Why Bob Knight should bag it

Indiana University's basketball coach is an angry, vulgar, violent creep, but that's not the reason he should resign.

Topics: Basketball, CNN, College basketball,

Why Bob Knight should bag it

There’s a sound file of Indiana
University’s basketball coach, Bob Knight, that’s
become a staple on Web sites run by
full-time Knight-haters (i.e. University
of Kentucky fans.) It’s a tirade
captured while he verbally undressed
players for what he considered to be a
shoddy practice effort.

For fans, it’s a rare fly-on-the-wall
moment that takes them behind the
locker-room doors and lets them listen
in on how big-time college basketball
feels when the ESPN cameras are not
around.

For literally hundreds of IU players
past and present though, the tape simply
captured an unpleasant ritual played out
countless times since Knight the taskmaster arrived on the picturesque
Bloomington, Ind., campus in 1971,
quickly turning the school into a hoops
powerhouse and becoming a Hoosier legend
in his own time.

But until you listen for yourself and
hear the hostility, the vein-popping
anger and the resentment (not to mention
the vulgarities) pour out of Knight’s
mouth, it’s hard to really understand
the man’s ferocious, almost inhuman
temper. Yet even from reading the text
of the diatribe, what’s so telling,
aside from how he relishes his godlike
ability to torment and threaten his
players, is that the anger’s all about
Knight, about how his players have
wronged him and made his life miserable:

Now I am tired of this shit. I’m sick
and fucking tired of an 8-10 record. I’m
fucking tired of losing to Purdue. I’m
not here to fuck around this week. Now
you may be, but I’m not. Now I am gonna
fucking guarantee you, that if we don’t
play up there Monday night, you aren’t
gonna believe the next four fucking
days. Now I am not here to get my ass
beat on Monday. Now you better fucking
understand that right now. This is
absolute fucking bullshit. Now I’ll
fucking run your ass right into the
ground. I mean I’ll fucking run you,
you’ll think last night was a fucking
picnic. I had to sit around for a
fucking year with an 8-10 record in this
fucking league and I mean you will not
put me in that fucking position again,
or you will goddamn pay for it like you
can’t fucking believe. Now, you better
get your head out of your ass.



That cult recording sprang to mind in
the wake of the latest allegation aired
by CNN/Sports Illustrated that the
mercurial Knight had
choked one former player and verbally
abused scores of others. Those
accusations, coupled with the steady
stream of top recruits who have fled the
Indiana campus for more humane
destinations, are just the latest in a
string of on- and off-the-court
embarrassments that threaten to tarnish
what had been a brilliant coaching
career.

But as is Knight’s custom, he’s refused
to apologize for his actions. (“I’m not
sure just what the hell it is that I’m
supposed to apologize for,” said Knight,
feigning confusion about the facts.)
Instead he lashes out at his enemies,
whether they’re “bitter,” “malcontent”
ex-players who have the nerve to speak
out, or the press corps that asks the
questions. (Think of him as the Rudy
Giuliani of college hoops.)

Knight argues he’s immune to criticism
because he’s never been convicted of any
NCAA recruiting violations and he molds
decent citizens. And right there beside
him overseeing the smear campaigns
against any Knight critics are school
officials who refuse to grasp reality
and deal seriously with any of Knight’s
shameful episodes. “The president of
IU’s trustees, John Walda, is tucked so
deeply into Knight’s pocket that he
comes equipped with a key chain and
lint,” wrote Indianapolis Star sports
columnist, and IU alum, Bill Benner.

Consequently, Indiana University, one of
the country’s great state-run educational
institutions, now runs the risk of
becoming a national joke at the willing
hands of its blustering coach Knight.
Knight should spare the school that
embarrassment and call it quits.

His abhorrent behavior over the years
would be one thing. (To recap: He once
told Connie Chung during an interview,
“If rape is inevitable, relax and enjoy
it”; he shoved a Louisiana State
University fan into a garbage can; he
threw a chair across the court as a
Purdue player was getting ready to shoot
a free-throw; and he was convicted in
abstentia for punching a policeman in
Puerto Rico where Knight was
representing America as coach of the U.S. team at the Pan Am Games.)

