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Bill Knecht: Villanova Oarsman and Boardsman

Remembering a Villanova intramural hoopster who rowed his way to Olympic Gold.

Knecht at the 1964 European Rowing Championships in Amsterdam.
WikiMedia via Creative Commons

Sixty-seven years ago, Villanova’s intramural basketball program consisted of no more than a dozen teams. Each of the heavily populated halls-- Fedigan, Alumni, Good Counsel, Austin and The Barracks-- housed enough residents to field their own strong starting fives plus bench support. Add a handful of eager dayhop squads and the league stood ready for a season of competitive games played in Alumni Hall’s bedroom-sized gym, the program’s official court.

Despite being a somewhat unsettled transfer student, I could plainly see there were not enough students in my hall-- -O’Dwyer- -- to form a team. To generate a representative lineup, O’Dwyer and three nearby halls merged to create one team-- the DOMS-- an acronym combining the first letters of Delurey, O’Dwyer, Middleton and Simpson. The inclusion of the “M” puzzled me. Middleton Hall served as the infirmary. It could contribute no one, not even the bedridden.

Before arriving at Villanova, I’d spent the previous year at Niagara University as a freshman walk-on. I’d played in every game in a 12-4 season highlighted by year-end victories over powerful freshman rivals, Canisius and Syracuse. The latter win took three overtimes on a hostile Orange court.

The Niagara experience had me eager to suit up for my first intramural game. Only a few of the DOMS players knew me, so I was essentially anonymous when I stepped on the court and eased into the team’s warm-up line. After no more than a half-dozen layups, I was approached by a broad-shouldered DOMS player. Straining to outshout the thump-thump of the bouncing balls, he asked, “Do you live in The Barracks?”

“No, O’Dwyer,” I said.

His shirt signified neither “Captain” nor “Coach,” but he carried himself with a quiet air of leadership that convinced me he was in charge.

His welcoming response, “Good. You start,” boosted my spirits and began a friendship that lasted for our next two years as DOMS teammates.

In a post-game walk back to our halls, I learned that my earnest, serious-faced supporter was Bill Knecht. A six-foot junior, Bill lived in Simpson Hall, and while a great rebounder, his athletic gifts extended far beyond basketball. He also starred as a fully committed rower. After classes, he headed for Philadelphia via the Paoli Local, an almost daily routine that I took as a unique sign of his dogged persistence.

But just where in Philadelphia was he headed? I discovered his ultimate destination one gloomy, drizzly afternoon when I posed the direct question: “Where you off to, Bill?” Hands thrust deep in the side pockets of a windbreaker bearing the letter “V,” he said, “Down the boathouse.”

Bill had a taciturn side, and with nothing more than those three words to go on, I stared, slack-jawed, unable to crack the code. He saved me further confusion by pointing to the monogrammed “V” on his jacket. “It stands for “Vesper.”

Now I had it. “Down the boathouse” meant “Down the Vesper boathouse.” Left to my own thoughts, I would have believed that his “V” stood for “Villanova.” But he cleared that up with, “The Vesper boathouse is a two-story Victorian building on Boathouse Row-- just below the Art Museum.” He adjusted his baseball cap beaded with glistening raindrops.

“There are more than a dozen similar boathouses down there-- stretched out along the banks of the Schuylkill.”

“I believe I’ve seen them,” I said. “ But I never knew they were boathouses.”

“Some of them are over a century old, all built with high, wide interiors for racking and sheltering racing boats,” he said. “Everything from single sculls, to double sculls to larger shells that accommodate eight rowers and a coxswain.” Never again did I feel the need to ask Bill where he was off to. His dedication to rowing and the Vesper Boat Club shone through in that brief exchange.

