Knight to Georgia=Hand In Glove

Henry NicholsCorrespondent IFebruary 19, 2009

The General is shopping for a new sweater.

Might as well be a red one, right?

In casual college basketball circles, the virtual consensus among seasoned observers is that Robert Montgomery Knight would be a mediocre choice overall for any BCS-level program at this point in his career, let alone one in the cannibalistic athletic culture of the Southeastern Conference. He’s AARP-eligible, he probably can’t recruit anymore at a competitive level, and overall, he’s well past his prime as a coach. The only reason the casual observer might care is the intriguing possibility that Knight could return to his volatile ways in a high-profile setting and produce some more YouTube material for bored office junkies.

Indeed, Georgia AD Damon Evans went on record in saying that the Bulldogs’ next master would likely command a million-plus, if for no other reason to keep up with the Joneses. “Our commitment and my commitment to build Georgia basketball is strong,” Evans said. “And when I say that, I’d say very strong.” When Billy Donovan, Billy Gillispie and Bruce Pearl are pushing the aggregate divisional pot to close to $10 million, and Vanderbilt’s head coach is on the lower end of that spectrum with 1.3 per, you might want to transfer some of those hedge-trimming earmarks into that “commitment”.

The holdover crop of usual suspects has been bandied about in the media in the early stages of Evans’ search: 33-year-old Jeff Capel (Oklahoma), a young dynamo like Evans himself; the fiery and consistent Sean Miller (Xavier); turnaround king Lon Kruger (UNLV) and Donovan protégé Anthony Grant (VCU).

Proven suitors such as Miller and Grant will eventually sign with the highest high-major bidder (and both Grant and Kruger have SEC East ties in Gainesville), but what about Knight? The General, for as much panache as he has exhibited in the past, seems to have one at least one last charge left in his 68-year-old bones…and vocal chords, though he’s mellowed a tad since his days in Bloomington.

The winningest coach in Div. I history (Knight disciple Don Meyer currently holds the overall wins distinction from Div. II and NAIA stops) announced self-imposed exile from the college basketball world just over a year ago by retiring at Texas Tech and, ergo, making his son Pat the most recent spawn of a coaching goliath to inherit the reins of a high-major program (and looking more like ‘Dad’ every day).

But for his age and his immeasurable accomplishments and contributions to the game he loves, you could tell this was about as authentic a retirement as a Jennifer Lopez wedding. The ink had barely dried on his termination order from then-Indiana president Myles Brand when longtime friend and Red Raiders AD Gerald Myers lassoed in Knight, who at the time graciously accepted the challenge, wanting to avoid being put out to pasture.

Instead, for a high-stakes legend like Knight, the moribund hoops climate in Lubbock, with its low glass ceiling in the Big 12, must have seemed like the definition of ‘coaching purgatory’. Sure, Knight was able to continue much of his magic in producing 20-win seasons; he reached that benchmark five times in six full seasons at Tech (bringing his total to 29), including four NCAA berths. But for a coach who has directed three national title teams, the recruiting cesspool he inherited in northern Texas relegated even his teams to nothing more than also-rans in March.

Knight made it clear when his name was bandied for the Georgia opening that while he never said he was done forever with college coaching, he would only return for what he judged to be a good opportunity, a mantra he ignored in 2000.

"It has to be a situation that I think is right for me and one where I would be right for the university," Knight told ESPN’s Tirico & Van Pelt Show Feb. 2. “I think it has to be one…where I think we would have the wherewithal to recruit and be able to compete with anybody.”

Considering this speculation about the vacancy in Athens originated from Knight’s camp, it would appear he has found the first job that meets his specific criteria, not just an old grizzly beginning his search for work after a season of hibernation. The Alabama job, which some people might label as a more attractive talent pool (in the less competitive SEC West), has not come up in the conversation.

While Grant and Miller seem the likely frontrunners and would indeed be laudable hires on paper for the average SEC salaries, their resumes start to look fairly average when you compare them to their potential fraternity brothers in the East. Miller’s Elite Eight berth? Meet Donovan’s back-to-back national titles. Grant’s ’07 first-round shocker over Duke? I’ll take Pearl’s ’05 Sweet Sixteen…at Wisconsin-Milwaukee, of all places.

Knight, regardless of how much lead in left in his pencil, does not have to worry about such hogwash. Every coach across America owes part of their education to his ubiquitous and free-flowing basketball tutelage and would have divisional friend and disciple in Stallings. Even as a lion in winter, Knight’s intensity still stands unmatched against even noted firebrands like Donovan and Pearl.

And while all these coaches will command ever-increasing top dollar salaries, Knight is actually much more flexible in this regard; when he didn’t think he had earned his annual salary a few years ago, he conscientiously returned it to university coffers. All Knight wants is one last shot at success, and he would have a much more talented and accessible hoops hotbed in Atlanta than at any of his previous stops. Players will line up from Norcross to Macon for a chance to play in the SEC for a true legend, and despite the old horror stories, parents will still crave the discipline for their children Knight provides.

While ousted Georgia coach Dennis Felton struggled to field a competitive team while instilling an admirable system of student-athlete accountability, Knight will have no such problem in this increasingly lofty endeavor. Georgia, generally ranked as the best university in the conference academically outside of Vandy, can actually raise its standards for student-athletes if it chooses, as Knight has never broken an NCAA rule and only four of his four-year players since 1965 have failed to complete their degrees, a staggering 98 percent graduation rate.

Perhaps most importantly, however, the Bulldogs need a visible and exciting representative like Knight far more than Knight needs them. Upon Knight’s official re-entry to the big stage, Georgia would become the square focus of the national media’s microscope on the SEC, aligning ideally with the launch of ESPN’s partnership with the league. Knight (902 wins) will begin his chase for an unprecedented 1,000 victory in men’s college basketball in his first season and should reach it should he stay at least five years.

Regarded most highly for his teaching of fundamentals, tearing down players and then building them into the most complete possible product since his days at Army, Knight would make the most out of his inaugural squad at Georgia, a program racked in recent years by injuries and dismissals to star players. While a coach like Felton couldn’t consistently succeed with this kind of squad in the SEC, and coaches like Donovan and Pearl rely almost exclusively on their ability as salesmen to bring in top-ten recruiting classes, Knight would renew an emphasis on bringing in top talent, but it wouldn’t be integral to his success. Coaches like Knight thrive the most when everyone buys in to their product, and no other SEC program is in desperate need of new ideas quite like Georgia; sans their fluke SEC tournament championship and No. 14 Dance seed last season, they’ve been in the SEC cellar since Tubby Smith left.

Working against Knight is the fact that UGA president Michael Adams is a close friend of arch-nemesis and current NCAA chief Brand, and Georgia may be reluctant to hire a proven-but-controversial coach after the Jim Harrick saga. Then again, a well-placed call to Georgia governor Sonny Perdue, a Knight friend and sympathizer, could be a critical trump card in the process.

In a woebegone economy, Knight gives Georgia the best possible bang for its buck. For a program desperately seeking a spark and a stamp, Knight’s name alone would put Georgia’s name back on the map (if not on top of the conference standings). Considering we already know he wants to be there, he is the rare combination of being the best person for the job and the least expensive simultaneously.

And not to mention, the hedges don’t lose any care.