The Bob Knight Problem
Not one for conventional thinking, Robert Montgomery Knight stepped down as head coach of Texas Tech University last week with 10 games remaining in the regular season. His son Patrick, who was named the successor several years ago, will coach the remainder of this season.
Since last week, ESPN has ran its obligatory Knight highlight reel, which we have all seen thousands of times.
If you are even slightly aware as a sports fan you know that he threw a chair, yelled at reporters weekly, punched a cop in Puerto Rico, etc.
Amidst those highlights, however, Coach Knight also granted a few interviews. During one with ESPN announcer Jay Bilas he hinted that he might not be done patrolling the sidelines and that we should "never say never."
As a lifelong fan of Indiana University, I suppose his resignation doesn't seem askew from his normal behavior. I can't see The General on a farewell tour, begrudgingly accepting some widget or what have you on every Big 12 school's home court while he waves disingenuously at the throngs of people trying to live a little piece of history. That spectacle would only soften the image of the man, take away the edge of what made him a winning machine.
Some would argue that his image needs to be softened in order to properly accept him as our winningest coach in major college basketball history. He's too rough around the edges for mainstream adulation and consumption. They're probably right in some way.
The legend that is John Wooden is a perfect example. Known as a classy and intelligent gentleman, Wooden was the pinnacle of what a coach should be. His UCLA teams were dominant for an entire decade. He saw the beauty of college basketball and taught it to his willing disciples. His brand of basketball was great, but it required talent. We know the names, Walton, Abdul-Jabbar, and the list goes on. Wooden combined his knowledge with talent to create greatness. His teams were glossy, almost too good to be real.
Knight was different—a flawed genius, like US. Knight worked hard his entire career. As a player at Ohio State he played in the shadows of John Havlicek and Jerry Lucas, two immensely talented individuals. Lucas would later remark that Knight's playing days at OSU shaped his frame of mind for the rest of his life.
Knight was a warrior but he didn't have the talent to be a star on that team. However, he didn't believe that talent was everything, and he would prove it as a coach.
Knight devised an offense centered around constant motion and screens. If executed properly the offense didn't require star players or even a dominant big man, only shooters and slashers. He needed guys who could knock down the open shot and get to the free throw line.
On the other side of the ball he taught a suffocating style of man-to-man defense that emphasized "helping" out your teammates. He understood that it doesn't take talent to defend, just will and tenacity.
Not to say that Knight didn't have any talent, he did, but his teams produced one NBA star of note—Isiah Thomas. The others were exceptional college players, but that was their ceiling.
Knight proved that you could win a basketball game through strategy, a system, and guys who bought into it. He voraciously recruited from the rich soil that is Indiana high school basketball. Indiana players knew what IU basketball meant; they had bought into it when they were children.
Knight would continue making himself into a star. With every win came more fame. In Indiana in the 70's and 80's, Knight could have murdered someone in broad daylight in the parking lot of a busy grocery store without so much as being approached. As his ego grew, so grew the idea that he was untouchable.
His court side behavior became more animated and ferocious. Knight seemed to believe that during every game you were competing against two forces: the other team and the officials. He would ride officiating crews like he was negotiating the safe return of his soul with the devil. It worked. Knight's teams often made more free throws than their opponent attempted.
After giving that famous chair the ride of its life, Knight's image was forever in conflict with his ability. We all knew of his incredible talent, but we also knew of the dark side that lived very near the surface, waiting to show its despicable face.
I think that everyone could deal with the anger. All coaches get upset during a game. The most curious trait inside that very complex man was the constant contradictions. He demanded respect from others but rarely gave it, required his players to carry themselves in an appropriate manner but rarely carried himself in a positive way. He came off as a bully. The rules applied to everyone but him.
Because of those issues it becomes increasingly more difficult to place him in his proper historical context, especially when the specter of his demons casts a much larger shadow than the numerous good things that he has done for others as a coach and as a man. In Indiana, however, you need only say two words: Landon Turner.
Knight once remarked that Turner "had the talent to become the best player he had ever coached." With that in mind, it is not surprising that during his career he spent a lot of time in Coach's proverbial "doghouse." Knight had to squeeze every ounce of talent out of every player, and if he felt that you weren't holding up your end of the bargain you would be put on notice.
Turner came into his own during the 1980-81 tournament run as he emerged from the "doghouse." He was named MVP of the semifinal game and a member of the All-Tournament Team. Several months later he was involved in a traffic accident that would leave him paralyzed from the waste down.
Coach Knight's dedication to keeping Turner in the IU family was legendary. He kept Turner around the program and most importantly in school. Turner received his degree from IU in 1984 and has gone on to lead an inspirational and amazing life. He never hesitates to praise Coach Knight if given the chance.
Knight's graduation rates were always near 100 percent. No coach was more dedicated to teaching not only basketball, but life lessons to his players. There are men all over the country who will say that outside of their family, no one has made more of a positive impact in their lives than Coach Knight. Quinn Buckner just said it last week.
I know the rest of the sporting world will remember Coach Knight more for his faults than his achievements, and that's their prerogative. I, however, don't remember hearing that college basketball coaches had to be so perfect anyway.
Bob Knight is no greater or worse of a person than anyone of us. He is flawed and imperfect, just like everyone else. As a coach, there is no other who has outperformed him. He has equals, but no masters. That is how we should remember Bob Knight.
We don't require our architects, artists, or entertainers to be great people—we judge them on their work. On his work alone, Robert Montgomery Knight is a master.
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