Graduation came soon enough and I lost track of Bill until I discovered his solitary rides on the Paoli Local had yielded an immensely high payoff. Sports Illustrated proclaimed his achievement in a piece covering the 1960 Rome Olympics. It featured Bill and his partner, Philadelphia’s Jack Kelly, older brother of Monaco’s Princess Grace. Jack and Bill were pulling for a gold in the double-sculls championship, and Bill’s victory in the previous year’s Pan-American double sculls had him fully prepared. But illness caused the team to withdraw, and Bill would have to wait until the Tokyo Olympic games, four years later, for his shot at Olympic gold.

The opportunity came, but not in the double sculls. At Tokyo, Bill pulled an oar in the Vesper coxed 8. While rowing against West Germany’s Ratzenburg crew, a legendary team that had already beaten the USA in its heat, darkness overcame the rowing course. And in light provided by parachute flares, Vesper slipped past West Germany to capture the gold by more than a boat length. Forty years would pass before the USA would again win the gold in this event.

If he were at Villanova today, Bill wouldn’t have to give a second thought to the Paoli Local or to Boathouse Row. Nova has its own boathouse, the home of the women’s intercollegiate rowers and the men’s rowing club. Established in Conshohocken less than five miles from the campus, it stands within a hundred yards of the Schuylkill. Crews can shoulder their boats and slide them into the water in minutes.

Villanova’s intramural basketball program has grown mightily, too. Its dozen teams have advanced to more than 140. Men’s women’s and co-ed teams compete not on Alumni Hall’s tiny court but on the varsity’s Pavilion court (While Pavilion renovations are completed, they’ll play at The Jake). Men play at three skill levels-- A, B and C. Co-ed teams compete in an A League (highest skill) and B League (recreational).

When he ended his rowing career, Bill became a member of the U.S. Olympic Rowing Team Committee and a judge at the 1992 Summer Olympics. He’s a member of the American Rowing Hall of Fame and a founder of the Cooper River (NJ) Rowing Association. Villanova, mindful of his rowing accomplishments, hosts the annual Knecht Cup Regatta in his honor. Yet, they’ve done nothing to honor his intramural accomplishments. Maybe it’s time for a committee.

About Bob Natiello, “squeaky sneakers” in the VU Hoops comments
Aunt Gussie and The Enemy Within captured first prize in Arizona Authors Assn 2016 literary contest This is Bob’s 10th literary award from the AAA. Four earned first prizes.
Of the 22 short stories and memoirs in Bob’s latest collection, 10 are award winners. Titled The Almost Perfect Crime, the collection features Dog Fight, first-prize winner in Manhattan Media’s most recent fiction contest. DF appeared in New York Press and West Side Spirit. Another first- prize winner, J.D. Salinger’s Tobacco Dependency, appeared in Tucson’s The Storyteller.
Five stories in the collection are national Pushcart Prize nominees (including Aunt Gussie) and six have appeared in Arizona Literary Magazine.
His Formal Invitation earned a Glimmertrain Honorable Mention. And in 2014, his How Jiminy Cricket . . . was a finalist in the Brooklyn Fine Arts Festival.
Bob’s song lyrics have been recorded on a gold album and a gold single and heard on TV and radio commercials.
His economic essays have been published in REALTOR Magazine, one million circulation per issue.
Penn’s Wharton School includes Bob in a community of faculty and alumni requested to write quarterly articles for the Wharton Magazine online.
Bob was chosen to attend three Sirenland Writers Conferences in Positano, Italy.
Bob originated and produced the first weekly real estate television series --Home Buying Made Easy-- on a major NYC television channel, WABC-TV.
He also originated and produced New York’s first mutual fund weekly radio series--All About Mutual Funds.
He was awarded New Jersey Cable Television’s top honor for producing the state’s number one cable business program--Real Estate and You.
Bob served as President of non-profit Sedona Jazz on the Rocks, the southwest’s oldest and largest jazz festival. He also served as a trustee of Arizona Opera.
He was honorably discharged as a first lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps. The Society of Southwestern Authors anthologized his memoir Hollywood Marines in their veterans’ tribute, Duty, Honor, Valor.
Now retired, he lives and writes in Sedona, AZ. He is the father of five and grandfather of 12.