King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Bob Knight is getting the same treatment at Texas Tech that he got at Indiana. So after 26 more years of awful behavior, he'll be toast. Plus: ESPN loses its nerve with "Playmakers."


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Salon Staff
February 6, 2004 1:00AM (UTC)

Last week my boss pulled me off my sports column duties to cover a John Kerry rally. The next day he told me he thought I'd done a nice job on the story.

"I think I do a nice job every day," I screamed at him. He asked if I thought there were some personal issues between the two of us, and I screamed at him some more. This all happened in a popular restaurant at lunchtime, by the way. He retreated to the parking lot, with me at his heels, screaming the whole time.

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As you can see, I'm still on the job. I haven't been suspended or fired. Isn't that how it would work at your job?

Actually, it's probably not how it works at mine. I wouldn't know, because nothing in that second paragraph really happened. Or I should say it didn't happen between my boss and me. It happened between Bob Knight and the chancellor of Texas Tech University, which used to be the top job there before Knight got hired as the basketball coach. (What happened between my boss and me is that I happily took credit for the superb work of my editor, Geraldine Sealey, of War Room fame.)

According to press reports, Knight was at a salad bar in an upscale market when chancellor David Smith approached the coach and told him that he thought he'd been doing a great job this year controlling his famous temper. Knight took this as a backhanded compliment and, according to witnesses, told Smith that he thought he'd been doing a good job for the entire three years he'd been at Tech. He then went to the other side of the salad bar, Smith followed him and asked if there was a problem, and the confrontation escalated.

Not that it excuses Knight's behavior, but Smith isn't blameless here. A lunchtime salad bar isn't the ideal place to hold a performance review of your most famous and volatile employee, and when he reacts negatively and then retreats, it doesn't take an advanced degree, which Smith has, to figure out that you shouldn't chase him down and ask him right out there in public if there's a problem. Smith gets an F in management technique. (Something my boss would never get! Hear that, boss? No problems here!)

Anyway, rumors flew that Knight would be suspended for five days, though in the end he was only reprimanded. It's apparent that Texas Tech is taking the same approach that Indiana University took with Knight for three decades, which means he'd better watch out: Thirty or 40 more reprimands and Tech officials may start thinking about stiffer punishments.

What's funny about this whole thing is that Knight hasn't done a particularly good job of controlling his temper this year. Knight was relatively quiet for his first two years in Lubbock. The only Knightian incident was a minor one in 2001 when he got into a tiff with the manager of the Compaq Center in Houston, who eventually apologized.

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This year, though, Knight, apparently settling in and, with a team that could go deep in the Tournament, perhaps feeling his old self-confidence, has been a little more like his old self. In December he ripped Texas Tech fans for not showing up to nonconference games, a common phenomenon in college basketball.

"If that's all that's going to attend basketball here, then I think Tech ought to give up basketball," he fumed after only 6,136 people attended a finals-week game against San Diego State on Dec. 13. "This team works like hell. It's 8-2. We don't bring [expletive] teams in here to play. We bring teams in here that are going to be competitive. I really think that if we can't have a better attendance from a community this size and a university with 30,000 students, I think we're spending too much money on basketball and we ought to give it up."

The offending term was rendered as "[expletive]" in all press reports. I assume it was "bullshit," one of Knight's favorite words. But there's nothing outrageous there by Knight's standards. In fact, it's well within the mainstream in the sports industry to criticize the customers for choosing not to pay high prices to watch games that don't interest them, though Knight put a nice twist on the practice by folding his whining into a laughable defense of higher education. Spending too much money on basketball, indeed, Coach.

A week later, Knight and Iowa coach Steve Alford, who played for Knight at Indiana, sat down for an interview with ESPN before their teams played each other in Dallas. Fran Fraschilla, a coach by trade who's working as an ESPN analyst these days, asked Alford if reports of a rift between him and Knight that arose several years ago were fact or fiction.

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"Let me answer that," Knight jumped in, and then as Alford sat there and kind of nodded, ESPN's viewers heard this: "You know, that is an absolute crock of [bleep]. You know, you [bleep] people in the news media, all you [bleep], dwell on some negative piece of [bleep] like that. I don't know how Steve feels about it, but it just [bleep] pisses me off. And you don't have to bleep one single [expletive] word of this."

Well, that last part evidently wasn't true.

Knight apologized a day later and was even believably contrite about the language he'd used while representing the university on national television. University officials clucked a little and proclaimed themselves glad that Knight had apologized. Time to move on now, put this behind us, etc., etc.

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That's how it is when Bob Knight is the coach of your school's basketball team. Every now and again you find yourself eager to put another incident behind you. You grit your teeth and point to the team's record, the butts in the seats -- during the conference schedule, at least -- and Knight's record of graduating his players and running a program free of NCAA violations, all undeniably positive results of the hire. Then you hope that selling out the academic ideals of your university by ceding power to a basketball coach who's ridiculously incapable of managing his furious impulses isn't too high a price to pay for them.

Knight was on the bench Tuesday night for Texas Tech's win over Baylor, what would have been the first game of a five-game suspension he says he would have fought had it been handed down. Afterward, during a more typically Knightly non-apology apology for causing the salad bar incident to escalate, Knight said, "I'm just glad everything is behind us."

The Texas Tech administration is definitely behind him. The better to kiss his ass.

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ESPN chickens out [PERMALINK]

ESPN has canceled "Playmakers," its gritty drama about a fictional team in a fictional league that looked a lot like the NFL, which was, institutionally, not a fan of the show.

"Many considerations went into this decision," ESPN vice president Mark Shapiro said in a statement, "not the least of which was the reaction from a longtime and valued partner."

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Yeah, I'd say it was less "not the least" and more "the only." The show was a ratings winner, but ESPN executives obviously decided it's best not to piss off the most powerful league in American sports when you're the biggest sports network in America. Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, long before he got his nose out of joint over the Super Bowl halftime show, had expressed displeasure over "Playmakers'" depiction of pro football as being racked with social ills including spousal abuse and illegal drug use.

The cancellation is hardly a tragedy, since "Playmakers" was only a mildly entertaining soap opera. But it's disappointing, if not surprising, to see ESPN so easily scared off. It doesn't inspire confidence that the network's future entertainment efforts will be challenging in any way, or that it can be trusted to report honestly about its broadcast partners.

Editor's note: This story has been corrected since its original publication.

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