State championships visited Stillwater High School about as often as Halley’s Comet prior to Connie Knoche’s arrival in the fall of 1970. The school’s run of success in athletics that followed was no coincidence.
The former athletic director helped orchestrate a dramatic turnaround as the Ponies turned the community’s untapped potential into a four-decade success story that continues today.
Stillwater captured its inaugural state title in boys basketball in 1914, but the drought reached nearly half a century by the time the boys’ tennis team took home the gold in 1960,
Another decade passed before Knoche became the school’s first full-time athletics director — taking over those duties from Carver Fouks — with the assistance of loyal secretary Hazel Ulrich. What followed was a total of 40 Minnesota State High School League state championships, not including numerous titles in synchronized swimming or True Team track and field or swimming, by the time he retired in 1997.
“Hey, he got it done,” said former Stillwater football coach George Thole, who was one of Knoche’s early hires in 1971. “The proof is absolutely in the pudding.”
There were just 10 sports offered when Knoche arrived, but several factors were also working in his favor as Stillwater moved forward in athletics, including the St. Croix Valley Athletic Association hitting its stride and developing future Ponies, the impact of Title IX and the addition of several girls’ sports and an expansion of offerings for the boys as well. In fact, Stillwater had grown to 24 teams by 1977 with 50 percent of the students at the high school and 70 percent of those in the junior high schools participating in athletics.
But arguably the biggest factor in Stillwater becoming one of the most dominant sports programs in the state was Knoche’s ability to identify, hire and retain quality coaches.
Knoche brought in at least nine eventual hall of fame coaches — with most arriving long before their résumés suggested such remarkable long-term success.
“I don’t think any of us that came in were necessarily heralded,” Thole said.
“They were young — I was only 35,” Knoche quipped.
Asked about his formula for success, Knoche deflected credit to those coaches and added: “Hire good people and stay out of their way. What’s the key element of success, whether it’s in sports or music or any other program, is if you have good leaders the kids will follow. I think the athletes reflect the personality of the coach. That leader has to be committed to providing a service and the kids follow that.”
Providing an opportunity for all student-athletes was Knoche’s primary focus and once the teams and programs experienced more success it snowballed into an expectation, rather than an occasional surprise.
Early in his career, Knoche was involved with developing the Stillwater Ponies logo that is still used today and he also created and encouraged camaraderie among all the coaches.
He helped build a program that current activities director Ricky Michel, a 1981 Stillwater graduate, was pleased to eventually inherit after leading the baseball program for 17 seasons.
“Connie took a chance on me and the thing I appreciated was that he was very supportive,” Michel said. “He let me know when things weren’t going well and if there were people that were unhappy and I always appreciated that. One of the other things he did was let coaches be coaches and didn’t try to micro-manage the program. I think you have to give him a lot of credit because he’s the guy — take a look at the coaches he hired, the Scott Christensens, Phil Johnsons and Brian Lukes, he’s responsible for hiring those people. How many hall of fame coaches did he hire on his staff? A lot of the credit for the school’s sports programs should go to him.”
Knoche, a New Richmond (Wis.) native who was a basketball coach and athletics director at Wausau Newman after graduating from UW-La Crosse, said his primary consideration when evaluating a coaching candidate was their past performance, even in cases where there was a small sample size.
“I noticed early that if you could get a coach through the first five years he or she was going to be able to deal with anything during their tenure and, if they couldn’t, you were going to spend an enormous amount of time dealing with personalities,” Knoche said. “But by five years they learn to develop a working relationship with the athletes and how to handle things related to parents, your philosophy and what you expect from an athlete. If they couldn’t do that in five years, chances are they weren’t going to do it.”
One of the many highlights from Knoche’s tenure came in 1995 when the Ponies won state championships in each of the three boys’ fall sports — football, soccer and cross country. All three completed undefeated seasons and were ranked nationally by USA Today. As if that wasn’t enough, each of the three earned section academic honors as well. Narrowing down the list to a few of the most memorable moments, however, proved difficult.
“It’s the old story, which child do you love the most?” Knoche said.
Knoche resting in home hospice
Connie Knoche is resting comfortably in home hospice with the company of his wife, Joan, and family members due to cancer and Parkinson’s disease.
Visitors, cards, letters, notes and prayers are welcome.
The former Stillwater athletics director can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visitors are asked to call in advance at 651-439-7035.
Contact Stuart Groskreutz at email@example.com