University News

Denison University trains athletes to lead in sport, professions, and life

Big Red Athletics Health, Exercise, and Sport Studies
October 24, 2019

The alumni gift will establish Knetzer Family Institute for Development Through Sport.

Denison University is building on its one-of-kind athletics development program through a gift from Big Red athlete Joe Knetzer, a member of the Denison Class of 1985. The gift will establish the Knetzer Family Institute for Development Through Sport, allowing Denison to expand the reach of its existing athlete development efforts.

Establishing the institute puts Denison at the forefront of the student-athlete experience. The research-based approach involves initiatives for student-athlete leadership and competency development, innovative teaching and assessment tools, and continuing education for athletic department faculty/staff. The competencies developed through the four-year program are proven to lead to better mental and physical health, improved academic achievement, decreased behavioral incidents, and even stronger on-field performance.

“We have designed a roadmap that facilitates intentional learning through sport in a way that will aid our student athletes throughout their lives,” says Athletics Director Nan Carney-DeBord. “We are purposeful in hiring coaches who are mentors and in ensuring the entire athletic experience at Denison is geared to student development on and off the field of play.”

The results suggest it’s working. Over the past decade, more than two-thirds of Denison’s teams have been represented in the NCAA’s national rankings, postseason tournaments or championship meets. Denison’s student-athletes also have consistently been named as NCAA Academic All-Americans and Postgraduate Scholars. In fact, Denison became one of just a few colleges nationally recognized in the top 50 of both the US News and World Report National Liberal Arts rankings and the Learfield Director’s Cup D-III standings.

“The development through sport model is rooted in the fundamentals of the liberal arts and our overall focus on helping students develop the skills, values, and habits to succeed in life,” says Denison President Adam Weinberg. “We don’t invest in the personal and leadership development of athletes to have winning teams; we have winning teams because we are invested in the personal and leadership development of our athletes.”

It was this vision for development through sport that first excited Joe Knetzer ’85, a physical education major who also played football and baseball at Denison. Knetzer contributes much of his success in life to the start he got at Denison and the mentorship offered by head football coach Keith Piper, assistant coach Bob Shannon, and academic advisor and Denison Hall of Famer Mattie Ross.

“Denison did so much for me. I have built lifelong relationships at Denison. And I’m just so happy and honored to be able to do a small part to help out and do something with the department that I loved and set me on a goal and a path for success in life,” Knetzer says.

After learning more about the vision for the development through sport initiative, Knetzer wanted to be part of ensuring its longevity for future generations of Denison athletes. His donation to establish the Knetzer Family Institute for Development Through Sport will allow the university to continue its work in an even bigger, bolder way. “The vision of this is something that I really cherish. It’s something that people can take with them for the rest of their lives.” Knetzer says. “I think we can build a lasting legacy at Denison and a lasting legacy of just great people who can go and change the world.”

Joining Carney-DeBord, 2019 Under Armour Athletics Director of the year, in the implementation and launch of the program has been Associate Director of Athletics and 31-year veteran of the department, Sara Lee, and Assistant Athletics Director, Gregory Lott. Lee is One of the winningest coaches in Division III women’s basketball history and is a five-time NCAC Coach of the Year. Lott has a comprehensive background as a world-class sprinter, a coach, and a scholar who specializes in research dedicated to student-athlete and coach development.

The Institute’s development through sport model engages in four principal domains:

Student Athletes

The primary focus of the Knetzer Family Institute is student-athletes’ development throughout their four years at Denison. In addition to the exceptional instruction and mentorship they receive from their coaches, the Knetzer Institute helps student-athletes maximize the educative potential of their experience through an on-going series of trainings and workshops.


Denison places significant concentrated effort on team culture. This focus is driven by Denison’s master coaches who foster an environment that helps students gain effective relationship skills and leadership competency.


Denison’s rigorous process of selecting coaches ensures its staff are fully committed and capable educators and mentors who see their primary role as developing student-athletes to win at life, not just in their sport. Denison provides substantial professional development opportunities that go beyond traditional coaching education, ensuring that our coaches are continually working on ways to facilitate the development of their student-athletes.

Data & Research

The Knetzer approach is grounded in evidence-based science. The Institute is connected to a wide range of academic departments at Denison, including our newly launched program in Health, Exercise and Sports Studies. The university continually assesses outcomes and modifies our approach to drive student success.

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