One reel of film will be played thousands of times on ESPN this week to mark the surprise midseason retirement of Texas Tech basketball coach Bobby Knight. In his white and black striped polo shirt, Knight stalks across the Hoosiers’ bench in 1985. Purdue’s Steve Reid prepares to take a technical free throw. As the referee hands him the ball Knight grabs a red plastic chair, plants his left foot onto the court, and heaves it in the general direction of Reid. The crowd, ever-faithful, cheers him.
After the sportscasters treat you to that incident, they may choose any of the scores of clips where Knight rains down a shower of obscenities and insults on a beat reporter. The message that you are supposed to learn is that the Knight was too short tempered, too thin-skinned, too prone to rage.
But elements of showmanship were ever-present in Knight’s antics and rarely lost on his victims. Two years ago Purdue’s Reid said of the famous chair-tossing, “I wish it would have hit me…My agent and I have not made one red cent off of it.” Years after the incident, Knight told a packed arena, “When my time on Earth is gone, and my activities here are past, I hope they bury me upside down and my critics can kiss my [bleep].”
Knight played himself in Adam Sandler’s film Anger Management and he sometimes let news cameras capture him wielding a bullwhip at practice. He was called “the General” but he was also the Ringmaster in the circus that swirled around him.
Sports columnists, afraid that their subject is not important enough for their immense talents, have invested great moral significance in Knight’s decision on Monday to leave his job as the Red Raiders coach mid-season. Jay Marrioti took a few moments in between “Around the Horn” shoots to fly into high dudgeon: “He didn’t resign. He didn’t retire. Let it be known forever that Bob Knight quit on his Texas Tech players…How typical — how sad — that this would be the exit strategy for the old ogre.”
Oh, shutup. The truth is that Knight gave the reins of the Texas Tech team over to the ready hands of his son, Pat Knight. And this “ogre” is the most accomplished coach in the history of his sport. He won his 900th game last month and captured three NCAA championships in his tenure at Indiana. He also grabbed an NIT title, and coached the U.S. Olympic team to a gold medal in 1984.
Along the way, he never broke an NCAA rule of recruiting and he graduated the vast majority of his players. This is the man in college basketball to be singled out for abuse?
His sudden departure from Indiana University after 29 successful seasons was the result of his mid-century Midwestern sensibility clashing with the informality of pajama-bottom wearing students of today. In 2000, a freshman, Kent Harvey, called out “Hey, Knight, what’s up?” Predictably, Knight grabbed Harvey by the arm and told him a few things about “respect.”
WHAT ELSE SHOULD we expect? Knight grew up in the steelworker’s town of Massillon, Ohio, in the ’40s and ’50s. Where he was from, Knight’s response to Harvey’s behavior would have been unremarkable. At the tern of the millennium, it constituted a major scandal. Knight was asked to leave. He urged IU students not to riot at his departure and to leave the campus and Harvey unmolested.
Knight took the next year off before accepting the job at Texas Tech. In his six full seasons as coach, the Red Raiders reached the NCAA tournament four times, making it to the Sweet Sixteen in 2005. He leaves them “on the bubble” for this year’s March Madness, ranked 60th in the nation. His son will have to carry them the rest of the way.
Bobby Knight’s legacy not only includes the immense amount of hardware stacked in Indiana and Texas Tech, but also the careers of those he worked with, including Lawrence Frank, current manager of the New Jersey Nets, and Mike Krzyzewski, coach of Duke. He championed the “motion offense” and team play in an age where the collegiate game was declining. Strategy now consists of recruiting the most talented players, then isolating them on the court for one-on-one drives to the basket.
Basketball Hall-of-Famer John Wooden said, “I don’t think there’s ever been a better teacher of the game of basketball than Bob.” This intense instructor would run his pupils on endless suicide drills. Once or twice, he gave them a tap on the chin to get their attention, sending corpulent opinionators like Marrioti into apoplexy, and causing ESPN anchors to examine game-tape as if it were the Zapruder film.
Our age no longer tolerates coaches like Knight. Too bad. The game benefited from him. So did the players — even if they occasionally had to wipe flecks of spit off of their faces.