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Knuutila legacy? Deepest respect; After decades as an inspiration to the wrestlers of NCCC, beloved coach steps down

It's a ticktack rule, really. Nobody on Eric Knuutila's wrestling team is allowed to wear hats in public. Fairly harmless, yes, but pointed.

One day, his Niagara County Community College team stopped at McDonald's -- not quite a five-star restaurant -- for a quick bite after a road meet. As the team shuffled in, Knuutila demanded that everyone remove their hats. As in everyone -- including the bus driver.

Irritated, the bus driver fired back at the coach.

"Well, you can go get your own meal then," Knuutila told him. "If you're going to eat with us, you're going to be this way."

Nowadays, when the 64-year-old coach sees his former wrestlers, they quickly remove their sons' caps. "I know I've gotten through to them," he says with a laugh.

No, there was never a magic-wand moment. Knuutila didn't build NCCC into the wrestling capital of Western New York by chance, by luck, by riding one or two All-Americans. Simply, he has demanded respect. That, above all else, will be his legacy.

After 38 years of coaching, Knuutila is stepping down.

Sitting in his office -- surrounded by pictures and plaques and memories -- Knuutila leans back into his chair. His ban on hats and blue jeans is merely a small window into the wrestling empire he has built.

"When you add all those little things up, you make a better human being," Knuutila said. "When you make a better human, you have a winner."

In all, Knuutila has coached 502 wrestlers. He has been named Region III Coach of the Year 13 times and the National Junior College Athletic Association Man of the Year in 1990. He has coached 35 NJCAA All-Americans, 101 Region III champions and four national champions.

Through it all, has his approach ever wavered?

"I know I've changed," he said. "I just hope I haven't changed that much."

Willie Moore hated to run, despised it. So one day, back in the late '70s, NCCC's first national champion tested his coach.

Knuutila instructed his team to run, and Moore refused. OK, Knuutila obliged with a smirk. That's fine. While the rest of the team ran, the two of them would wrestle instead: student vs. coach.

For 45 grueling minutes, Knuutila owned him.

"I couldn't get up from the bottom," Moore said. "He's the only person in my life that I couldn't get up from the bottom from! He was throwing me all over the place -- this way, that way. I couldn't just lie there, either, because he'd punish me."

Lesson learned.

Knuutila was given next to nothing to start the program. After serving in the Vietnam War, he returned home and went to school at Corning Community College and then the University at Buffalo. He graduated, and, in 1973, UB's equipment manager hooked him up with the job at NCCC.

He started, literally, from scratch. Knuutila had a room, a mat and nothing else with which to build a wrestling program. He bought some gray workout uniforms, died them navy blue and screened the letters "NCCC" on the front. And for tights, he borrowed a set from UB. One problem: The two-piece set didn't match. The shirts were navy blue, and the tights were royal blue.

"Man," Knuutila joked, "people laughed at us."

They weren't laughing for long. From Day One -- providing hands-on tutorials of respect to guys such as Moore -- Knuutila set a tone. Winning became an inevitable byproduct. In 1977, Moore became one of two NCCC wrestlers to go an entire season without losing a match.

The two still keep in touch. Every year, Knuutila and Moore connect at the coach's alumni meeting. Moore, who today works for the Niagara Falls School District, said his coach possesses the rare ability to inspire.

"When you talk to him, you can't help but get into his world," Moore said. "You can see the confidence in him. You don't second-guess what he's saying. You say, 'I believe you. I'm going for it.' "

Knuutila makes a concerted effort to connect with his wrestlers. With his wife, Linda, he has attended countless weddings and held countless spaghetti dinners. Four years ago, Knuutila made an emergency visit to a bar with a former wrestler struggling in his marriage.

He sees the big picture, always. In 38 years, Knuutila has missed one practice. And in 38 years, he only kicked five wrestlers off the team. Suspensions are common, and Knuutila is notorious for kicking wrestlers in the rear end in front of the entire team.

But throwing wrestlers out for good? That defeats the purpose.

"If you kick them off," he said, "then they're going to do it wrong again. You're trying to develop men. If you just tell them to get out, it doesn't do them any good."

With Knuutila, relationships always last beyond the mat. Moore, the lone African-American on that '77 team, still remembers Knuutila's words before the team left for nationals in Wellington, Minn., west of Minneapolis.

