Coach Knight's legacy: all of the above

Bob Knight, the winningest coach in men’s college basketball history, abruptly quit the other night, handing the reins of the Texas Tech program to his son and heir, Pat.

Knight has long been one of the most polarizing figures in all of American sport, and if your Internets get or you have access to a sports talk radio station in your town you probably already know that his sudden retirement has only served to revive the big argument. To wit: what is Bob Knight’s legacy?

A) Bob Knight is one of the greatest coaches in college hoops history. He won over 900 games, something nobody else has ever done. He won three national titles. Let’s see, what else?

Knight is also the only coach to win the NCAA, the NIT, the Olympic Gold, and the Pan American Games Gold.

The Red Raiders’ participation in the 2007 NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Tournament marked another record. With their inclusion as the #10 seed in the East Regional, Knight became the coach to lead his team to more NCAA Tournaments than any other…In 1987, Knight was the first person to be honored with the Naismith Men’s College Coach of the Year Award. Five years later, he received the Clair Bee Coach of the Year Award. And, in 2007, he was the recipient of the Naismith Award for Men’s Outstanding Contribution to Basketball.

Knight also made a priority of doing things the right way. He insisted on respect from his players, he emphasized the importance of academics and had a demonstrated track record for producing not only solid players, but solid citizens.

B) Bob Knight was a hypocrite and an abusive thug with serious anger management issues. His public demeanor was an embarrassment to his schools and, when called on to run the US national team, his nation. His bullying and anti-social behavior forced Indiana University to fire him and he apparently came close to the same fate at Texas Tech. The litany of his misdeeds is mind-boggling:

  • In 1979, Knight was arrested for assaulting a police officer during the Pan American Games in Puerto Rico. Knight was angry that a practice gymnasium was not opened to his team, which went on to a 9-0 record in the tournament. Knight was later convicted in absentia in a Puerto Rican court. However, the charges were later dropped when Indiana Governor Otis R. Bowen refused to cooperate in extraditing Knight to the island commonwealth.
  • In 1985, Knight threw a chair across the court to protest a referee’s call during a game against the rival Purdue Boilermakers. Knight was suspended for one game and received two years’ probation from the Big Ten Conference.
  • Women’s groups nationwide were outraged by Knight’s comments during an April, 1988 interview with Connie Chung in which he said, “I think that if rape is inevitable, relax and enjoy it.” Knight’s comment was in reference to an Indiana basketball game in which he felt the referees were making poor calls against the Hoosiers.
  • Knight allegedly kicked his own son, Patrick Knight, during a 1993 game (Knight claims he actually kicked a chair).
  • Knight was shown berating an NCAA volunteer at a 1995 post-game press conference following a 65-60 loss to Missouri in the first round of the NCAA tournament held in Boise, Idaho. The volunteer, Rance Pugmire, informed the press that Knight would not be attending the press conference, when in reality, Knight was running a few minutes late and had planned on attending per NCAA rules. Knight was shown saying: “You’ve only got two people that are going to tell you I’m not going to be here. One is our SID (sports information director), and the other is me. Who the hell told you I wasn’t going to be here? I’d like to know. Do you have any idea who it was?…Who?…They were from Indiana, right?…No, they weren’t from Indiana, and you didn’t get it from anybody from Indiana, did you?…No, I—I’ll handle this the way I want to handle it now that I’m here. You (EXPLETIVE) it up to begin with. Now just sit there or leave. I don’t give (EXPLETIVE) what you do. Now back to the game.”
  • In February 2004, Knight made national headlines when he had an argument with then Texas Tech University Chancellor David Smith at a Lubbock supermarket.
  • In March 2006, a student’s heckling at Baylor University resulted in Knight having to be restrained by a police officer. The incident was not severe enough to warrant any action from the Big 12 Conference.
  • On November 13, 2006, Knight was shown allegedly hitting player Michael Prince under the chin to get him to make eye contact. Although Knight didn’t comment on the incident afterwards and as of yet hasn’t done so, Prince, his parents, and Texas Tech Athletic Director Gerald Myers insisted that Knight did nothing wrong and that he merely lifted Prince’s chin and told him “Hold your head up and don’t worry about mistakes. Just play the game.” Prince commented, “He was trying to teach me and I had my head down so he raised my chin up. He was telling me to go out there and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. He said I was being too hard on myself.”
  • On October 21, 2007, James Simpson of Lubbock, Texas, accused Knight of firing a shotgun in his direction after he yelled at Knight and another man for hunting too close to his home. Knight denied the allegations. An argument between the two men was recorded via camera phone and aired later on television.
  • Then, of course, there was the whole Neil Reed fiasco.

So which was it? I mean, both sides of the argument are pretty well documented.

We Americans have this strange, almost pathological need to outfit people with either a white hat or a black one. Good vs. Evil. Saint or sinner. And so. We’re generally pretty bad about dividing everything into either/or’s, and the case of Bob Knight is no different.

The answer to the question is neither A nor B, but C: all of the above. Like most people, Knight was complex, an often infuriating blend of the noble and the repellent. He insisted that his players show respect, but he accorded no one the respect he demanded of others. His philosophy stressed sportsmanship, but his career was dominated by crass bullying and intimidation of everybody around him – including departmental secretaries. He sought to produce mature young men, but was himself a paragon of immaturity and petulance. He insisted on accountability, but nothing was ever his fault.

Not either/or, but both/and.

We all hate it when mercurial ability comes wrapped in such a fetid package, but such is life and such is the lot of anybody who has to spend a lot of time around human beings.

For my part, I can recognize the innate humanity of the flawed genius but I can’t forgive it, especially when Knight has steadfastly refused to acknowledge that he’s ever done anything wrong.

So in parting, let me just say this: Coach Knight, you were brilliant, and good riddance to you. May we all learn from your bad examples as much as we did from the good…

5 replies »

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  2. Bob Knight has been the Richard Nixon of basketball: brilliant, but deeply flawed.

    Nice piece, Sam.

  3. I say the General was a great coach. If the recruits could not take how he ran his program, they should have never agreed to attend IU. It was certainly no secret that he was a tough coach! You will find more athletes who played for Coach Knight that respect him than those who could not take it. Poor Neal Reed, and poor Luke Redeger, give me a break. Do you honestly think this sort of tough program doesn’t go on at other colleges?