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Sports Illustrated
Sports Illustrated
Jon Wertheim

Bob Knight, ‘The General’ of College Hoops, Was Unapologetic and Unforgettable

It was the spring of 1984, and construction workers in Bloomington, Ind., were tasked with an unusual project. They were ordered to install a hydraulic platform into the school’s fieldhouse. There, Bob Knight would stand and watch over the U.S. Olympic men’s basketball trials, assessing 75 or so players who had converged to audition for a spot on the team Knight would coach.

When the practice sessions were through, Knight would descend and compare notes with the other coaches assisting him. Figures who included Dean Smith, Pete Newell, Gene Keady and a member of Knight’s blossoming coaching tree, “Michael Krzyzewski,” as he was listed in the program.

Knight stood on that tower for purely functional reasons. From on high, he could glimpse Michael Jordan—a junior at North Carolina and a Knight favorite—acting in defiance of gravity. He could turn and watch Auburn forward Charles Barkley—not a Knight favorite—grab a rebound and haul his 280-pound ass coast to coast. Patrick Ewing might be blocking shots on a third court. Karl Malone could be clogging the low post on a fourth.

But there was something symbolic as well. At the time, Knight was the most elevated figure in college basketball. (Given the state of the NBA, perhaps in all basketball.) Just 43 years old, he had already coached the Indiana Hoosiers to two NCAA titles, the 1976 vintage the last college team to go through a season undefeated. He was on a trajectory to get to 500 wins faster than any coach in history. Later that summer Knight’s team would win the gold medal at the Los Angeles Games.

Knight, who died Wednesday at age 83, may have peaked that summer of 1984. But he will be recalled as one of the titans in college basketball, a coaching archetype, his name synonymous with unyielding principle and autocracy. And inasmuch as he cleaved public opinion, that never bothered him in the least.

For all the nicknames in sports that are inane, derivative or offensive, has there ever been a more fitting sobriquet than Bob Knight’s moniker, “The General”? A military history buff capable of spending hours debating the Confederacy’s flawed tactics at Antietam or the Allies’ success at Normandy, Knight began his unsurpassed coaching career at West Point, where he sought the counsel of real generals.

He presided over a vast army of players while grooming lieutenants for promotion. He cut a controversial and polarizing figure, eliciting loyal affection and deep contempt, both among the opposition and within his own ranks. And like other military leaders, he smudged the line between being rigidly, resolutely principled and foolishly stubborn.

In 29 years at Indiana, Knight led the Hoosiers to five Final Fours and three national championships.

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Yet for as many battles as Knight may have lost—for all the attempted coups he inspired, for all his feuds with “civilians” on the sidelines—Knight ultimately won the war. It’s not just that he accumulated 902 wins, more than all but five other men’s basketball coaches in Division I history. Nor that he was known as a brilliant strategist and motivator, with coaching protégés spread throughout the country. It’s that Knight did it his own damn way.

The son of a railroad man and an elementary school teacher, Knight grew up in Orrville, Ohio, and played basketball at Ohio State. A shooting guard short on native talent and long on attitude, he came off the bench for a team that won an NCAA title in 1960 and reached the final game in ’61 and ’62. Presaging his next half century in basketball, Knight was known for his advanced basketball cortex and his leadership, but also for his combative personality and quick temper. It was Fred Taylor, the Buckeyes’ venerable coach, who referred to Knight as “the brat from Orrville.”

Thanks to Taylor, though, soon after graduation, Knight landed a job as an assistant coach at Army. The salary was $99 a month. When his superior retired, Knight was named head coach at the age of 24. Six seasons and more than 100 wins later, he was poached by Indiana for what was one of the sport’s plum coaching jobs.

It was in Bloomington that Knight went from ascending coach to cult figure. At a time of transition—cultural and social, both inside and outside of college basketball—Knight was perceived by many as a bulwark against change and slackening standards, a keeper of traditional values on the order of discipline, respect and personal responsibility.

Knight commanded his teams to play man-to-man defense, every player accountable for his action and inaction. The Hoosiers ran the motion offense, a scheme both simplistic and complex, with players orbiting the court with military precision.

For Knight, basketball was never just about missed shots or made shots. It was about manifestations of character. Were you tough and durable and courageous and unswerving in your convictions? Or did you play with what Knight perceived to be the twin curses of softness and indecision?

Knight’s players invariably described their years in Bloomington as boot camp—another military analogy; they just kept coming—you either endured, or, in the case of Larry Bird among plenty others, you didn’t and you transferred.

Knight cemented his popularity by winning at a pace that was almost relentless. In 1975 the Hoosiers, undefeated in the Big Ten, were the odds-on favorite to win the national championship before Scott May broke his arm during the final week of the regular season. They ended up losing—to dreaded rival Kentucky, no less—in the Elite Eight. When Indiana won the NCAA title the following year, the last team to go through an entire season undefeated, Knight snapped: “It should have been two.”

Knight’s second national title came just five years later. Then a third arrived in 1987, a year when Knight simply out-coached each of his contemporaries. His trajectory was such that he was poised to replace John Wooden—who, coincidentally, had grown up outside Bloomington—as the college coach against whom all others would be measured.

In stark contrast to Wooden’s gentle, measured manner, controversy rode shotgun with Knight’s successes. When he wasn’t throwing a Puerto Rican policeman into a garbage can—as he did during the 1979 Pan Am Games, creating a diplomatic incident—he was memorably throwing chairs across the Assembly Hall floor in protest of some official’s call.