"He said, 'Willie, these people have never really seen a black guy before,' " Moore recalled, breaking out in laughter. "He said, 'You might get some strange looks. I'm just warning you.' It was funny to me. We got there, and people were like, 'Wow, they really exist!' It was like they were seeing a leprechaun, or a unicorn."

Moore went on to win nationals. More than 30 years later, those NCCC days remain the best of his life.

"He's consistent with everything he does," Moore said of his former coach. "He gets you. He understands you. He tries to know who you are as an individual."

>Molding boys into men

Fast-forward three decades. Knuutila may not be challenging wrestlers to duels, but the fear factor remains. His presence is still strong, his mission still clear.

Troy Ireland, one of two Thunderwolves to become an All-American this winter, is a self-described smart aleck. Whenever possible, he has tried to get under his coach's skin, tried to tiptoe the line of prankster and problem child. Bald jokes were the norm.

"Sometimes," Ireland admitted, "I'd take it too far."

At which point, he'd receive either a swift jab to the sternum or a sentence of "elbow crawls." Neither remedy is pleasant. Both get the job done.

"He'll punch you right in the sternum," Ireland said. "He'll stand you against the wall and give you a nice crack in the chest if you do something wrong."

As for the elbow crawls, "once you hit 20, 30 of them, your elbows start to cut open and bleed," he said.

Yet he knows he deserved it all. He knows he's the better for it.

Through the generations, Knuutila's wrestlers have changed. College-age kids, the coach says, have adopted a starkly different attitude. His job -- trying to mold boys into men -- has become a real chore.

These days, it takes some wrestlers 45 minutes just to admit that it was their fault they missed practice. Knuutila has heard it all. Everything from setting the alarm for "p.m." instead of "a.m." to one head-scratching semester eight years ago.

"One guy rotated his tires twice, and his grandmother died three times," said Knuutila, shaking his head. "I said, 'How many grandparents do you have?' Kids are different nowadays. That word "respect" is very hard for them to come across. It takes me a long time."

Ireland admits he didn't take wrestling seriously upon arriving on campus. When Knuutila got on him -- sternum shots and all -- he finally started maximizing his potential.

At this winter's NJCAA Championships, he took fifth place in the 165-pound division.

"Coach said that if you want to be an All-American, you have to put the work into it," Ireland said. "He pushes you."

Through the years, Knuutila has had several opportunities to leave Sanborn. Twenty-five years ago, Cortland State came calling. Even though he's from Ithaca, Knuutila turned down the job. Sixteen years ago, he had a chance to return to his alma mater at UB. Again, he declined.

The setting at NCCC was too intimate to leave. He was able to have a major effect on individual lives.

"If I go out, recruit three-time state champions and they go out and win, win, win and win, am I teaching anything?" Knuutila said. "I like working with people."

Eventually, schools stopped calling to entice Knuutila. They knew he wasn't going anywhere.

>'He's a father figure'

To no one's surprise, Knuutila isn't leaving the Thunderwolves completely. Not yet, anyway. He's going to stick around as an assistant coach temporarily to help out his successor, Keith Maute.

Knuutila realizes that the weaning-away period won't be easy. This job is a part of him, right down to the ban on jeans. Under Maute, the identity of the program could evolve slightly.

"He may say, 'Go ahead and wear blue jeans,' and I'd never let it happen," Knuutila said. "I know he likes to wear hats. And I hate hats."

Just don't expect too much change. Maute wrestled for Knuutila. He understands the culture. Respect, as always, will be paramount.

"If the kids don't respect you, then the program's not going to succeed," said Maute, who previously coached at East Aurora and Iroquois high schools and runs the Cobra Wrestling Academy in Cheektowaga. "He's tough on everybody, but he gets the respect because you also know that he would do anything for you.

"In a lot of ways, he's a father figure to a lot of the kids."

Inside his office, Knuutila takes a panoramic view. Perched to his right is one NCCC jersey with signatures scattered all over it. Each name has a story behind it, a life the coach hopes he changed.

And in the process, he has built a consistent winner.

"It didn't happen overnight," Knuutila said. "It took awhile to get rolling, but once it got rolling, it just hasn't stopped."

e-mail: niagaranews@buffnews.com

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