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Donald Knauf: A legacy of Hall of Fame service in multiple states

Donald Knauf, 88, was inducted into the Florida chapter of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame this month in Orlando. (Photo courtesy Knauf family)

It was 1994. Donald Knauf, the only wrestling coach that Southern Connecticut State University had ever had to that point, was stepping away from the program he had built from scratch.

He spent 21 years coaching the Owls, winning more than 200 matches and leading SCSU to three New England championships.

Two years later, he had retired from Southern Connecticut after 24 years in New Haven. Knauf and his wife Judy relocated to Florida. In a few months, he was back on the mat.

Reading a local newspaper, Knauf saw some information about a season-opening match for the local high school team, Martin County High in Stuart, Florida. He went to the match and afterward, he did what he had done before in his wrestling career – he offered his help.

“After the match, I asked the coach if he could use some help,” Knauf said. “The next day I was in there. I told him of my qualifications and he said, ‘The program is yours.’”

The coach became a volunteer and handed his whistle to Knauf.

It was the beginning of another two decades of work on the mat in Florida where Knauf coached at two high schools, had two Florida state champions, 10 placewinners and ran a regional state tournament for five years.

Knauf, who has been in the wrestling community for the last 70 years, was inducted into the Florida chapter of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame on Saturday, August 26, in Orlando.

For decades, Knauf, 88, has been sharing his wrestling knowledge and passion with youngsters in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Florida and Maine. He was a head coach at Williston Academy in Northampton, Massachusetts for eight seasons and ran a summer kids program at the Skowhegan YMCA in Skowhegan, Maine, for more than 20 years.

He also served as a volunteer assistant coach at Abington Senior High outside of Philadelphia for one year (1958-59) and at the University of Hartford (1959-60) and Taft School in Watertown for two seasons each.

“It’s a commitment to the development of kids and young men,” Knauf said. “That’s the way I felt about it and that’s the way I went about it.

“You’re meeting quality people every day,” he said. “It’s worth the effort. That’s the way I feel about my life and being with the kids.”

Donald Knauf, far left in the second row, and his 1985 Southern Connecticut State wrestling team. (The Laurel, Southern Connecticut State yearbook)

Knauf wasn’t able to find the time to wrestle at Abington in high school but at Ursinus College, he wrestled three seasons for the Bears at 157 and 177 pounds.

After college, he had a job in sales with a local oil company in the Philadelphia area with the condition that he could be done with his day at 4 p.m. to help out the club team at Abington Senior High as a volunteer “due to my love of the sport,” he said. “I was helping kids from my neighborhood.”

When his job took him to Connecticut, Knauf found about the new club team at the University of Hartford. “I just walked in off the street. I said I wrestled in college. Can I roll around with the guys and be helpful? (The coach) said be my guest. And I did that for two years.”

The Hartford coach that first year was Frank Robinson, Jr., who would eventually coach wrestling and football at Hall High in West Hartford and would be inducted into the Connecticut Chapter of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.

Donald Knauf in 1957 (Urisinus College yearbook)

Knauf spent another two years as a volunteer coach with the Taft School in Watertown, teaching lots of technique in 1961 and 1962. But he wanted more.

“I enjoyed financially the benefits of selling oil but I wasn’t satisfied,” he said. “Wrestling was everything for me. It was time to make a commitment to the kids and to the sport. I decided I had to get off the fence.”

In the fall of 1962, Knauf took a job as a history teacher and wrestling coach at Williston Academy in Easthampton, Massachusetts. Through 1971, his teams had six straight top 10 New England championship finishes.

In 1971, a fellow coach asked Knauf if he would be interested in a possible position at Southern Connecticut State, which was interested in starting a wrestling program. Knauf’s friend passed his name along to Dr. James Moore, the athletic director for the Owls at that time. “They called me the next day,” Knauf said.

Knauf was hired as the assistant director of student teaching and got promoted to the director of student teaching four years later when his boss retired. Similar to his days selling petroleum products, there was an agreement that allowed Knauf to finish his day at 2:30 p.m. to coach during the wrestling season.

