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NCCC coach ending 38-year reign Knuutila gave his athletes a schooling in the value of respect

It's a tic-tac rule, really. Nobody on Eric Knuutila's wrestling team is allowed to wear hats in public. Fairly harmless, yet pointed.

One day, his Niagara County Community College team stopped at McDonald's for a quick bite after a road meet. As the team shuffled in, Knuutila demanded that everyone remove their hats. Yes, everyone. That includes you, bus driver.

Irritated, the 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."

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 as the coach steps down at age 64 after 38 years of coaching.

"When you add all those little things up, you make a better human being," said Knuutila, who is leaving to spend more time with his family. "When you make a better human, you have a winner."

In all, Knuutila has coached 35 NJCAA All-Americans, 101 Region III champions and four national champions.

Willie Moore was Knuutila's first national champion and one of 502 wrestlers the coach has had over four decades. Back in the late '70s, Moore hated to run, despised it. So one day, he tested his coach. Knuutila instructed his team to run and Moore refused.

Knuutila obliged with a smirk. While the rest of the team ran, the two of them would wrestle instead. Student against coach. For 45 grueling minutes, Knuutila owned him.

"He's the only person in my life that I couldn't get up from the bottom from!" Moore said. "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.

After graduating from the University at Buffalo in 1973, Knuutila started from scratch at NCCC. He had a room, a mat and nothing else. The coach bought some gray workout uniforms, died them navy blue and screened the letters "NCCC" on the front. For tights, he borrowed a set from UB. One problem: 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 -- Knuutila set a tone. Winning became an inevitable byproduct.

"When you talk to him, you can't help but get into his world," said Moore, who works for the Niagara Falls School District. "You can see the confidence in him."

Knuutila may not be challenging wrestlers to duels today, 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.

"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.

"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."

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."

That's why Knuutila has stayed at NCCC all these years. The setting is intimate, conducive to character-building. At a Division I school, maybe he can't do that.

"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.

To no one's surprise, Knuutila will stick around as an assistant coach temporarily to help out his successor, Keith Maute. He knows the weaning-out period won't be easy.

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

At NCCC, he built a winner he hopes will last an eternity.

"Once it got rolling," Knuutila says, "it just hasn't stopped."

e-mail: tdunne@buffnews.com