But the new and
more pressing concern is that Knight’s
basketball teams are no longer very
good.
With college hoop fanatics preparing for
tonight’s NCAA finals, Hoosier fans have
had nothing to do but ponder next
season. That’s because Knight’s team
bowed out in the first round of the
64-team tourney, getting thoroughly
embarrassed by Pepperdine University.
(No giant killers, Pepperdine was beaten
handily in the next round by a talented
Oklahoma State squad.)

When IU lost in the first round in 1990,
it was a shocking blow to the school and
its loyal fans in a state where
basketball reigns supreme. Now, those
first-round NCAA Hoosier losses have
become commonplace. Four times in the
past six years Knight’s teams haven’t
advanced to the second round, a truly
dreadful record, considering big-time
basketball programs are judged by how
they perform during the crucial month of
March.

At one point this year, IU’s squad was
ranked in the top 10 in the country,
only to stumble through February and
then lose its final three games of the
year, ending at a mediocre 20-9. In a
business where top coaches are supposed
to have their teams peaking in early
spring, Knight now accomplishes just the
opposite, with his teams regularly
folding during March Madness.

In fact, most coaches at a big-time
Division I basketball school would be
shown the door if they posted the paltry
NCAA numbers Knight has recently racked
up. But Knight, it appears, can do no
wrong. The day after the humiliating
Pepperdine loss, the Indianapolis Star
ran an online poll asking readers what
Knight’s future should be; more than
half checked off “Go get ‘em next year.”

No doubt loyal Hoosiers are still
rewarding Knight for legendary
accomplishments of years gone by. The
pride of tiny Orrville, in northeast
Ohio, Knight starred on Big 10 champion
basketball teams at Ohio State
University in the early ’60s before
becoming head coach of Army at 24. Since
then he has amassed a staggering 763
career wins while claiming three
national titles at Indiana, in ’76 (lead
by Hoosier great Quinn Buckner), ’81
(Isiah Thomas) and ’87 (Steve Alford).
He coached that year’s Pan Am Games team and a later Olympic team to gold
medals.

And few purists would argue that over
the years watching the Hoosiers play hasn’t
been a delight. The unselfish IU five
weave their way through a double-screen
offense that rewards patience and
smarts, two things in short supply at
many run-and-gun schools where
discipline has been replaced by
coddling, as coaches work furiously to
pamper their star players hoping
they’ll remain on campus for at least
two years before jumping to the NBA.

You’ll see no shin-length shorts on
Knight players or bodies
blanketed with tattoos. At Indiana
there’s a reason players’ names are
still nowhere to be found on the back of
their jerseys; it’s a team effort. And
for a young fan like myself growing up
in Indiana, worshipping the Cream and Crimson, staying up late on weeknights to
watch the Hoosiers finish off Purdue,
Michigan or Ohio State, and spending
arctic snow days shoveling outdoor
courts in order to play 3-on-3, it was
impossible not to worship Knight and
relish his team’s aura of excellence and
invincibility.

But recently, win or lose, it’s been
painful to watch the Hoosiers go through
their joyless motions on the court, with
players seemingly motivated more out of
fear of Knight’s potential wrath, than
love of the game. (Perhaps that’s why so
few IU stars cut it in the NBA; Knight
seems to sap their passion for the game and
creativity.) And with yet
another late-season collapse, it seems
the yearlong mental strain Knight
unleashes has become too much for even
some of the most talented and dedicated
student athletes to endure.

The problem for Knight (aka The General)
isn’t that he’s simply a throwback to
another era when tough guys prowled the
sidelines, demanding respect and
spraying the court with profanity. Watch
University of Cincinnati coach Bob
Huggins on TV and lip-read the “fucks”
that fly out of his mouth. You think
workouts with him are pleasant? And look
at Temple University’s John Chaney,
another old-school disciplinarian known
to drag players in for pre-dawn
practices following disappointing losses
the night before.