“We got it up and running that first year and it was at a freshman and junior varsity level,” Knauf said. The only varsity program we wrestled was Amherst. It took us two years before we had a full-fledged varsity schedule and competed (in 1973-74).”

By 1977, the Owls were 19-4 and second in New England in competition against Division II and Division III schools. In 1978, Southern went 12-2, won their first New England championship and broke into the top 20 at the NCAA Division II national championships for the first time by finishing 18th.

In 21 years, he was 212-149-2 with the Owls, who won additional New England championships in 1993 and 1994. Nine times his Owls finished in the top 20 at the NCAA Division II nationals with the best finish coming in 1988 when Southern finished 11th.

Knauf’s 1986 squad went 13-1 and his final three teams at Southern (1992-94) had a combined record of 44-15 with a pair of New England championships.

Head coach Donald Knauf and his Southern Connecticut State wrestling team in 1984. (Laurel, Southern Connecticut State yearbook)

“We didn’t compete too much locally,” he said. As he did at Williston, Knauf tried to challenge his team. It wasn’t unusual to find Division I schools such as Army, Navy, Temple, Syracuse, Duke and Rhode Island on Southern’s schedule.

“My goal wasn’t to compete with the teams that I should have been wrestling but to get my kids to a level, a national level where we could have some success,” Knauf said. “Wrestling, in my mind, is an individual sport. You like to win the team trophy but when it comes down to it, when the iron hits the road, you need to be able to perform on your own.”

At Southern, he coached 26 NCAA Division II All-Americans, including seven two-time All-American wrestlers. Denny Forrester finished second at the NCAA Div. II championships at 177 pounds in 1988 while Mark Piterski finished third twice (1987, 1988). Joe Bena (1992), Peter Dalaker (1982), Paul Bulzomi (1980) and Sean Bilodeau (1978) each finished third at the NCAA Div. II tournament.

Knauf’s final season at Southern Connecticut was in 1993-94. He was in town the following season when his former assistant coach John Meyers took over the program and continued their success with a 14-4 record and finishing 20th at the 1995 NCAA Division II tournament.

“It was a bit uncomfortable because those kids were mine but I didn’t want to step on his toes. It was his turn to take over and run the ball,” Knauf said. “John was a great technician and a great coach.”

Meyers, a three-time State Open champion at Hall and a USA Wrestling Cadet national champion (1985), coached the Owls for three seasons. But when he moved to California following the 1996-97 season, Southern shut down the program.

Meanwhile, Knauf found avenues to stay in wrestling. In 1996, he began teaching wrestling for the summer recreational program at the local YMCA in Skowhegan, Maine where he and his wife, Judy, spent time in the summer. He did that until 2018.

In Florida, he coached Martin County High in Stuart, Florida, from 1996 through 2016. “It went real well,” Knauf said. “The kids enjoyed it. The kids got better and the kids sold the program. They did most of the recruiting (of their classmates).”

Knauf also ran the Martin County USA Wrestling Club from 1996 to 2016 and was also the tournament director for the Russ Destito Memorial Duals at Martin County High from 2003 through 2019.

In 2017, he moved to South Fork High, also in Stuart, Florida, to keep the program going. They were having a hard time finding a coach. When a qualified coach was hired by the school next season, Knauf stepped aside and became the assistant coach for another season (2017-18) at the age of 83.

“At this stage of my life, I would not want to stand in the way of someone who is ready to go and with all of the tools,” he said.

He’s not a full-time coach anymore but he still went to the Martin County High wrestling room twice a week during the 2023 season to offer a tutorial for anyone who is looking for a little extra guidance. “It’s a little fine tuning and getting them on the right sheet of music,” he said.

“I do more walking around than anything else. I’m 88,” he said with a chuckle. “I don’t get down on the mat anymore.”

“Wrestling has been pervasive in my life,” Knauf said in a video interview for his 2023 induction into the Florida Chapter of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. “I just fell in love with the sport and what it was doing for me and the guys around me. Wrestling has been the core of my life and my being.”

Gerry deSimas, Jr., is the editor and founder of Connecticut Wrestling Online. He is an award-winning writer and has been covering sports in Connecticut and New England for more than 40 years. He was inducted into the New England High School Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2018.

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