baseball
and earned a degree in history and phys ed.
Knapton began coaching basketball at Stevens Point (Wis.) High.
His first season, 1952-53, the Panthers went 18-5. The next year
they were 24-2 and won the state title. Then Knapton stepped up
to an assistant's position at Marquette. His first year there
the team went 24-3 and made its first NCAA tournament
appearance, losing to Iowa in the quarterfinals.
At Beloit, Knapton's first task was to restore order because the
Buccaneers had been kicked out of the Midwest Conference in 1951
for running up scores and a "perceived overemphasis on
basketball." Knapton turned the program in the right direction,
and the Buccaneers were allowed back in the conference. His
first six years they went 64-65. But in the last 34 years Beloit
has won 10 conference titles and endured only six losing
seasons, including this one (7-15). Knapton's 555 career
victories put him fifth on the alltime Division III coaches list.
Knapton is a consummate motivator who breathes fire into players
without raising his voice. "He doesn't have to yell," says John
Tharp, who played at Beloit from 1987 to '91 and is the coach at
Lawrence University, in Appleton, Wis. "He motivates with an
amazing aura combining compassion and a zeal for winning."
Knapton is also highly regarded in basketball's Division I inner
circle. In 1981 the NCAA recruited him for its basketball rules
committee; five years later he was elected to the board of the
National Association of Basketball Coaches. In 1994 his peers
elected him president of the NABC, making him only the third
Division III coach ever to hold that position.
On February 22 Knapton retired at age 69. No team of his ever
won a national title. He was never interviewed on ESPN, and his
players always paid for their sneakers.
"Lots of coaches mistakenly feel the only way they can have joy
is by getting to the Final Four," says Duke coach Mike
Krzyzewski, who worked on the NABC board with Knapton. "[They
feel] that where they're at is not where they should be at if
it's not Division I. Bill had aspirations to do something else.
He felt what he was doing was big, and it was. In the process,
he became highly respected by his peers, and his peers are
Division I coaches, too. He is a big success."