Chaney, like Knight, refuses to change
his ways simply to accommodate today’s
modern athlete and is justifiably proud
of the type of men his system molds. And
like Knight, Chaney once publicly
embarrassed his university when he let
his anger run wild. It happened during a
1994 post-game press conference when
Chaney physically attacked the young,
cocky University of Massachusetts
basketball coach, John Calipari, who had
unlocked Temple’s mysterious matchup
zone defense and made a habit of beating
Temple teams year in and year out.
Unlike Knight though, Chaney quickly,
and passionately, apologized to his
players, to his school and to Calipari.
Chaney has since resumed his role as
Temple’s most respected public
ambassador.

Increasingly, Knight’s been unable to see
the value of public or private
contrition, which may explain the player
exodus. Since 1995, nine players have
transferred to other schools, including
such Indiana household names as native
son Luke Recker and high school
All-American, 7-foot center Jason
Collier. Almost all of the nine cited
Knight’s abusive behavior as the reason
for their exit.

The coach insists the team’s transfer
rate is lower than the national average.
But that’s when Knight looks at his
29-year run at IU, not since the
floodgates opened in ’95. (Because
Division I athletes must sit out a year when they transfer, the
move is not taken lightly, and it’s
almost unheard of for high-profile,
All-American recruits to jump ship.)

Rather than address the problem, Knight
and the university have simple hunkered
down. Just look at how the two teamed up
and responded to the troubling
CNN/Sports Illustrated piece, which
included on-camera interviews from
former players who transferred, such as
Neil Reed, who claimed Knight choked
him.

Also interviewed was Richard Mandeville,
a player who never left IU but claimed that
one day at practice Knight emerged from
a bathroom stall, pants around his
ankles, brandishing dirty toilet paper
and insisting that was how the team was
playing. Despite the fact that Knight
declined several interview requests from
CNN/Sports Illustrated (Amazingly IU’s
president declined to be interviewed
based solely on the fact that Knight had
refused; who’s running that
university?), that didn’t stop Knight or
the university from spinning furiously,
even before the report aired.

Calling a news conference in hopes of
mounting a preemptive strike against the
report, IU basketball flack Todd
Starowitz, suffering from a warped sense
of self-importance, suggested
cryptically that CNN/Sports Illustrated
producers had been carrying around a
Knight grudge for years, just waiting
for the right time to unleash it on the
public: “People involved in the piece
had it out for coach Knight for upwards
of 15 years, back actually to when
Indiana played North Carolina in the
NCAA Tournament in 1984,” he reported.

That wasn’t the worst of it. At the same
briefing, when asked about criticism by
tenured Indiana University English and
American studies professor Murray
Sperber (“I call Knight the emperor of
Indiana”), Starowitz simply answered,
“I don’t know who he is.” What a shock.

But the wagons were just beginning to
circle. Soon a letter was being passed
out to members of the press. It was
written by a mother of a Knight
basketball camper who complained that
Reed had once used profanity when
dealing with her son five years ago.
More dirt? How about freshly Xeroxed
copies of old press accounts that
described how Mandeville was allowed to
return to the team after an
“alcohol-related incident prior to his
senior season.” (Again, Rudy would be
proud.)

Meanwhile, as part of the university’s
Keystone Kops routine, Steve Downing, associate
athletic director and director of
student services, issued a
statement reminding people that the
university had investigated Reed’s claim
of physical abuse in 1997 and found no
wrongdoing. “How is it possible for
everything to have changed three years
later?” he wondered. So if nothing had
changed and IU was backing Knight, why
did IU Athletic Director Clarence
Doninger tell the Associated Press that
the school was going to reexamine the
Reed case?

Then IU players A.J. Guyton and Michael
Lewis were paraded before the
microphones to talk trash about their
former teammates. “[Reed] transferred to
Southern Mississippi and halfway through
the season his dad [the coach] was
fired, so obviously there’s some kind of
problems there with Neil and his father
and neither of them want to take
responsibility for that,” said Lewis.

What about Mandeville, who never
transferred and stuck it out at IU? “I
think he came in as a very highly
recruited player and never really
played. I’m sure he was disappointed in
his development as a player and if he
thinks that is coach’s fault … Now
he’s trying to put blame on somebody,”
added Lewis.

