March 7, 2011
By Randy Policar - In 1992, the Toronto Blue Jays won the first of their consecutive World Series titles, Fred McGriff won the National League Home Run title with 35, former Sun Devil Pat Listach was the American League Rookie of the Year, former Devil Barry Bonds won the National League MVP and Dennis Eckersley won both the AL MVP and the AL Cy Young Award.
Prior to 2010, that was also the last time Ken Knutson spent a college baseball season without the title head coach attached to his name. Knutson spent that season as the lead assistant coach and pitching coach for his alma mater, the Washington Huskies. Following that season he would be named the head coach of the Huskies, a title he held for the next 17 years. During his tenure, he won two conference titles, three Pac-10 Coach of the Year awards, went to five NCAA tournaments, sent numerous players into the Major Leagues and coached a Golden Spikes Award winner. But after the 2009 season, he was let go by Washington, leaving as the school's all-time leader in wins.
For most people with his credentials, his next job would have to be a head coaching job or bust. But Knutson is not about his stats, his record or his ego. He loves to coach and he loves to teach young people, and the job title makes little difference.
"Running a program is not coaching. The head coach has got a big job. It's a lot of facets. You probably spend about ten percent of your time actually coaching compared to the assistant coaches. As an assistant, I spend ninety percent of my time coaching. I like that mix a lot better," says Knutson. "I don't need anything else. I've been a head coach a long time. I've won a bunch of games; I don't need to win anymore. I feel good about myself and my efforts and how things went. Now it's just about doing what I really like to do in this part of my life. I want to close out the second half of my coaching career staying where I'm at and finishing out this way. You still get the same satisfaction of winning. I don't need the lime light. It's silly it's really about the players. I get to contribute and do my thing. It's a lot more fun."
"Being a pitching coach rather than the head coach may in fact be Ken's dream job," says friend and Associate Dean at ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Paul Lepore. "Ken is a great coach because he is a great teacher. He understands what each of his players brings to the game, and tailors his instruction and his player development plans to meet the needs of his pitchers as individuals. He is also a real student of baseball, constantly upgrading the techniques and skills he brings to coaching - connecting with coaches and trainers from across the country to explore new and more effective ways to prepare his players to be more effective athletes and dominant pitchers."
"As a baseball coach, this is ground zero. This is where it all happens. You also come to realize how special of a place Packard Stadium is and how important it is to the success of the Devils. With the home crowd, it's a handful to beat Arizona State here."
It didn't take long for Knutson to find another opportunity. On July 29, 2009 he was named the volunteer coach at Arizona State, a school he had coached against almost every year of his head coaching career. He joined a program with a rich history and tradition, with five national championships and over 20 trips to the College World Series, the one trip Knutson had yet to take. "What drew me here probably goes back to my high school days and (former ASU star) Floyd Bannister," Knutson says. "I saw him as a senior in high school go undefeated and win a state championship. I always looked up to Floyd and I wanted to go to Arizona State because that's what he did. I'll be the first to admit that I wasn't good enough (to play at ASU), so I went to community college, then Seattle University before ending up at Washington. It was always for selfish reasons that I wanted to be at ASU. It was a dream I had for my own life. You sit on those things as an adult, but when the opportunity came it was easy to say `oh my gosh, this would be the chance of a lifetime'".
"He wanted to be a Sun Devil and follow in the path of Floyd Bannister since he was a high school ball player growing up in Washington State," adds LePore. "And after more than two decades of work as a college coach, has been able to live out his dream and devote all of energies to perfecting the preparation and execution of his pitching program for his players at Arizona State."
But turmoil struck ASU baseball in November, as a coaching change was made, throwing the program into limbo. Many experts thought that Knutson would end up as the interim head coach for the 2010 season, a logical move since Knutson had a wealth of experience at that position.
"For me personally, I didn't want to be the head coach at Arizona State," Knutson offered. "I wasn't ready. I had just gotten done with a gig that lasted close to twenty years and I didn't want to do it anymore. There are things about (the head coach) position that are wonderful and there are things that I just wasn't ready to switch gears to. I wanted to coach a good bunch of pitchers. I wanted to get things straightened out. I didn't want to consider being head coach. It wasn't right. I wasn't a part of this program yet. I'm getting to be, I want to be here for a long time but at that point it was the absolute right move to hire [Tim] Esmay."
Tim Esmay, who played and coached at Arizona State, was named the interim head coach in December. With a new coach ready to bring in a new system, Knutson suddenly found himself on the outside looking in again.
"I think I had my car started and revved up a few times, ready to go back to Seattle," remembers Knutson. "Some things happened even prior to the coaching change when I didn't think it was going to work out for me here as an assistant. I knew who Tim Esmay was but I didn't really know him. I was ready to go back to Seattle again then I got the call and was offered an assistant job and it was great.
Knutson remained on Esmay's staff, officially naming him the pitching coach on January 8, 2010. Knutson knew right away what kind of talent he had to deal with.
"The thing that you see when you're in a program like Arizona State is the difference in the quality of the guys. They're just good players," Knutson says. " They're all good and you're not taking a gamble on some guys, so if they're taking a scholarship or were recruited to wear this uniform, personally, I think they're going to be pretty good players. It's just a matter of giving them an opportunity; giving them confidence and letting them get out there and play to their potential."
By the end of the season, Knutson's pitching staff featured three 10-game winners, including Pac-10 Pitcher of the Year Seth Blair. Closer Jordan Swagerty set a school record with his 14 saves and lefty Mitchell Lambson tied a school record with his 39 appearances. Freshman Brady Rodgers led the Pac-10 with his 2.11 ERA, with Lambson right behind him at 2.16. The Devils finished 52-10, won the Pac-10 and, most importantly, advanced to the College World Series.
The trip to Omaha completed a journey for Knutson that began in the 1980's when he was a pitcher in college.
"I have to be honest; I thought it was long overdue. I thought I was a good enough coach to be there a few different times with different ball clubs but we never quite got there," says Knutson. "It was really special because you have just a few moments in your life that you get to do something for the first time or you accomplish one of your goals. Unfortunately we didn't accomplish the other part of it, to win the whole thing, but it was a big deal. I felt really glad for (assistant coach) Travis Jewett because we had been through the ringer a little bit the entire year, to say the least. I was happy for the whole team and the program and for [Tim] Esmay. What a job to go through what he had to go through and for us to get there. It was very satisfying."
Now as he enters his second season as an assistant at Arizona State, Knutson has embraced his role on the coaching staff and in his career.
"As a baseball coach, this is ground zero. This is where it all happens," Knutson stressed. "You also come to realize how special of a place Packard Stadium is and how important it is to the success of the Devils. With the home crowd, it's a handful to beat Arizona State here."