His profane tirades and fits of rage became legend. John Feinstein’s best-selling book, A Season on the Brink, depicted Knight as a masterful coach, complex and intelligent, but also as a coarse and manipulative bully.

Not that Knight much cared about his image. He engaged in a protracted ground war with the media, memorably remarking, “All of us learn to write in the second grade; most of us go on to greater things.” When Knight wasn’t elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility, he asked the committee to remove his name from the ballot. (They didn’t, and he was elected in his second year.)

Those deemed to have breached his code of loyalty simply were dishonorably discharged from his platoon, never to be in his presence again. He once took the microphone at Assembly Hall and declared: “When my time on Earth is gone and my activities here are past, I want that they should bury me upside down, so my critics can kiss my ass.” The occasion was Senior Night.

But if Knight’s legion of critics was well armed, so was his legion of supporters. Knight practiced the same philosophy he imparted to his team: Games are simply a manifestation for the time and effort invested in practice. It was hard not to marvel at his basketball tactics and his ability to wring the potential from his players. “There were so many teams that had so much more talent, but we’d beat them because we had Coach and they didn’t,” recalls Steve Alford, a typical Knight overachiever, who played at IU from 1983 to ’87.

On the condition that they came with no publicity, Knight engineered countless small acts of kindness. Jon Gruden, the former NFL coach, grew up in Bloomington and was once a Hoosiers ballboy. Gruden tells a story that long after leaving town, his mother had a cancerous kidney removed. Somehow Knight found this out and sent a jersey and a handwritten note of encouragement to Kathy Gruden’s hospital room.

What’s more, at a time when Knight’s colleagues far and near (in Lexington and Louisville and Cincinnati) were all but spoofing the NCAA rule book, Knight was defiantly incorruptible. He refused to mingle with the AAU “dirtbags” (his word) and shoe company middle men who were holding increasing sway. He banned boosters he deemed to be too exuberant. Knight saw to it that his players attended class, graduated and then landed promising jobs—in and out of basketball. When Knight caught wind of an Indiana professor giving charitable grades to basketball players enrolled in his course, he called the instructor to his office and let loose.

Whether Knight was principled or out of touch, there’s no debating his hidebound ways exacted a price on his ability to recruit talent, and, by extension, his win totals. The father of an Indiana player in the ’80s described Knight as “the Vince Lombardi of basketball.”

But Lombardi had long fallen out of vogue, replaced by the permissive, cooler “players’ coach.” In the late 1990s, for instance, Knight recruited Zach Randolph, then a highly regarded Indiana high school player, precisely the kind of in-state star who, in an earlier era, went to IU as a matter of ritual. When Randolph arrived wearing a chapeau, Knight demanded the kid “show some goddamn respect” and remove his “goddamn hat.” (“Recruit jackasses, they play like jackasses,” was a favorite Knight expression.) A year later Randolph was leading Michigan State to the Final Four.

So it went for Knight during much of the 1990s. He was unwilling to recruit the top players, not so long as they came to campus driving souped-up cars, flanked by summer league coaches, demanding to start and likely to jump to the NBA after a season or two. After winning the ’87 title, the Hoosiers reached the Final Four just once over the next 15 years. Meanwhile, in an almost biblical turn, Mike Krzyzewski, the Knight protégée who played for him at West Point, supplanted his mentor as the brightest star in the college hoops cosmos.

As Indiana lost some relevance, Knight lost some of his moral authority. His reign in Bloomington began to collapse when a source leaked to CNN and Sports Illustrated a tape of Knight choking player Neil Reed in 1997. It was around the same time that Knight kicked university president Myles Brand, ostensibly his boss, out of a practice. It was clear Knight’s era was not going to end gracefully. Knight being Knight, he continued coaching, too proud to temper his ways.

After violating a “zero tolerance policy” in 2000, Knight, after 29 years at IU, was fired by Brand, an ugly and public episode that divided the state. The parallels to General MacArthur, a once-great general dismissed for his stubbornness and insubordination, were almost too obvious to point out.

If Knight didn’t fade away, he never again approached the level of professional prominence he once knew. After a year away from basketball, he returned to coach at Texas Tech, a football school in a football state. Knight performed capably, guiding the Red Raiders to unprecedented success. But there were no more NCAA titles.

Knight spent the final seven years of his coaching career at Texas Tech, reaching the NCAA tournament four times.

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On New Year’s Day of 2007, Texas Tech beat New Mexico and Knight quietly passed Dean Smith for most career victories, with 880. (A mark that five men’s coaches, including Krzyzewski, have since surpassed.) Knight seemed to recognize that this wasn’t how the plot was supposed to have bended, self-exiled to West Texas and achieving “milestones” that had been drained of much significance.

But he’d stuck to his principles, and if operating far from the college basketball nerve center was the price to pay for sticking with principles, so be it. “I’ve always thought that if there’s ever an occasion for a song to be played on my behalf, I wanted it to be Frank Sinatra singing ‘My Way,’” he told a courtside reporter that day.

Given how seldom he changed his mind or position, it would surprise no one if Knight were buried upside down. But he should also be recalled as The General who once towered over the basketball landscape, commanding an entire sport. You’re damn right he did.

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