Jim Knowlton begins his third full year as the director of athletics at the Air Force Academy. Knowlton joined the Academy as the 11th director of athletics on March 22, 2015. He oversees 27 intercollegiate varsity sports, physical education, intramurals and all physical testing and evaluation at the Academy.
Air Force has soared to never-before-seen heights under Knowlton’s leadership. The Falcons won four conference championships (men’s swimming, hockey, lacrosse, men’s outdoor track) in 2016-17. Combined with the five won the previous year in Knowlton’s first season, nine conference titles in back-to-back years is the best in school history. Falcon coaches won six coaches of the year awards while 38 cadet-athletes won 47 All-American honors last season. Air Force narrowly missed its second straight conference title in the Learfield Director’s Cup standings. Air Force finished second in the league and 64th nationally. The Falcons led the three service academies in the standings for the sixth consecutive season.
Air Force bucked a six-year national trend of sagging attendance at football games in 2016. Air Force averaged 29,587 fans per game, equal to 63 percent capacity which bested the Mountain West average of 24,142. The Academy also saw a 14 percent increase from 2015 which ranked third in the conference and 14th nationally. Air Force won a record 20th Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy title in 2016. Coaches, players and staff from the Academy visited the White House in May 2017 to accept the trophy from President of the United States Donald J. Trump.
Air Force’s community outreach is also at an all-time high. The Falcons hosted Brad Paisley prior to the Navy game for a free concert and plans are solidified for Blake Shelton to visit Falcon Stadium in September 2017. That outreach included hosting the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics (NACDA) Spring Symposium. This landmark event, across the national collegiate sports landscape, brought together over 100 collegiate athletic directors from across the country to learn more about leadership and character development as well as sexual assault prevention.
Facility improvement has been a major initiative under Knowlton’s guidance. Air Force will break ground on a major Falcon Stadium renovation when the 2017 season ends. There will be new locker rooms, media rooms, training rooms and other much-needed renovations to the north end zone of the stadium. These renovations have been made possible by a pair of $5 million donations, both coming from Air Force football alumni. In addition, locker room renovations took place in football, men’s and women’s basketball, ice hockey and volleyball while the department’s Falcon Room received a complete renovation. All total, there has been $22 million in athletic renovations in the last year.
Knowlton also spearheaded a transformational partnership extension, as the department announced a 10-year agreement between USAA and IMG. USAA became the first premier sponsor of Air Force athletics which includes all inter-service athletic contests across all intercollegiate sports. The USAA relationship is a momentous step for the Academy as a whole. USAA is committed to supporting the military and their commitment to the relationship is second to none.
The athletics department also staged the first-ever Night of Excellence dinner and auction event supporting Air Force athletics. The event was held at the Cheyenne Mountain Resort in Colorado Springs and included a three-course meal and silent and live auctions. The event raised $160,000 with all proceeds going directly to the Air Force Academy's Excellence Fund which supports cadet-athletes, equipment and team travel.
Knowlton’s first year at the Academy was tremendously successful. The Falcons celebrated a school-best Learfield Director’s Cup standing of 52nd which led the Mountain West for the first time in school history and was tops among the three service academies for the fifth straight year. Air Force celebrated five conference championships (men’s cross country, men’s indoor and outdoor track, men’s swimming and diving and lacrosse) which tied as the most in a single year in Academy history. A school-record 12 coaches were named coach of the year and 52 cadet-athletes earned All-American status, the best in school history. The Academy had four multi-sport All-Americans, including two first-ever Division I women’s All-American honorees, and three athletes earn trips to the Olympic Trials. Senior marksman David Higgins became the first to earn a spot on an Olympic team as a cadet, earning a spot on the shooting team.
Several other initiatives were started that have the athletic department on the move. The athletic department vision has been put into a strategic plan that is in step with the Academy’s intent and is posted on the athletics’ website. In addition, Knowlton has furthered the department’s culture to commitment and developed a culture and climate officer that has met with all 27 intercollegiate teams to teach healthy relationship training. An athletic department reorganization incorporated the department’s non-profit entity, the Air Force Academy Athletic Corporation (AFAAC), into the department easing processes and improving communication. The two worked together to extend the department’s Nike contract which doubled the financial support received from the previous contract for athletics.
As part of the on-going community outreach effort, a fan engagement committee was formed and athletic department staff and coaches have been active in the community speaking to special interest groups. The department opened a ticket and merchandise store to downtown Colorado Springs and the football team’s annual spring game was played at Fountain Fort Carson High School, bringing military leaders from Peterson Air Force Base and Fort Carson Army Base together with the Academy leadership in 2016.
Also in 2016, the department announced the first of a concert series in Falcon Stadium with Tim McGraw headlining a star-studded event in September. One of the most noticeable improvements to the fan experience is two new video boards at Falcon Stadium. The new board in the South end zone is the largest in the conference and among the service academies.
Knowlton led several initiatives that have benefited all cadets, in addition to intercollegiate athletes. The department started the Falcon Fuel program, installing re-fueling stations outside weight rooms for all 4,000 cadets at the Academy. Cadets can refuel their bodies before and after workouts with healthy snacks and drinks. The Air Force Pride Clubs saw donations double to over $1 million while intramural championships were moved to the best athletic venues including Falcon Stadium and Clune Arena.
Prior to the Air Force Academy, Knowlton served as the director of athletics at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and was responsible for overseeing the Institute’s 12 men’s and 11 women’s NCAA intercollegiate varsity teams and three junior varsity squads, involving more than 600 student-athletes, as well as intramurals.
In his time in Troy, Knowlton helped develop the strategic vision for the athletic department, implemented a new athletics branding initiative, increased two-way communication with the student-athletes, created and filled many key positions, and facilitated renovations to the Houston Field House as well as the construction of the $102M first phase of Rensselaer’s East Campus Athletic Village. Knowlton was selected as the National Association of Collegiate Director’s of Athletics (NACDA) Under Armour Division III Athletic Director of the Year in 2011. Knowlton also represented Rensselaer serving on several national committees, including the NACDA executive committee, the board of College Hockey, Inc. and as the chair of the NCAA Division I men’s Ice Hockey committee.
Prior to joining Rensselaer, Knowlton served as the director of the Center for Enhanced Performance at the United States Military Academy in West Point, N.Y. In that position, he led a staff of 50 professionals who delivered training for peak performance in athletics, academics, and military endeavors to cadets, soldiers, and athletes both on and off the West Point campus.
From 2003 to 2006 Knowlton served as both deputy and interim director for the athletics department at West Point, where he led a staff of more than 200 people and supervised 25 intercollegiate athletic programs with more than 1,000 student-athletes. During his tenure, West Point set the stage to earn its first NCAA national championship in more than 50 years.
Knowlton received a bachelor’s degree in engineering in 1982 from West Point, where he was a four-year letterwinner and captain of the varsity hockey team. After 10 years of organizational leadership positions of increasing responsibility in the U.S. Army, Knowlton received a master’s in civil engineering from Cornell University. He returned to West Point in 1992 to teach in the civil and mechanical engineering department, after which he was selected to lead and manage larger and more complex organizations within the Army, ultimately leading a battalion of 750 men and women while stationed at Ft. Carson, Colo., before deploying to Iraq.
Knowlton is a registered professional engineer in the state of Virginia. His awards and decorations include the Ranger Tab, the Air Assault Badge, and the Senior Parachutist Badge.
Knowlton and his wife, Corey, have five sons: Jimmy, Patrick, Christopher, Mark and Shawn.