lot. Both of them were very interested in ensuring that
we understood education is the No. 1 priority.”
As much as anything, it was Cal’s status as the No. 1
public university in the world that brought Knowlton
to Berkeley. Yes, his skill set as a dynamic leader and
problem-solver will serve him well at Cal, but the elite
education offered on campus and the accompanying
vision shared by Chancellor Carol Christ put his sights
squarely on the corner of ce at Haas Pavilion.
“For me, it was so intriguing just because of the priority
of education,” Knowlton said. “The beauty of Berkeley
is it wants to be exceptional in everything we do. The
bar is higher here than almost anywhere in the country.
I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for that education taking
Education is clearly important to Knowlton, and some
of his most valued lessons have come in the area of
leadership. His time in the military taught him the
principles of servant leadership – putting the focus on
others and working collaboratively toward a common
goal. Knowlton consistently reads books about
leadership and spends a lot of time thinking, critiquing
and discussing different techniques and styles.
“The more senior you get in the military, the more it
becomes about statesmanship,” said retired Lt. Gen.
Michelle Johnson, the former superintendent of the
Air Force Academy who hired Knowlton as Director of
Athletics there in 2015. “Being at those executive levels
has helped him with his perspective. Jim understands
there are structural things that need to be addressed in
an organization, and he has the ability to collaborate on
those types of things.”
Knowlton’s military service not only taught him the
valuable lessons of leadership and collaboration, it
offered him some extraordinary life experiences. Most
notable is that Knowlton was at the Berlin Wall the day
it fell on Nov. 9, 1989.
Knowlton had been stationed in Germany as the aidede
camp to Gen. Raymond Haddock, who was the
U.S. commander in Berlin. Knowlton stood on the wall
that night, watching in amazement and soaking in its
historical signi cance.
“It was pandemonium,” Knowlton said. “Just the raw
emotions left a lasting impression. Sometimes we
take freedom for granted and it’s not until you talk to
people who lost it for 27 years and then got it back can
you really get some perspective on what it’s like not to
have it. It’s really hard to imagine that one day you’re a
free country and the next day some barbed wire goes
up and over time it becomes a wall, and your relatives
on the other side are no longer accessible.
“I was just taking it all in. On one side were these East
German border guards elbow to elbow, and on the
other side it was pandemonium and champagne. It was
just phenomenal to watch it unfold.”
Knowlton’s service also took him to post-invasion Iraq,
and on the Fulda Gap along the border between the
Czech Republic and Germany during the Cold War.
That was part of 15 moves he has made with his wife,
Corey, before landing at Cal. Jim and Corey have ve
Knowlton made the transition into athletic
administration in 2003, when he was named Deputy
Director of Athletics and Interim Director of Athletics
at West Point. He retired from the Army in 2008 as a
colonel and moved on to become Director of Athletics
at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York. He
served at RPI until 2015, when he became the Director
of Athletics at Air Force.
“I always look at him as the epitome of the studentathlete,”
Sharman said. “He was an engineering
professor and also a super competitive athlete. He
doesn’t just care about the athletic accomplishments.
He is after character development. It includes
winning, but also includes making sure you have that
For the record, Knowlton had some fun when asked
about the supposed disconnect between his military
experience and Cal – “When I talked to the coaches,
I asked them what they thought about marching at
lunch. It wasn’t received very well.” But it is his focus
on academics, service and collaboration that will serve
him well as he leads Cal Athletics into the future.
“He literally has boundless energy,” Sharman said.
“There is no end in sight for Cal in terms of what you
can get from this guy.”