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.