So these are the leaders of
tomorrow Knight is so proud to have
shaped? Young men who understand
instinctively that when someone attacks,
you publicly malign them by assigning
motivations and questioning their
character? How sad.

Simultaneously, Knight was showing his
boys how the smear (and
non-denial denial) was really done. The
day after the CNN/SI piece ran, Knight
sent out invitations to local Indiana
press only (minus the state’s largest
paper, the Indianapolis Star) to hear
his side of the story.

“Sometimes I kind of grab a player,”
Knight conceded to a local TV affiliate.
“Maybe I grabbed Neil Reed by the
shoulder. Maybe I took him by the back
of the neck, I don’t know. I don’t
remember everything I’ve ever done in
practices.” Knight even called up ESPN
to see if IU alum and TV hoops
commentator Quinn Buckner would walk
him through some questions. Buckner
wisely stayed clear of that spin-patrol
assignment. (A week after the CNN/SI
story ran, Knight did receive kid-glove
treatment from former SI writer and
longtime Knight admirer Frank DeFord who
interviewed Knight, his wife and son for
HBO’s “Real Sports.”)

The next day, meeting with the press
gathered for the NCAA tournament games
in Buffalo, N.Y., to presumably talk
about the upcoming Pepperdine matchup,
Knight instead uncorked a 20-minute
self-congratulatory monologue on the
wonders of the Indiana University basketball
program.

Once again he bragged about the
outstanding graduation rate his players
enjoy, and his clean recruiting record.
He also noted with pride that the
basketball team had raised $5 million
for the university’s library, which
sounds nice. But how much money, for
instance, has Knight pocketed from
running his lucrative summer basketball
camp at IU, staffed by team players?
Nearly 50,000 kids have spun through
those turnstiles over the past three
decades. And with weekly tuition now up
to $500 per camper, Knight could
probably help construct several new
university libraries if he wanted to.

Meanwhile, Knight wondered why he should
apologize for himself or his program.
“If my kids left and were on the bread
line or they were selling drugs or they
were in jail for one thing or another,
then I’d really have some questions
about what the hell my methods were all
leading to,” said Knight.

Exactly which big time college
basketball programs are producing
convicted felons who pass their time
begging for food and scoring drugs, he
didn’t say. (Duke? Kansas? UCLA?
Syracuse? Stanford?) And does Knight
really think IU is the only place in
America where boys arrive to play
basketball and leave four years later as
educated young men?

More importantly, Knight wanted to punch
some holes in the CNN/SI allegations.
Despite having refused to participate, Knight
complained about which sources producers
used and how they refused to talk to
former players with anything positive to
say about Knight’s program. The fact is
the first two people who appeared on
camera were former IU players who
praised Knight’s generosity and warmth.

As for explaining away players critical
of Knight, that was easy: sour grapes.
“You could go to any school in America
and you could find kids that were
unhappy, that were malcontents, were
really bitter about their experience
basically because they hadn’t gotten to
play very much or they weren’t as good
as people thought they were going to
be.”

Transfer Reed was a bitter malcontent?
That’s hard for Hoosier fans to imagine
since they recall how the gritty Reed, a
slow, short, white kid from Louisiana,
showed extraordinary courage
floor-marshaling the team while playing
one season with a separated
shoulder.

As the press briefing in Buffalo wound
down, Knight, who took just three
questions from reporters, was asked if
he regretted how he had treated any of
his players.

Knight: “Sure, I have a regret about how
I treat my wife once in a while. I mean,
I’m a long way from being perfect Are
you? Well, what’s your answer? I’m
asking you. Are you perfect?”

Reporter: “No, no, I’m not.”

Knight: “Good, I’m glad we’re in the
same boat.”

No doubt Knight, who despises the press,
enjoyed the brief exchange, content he
had gotten in the last word. But the
final word actually came the next night
when his Hoosier team, looking drained,
demoralized and ill-prepared, limped
through the loss to Pepperdine.

That’s the real reason why it’s time for
Knight to show some Hoosier pride and
resign.

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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