(this post originally appeared on December 29, 2006)
Though Bobby Knight will have to wait a few more days to surpass Dean Smith as the winningest men’s Division I basketball coach, there’s plenty of ground to cover in assessing the coverage. Last night’s game on ESPN, against UNLV was a strange affair. There was great anticipation and hype, naturally enough, and a series of profiles throughout the game highlighting the highs and lows of the General’s career. Unsurprisingly, Dick Vitale is an unabashed booster, and his play-by-play sidekick, Dan Schulman, did his best to play along.
Too much attention is paid to Knight’s slip-ups over the years for ESPN to ignore those altogether, so ESPN made the obligatory nod to the 1985 chair-throwing and other famous hits. But, the company line appeared clear enough – to celebrate Knight’s greatness as he stood on the verge of the all-time record.
The night began with Schulman exclaiming about Knight that “they love him here in Lubbock just as they loved him in Bloomington” and Vitale asserting, early in the game, “you may not have liked, you might not have liked some of his actions, but he’s certainly one of the great coaches of all time.” Vitale included Knight in a category that includes the likes Scotty Bowman, Vince Lombardi, Casey Stengel, Dean Smith and Adolph Rupp.
Knight’s stature among the all-time great coaches is not in dispute (though I will add a caveat to that below). Harder to assess is how his extraordinary accomplishments on the court should be measured against his numerous transgressions on and off the court.
Vitale’s approach, repeated throughout last night’s telecast was a variation on the following:
“Are there some negatives – yes? But there are so many positives in his record.”
In a typical comment, after ESPN had interviewed a retired colonel who played for Knight at Army in the 1960s and praised Knight for preparinghis players for battle in Vietnam by the way he coached, Vitale exclaimed:
“They loved wearing that uniform because they, ultimately, really represent all of us.”
Vitale noted numerous times during the telecast that though Knight has made mistakes, we’ve all made mistakes. And, Schulman, perhaps self-conscious about the degree to which the broadcast was hyping Knight, said to Vitale during one exchange: “I am not trying to set you up here (of course not, Dan) but, would you say that most of his players would have positive feelings about Knight?”
Here Vitale threw a bit of a curveball, responding that some of the players who left early, or transferred would have a different view, but ultimately noting that: “those that stayed the four years, yes, [the vast majority] have positive feelings. If you sit down and study all the positives and the negatives, it’s not even close…”
Schulman also suggested that a lot of the legendary coaches had legendary tempers – but Vitale could only come up with one name - Woody Hayes. And, notably, of the three coaches to whom Knight is most often compared – Smith, Wooden and Rupp – the former two had such completely different styles, and such an absence of the sorts of transgressions that have been commonplace in Knight’s career, that a direct comparison of their missteps would shed very poor light on the General.
In a second-half set-piece about Knight’s fiery temper, the Schulman voice over concluded: “whether you like Bob Knight or not, you know exactly who he is.” This is obviously meant as a good thing, but I confess that having lived in NC much of the last 17 years, I find that particular “compliment” of dubious value, since it was routinely applied to Jesse Helms, a deeply bigoted and horrible man who had an insidious impact on public policy in the United States.
While Schulman and Vitale were obviously rooting for history
to be made, it did occur to them at some point in the second half that a Red Raiders
loss only meant that ESPN got to hype another otherwise meaningless early
season game, this one on New Year’s day between Tech and New Mexico. This realization seemed to considerably lift their spirits.
Leaving aside ESPN’s coverage, there’s been a slew of commentary on Knight. As John Feinstein said in his column today (to which I’ll return), the pieces can typically be divided into two camps:
“It is always the same whenever Bob Knight is in the news. It doesn't matter if he is making news by setting the all-time record for victories as a men's college coach (or failing to do so as he did last night) or snapping a player's chin or having a fight with a college chancellor at a salad bar.
The defenders line up on one side and recite chapter and verse on The Good Knight: brilliant coach; turns boys into men; graduates most of his players; has never come close to breaking an NCAA rule; a principled man in a business frequently lacking in principles.
Everything they say is accurate.
Then the detractors line up on the other side with their arguments about The Bad Knight: he's a bully; he emotionally abuses everyone around him, most notably his players; he's not nearly as loyal to friends as he claims to be; he's never admitted to being wrong about anything.
Everything they say is also accurate.”
Actually, many articles include both sides, before weighing on which side is weightier. For example, Ian O’Connor, of FOX sports.com gives Knight the following props:
“At the top, let's cover the standard Knight disclaimers in the name of fair play. His teams have never been on NCAA probation, and his program has pumped money into the school library, charities and the Boys & Girls Club. Knight makes certain his players go to class. His school's website boasts that nearly 98 percent of his four-year players have gotten degrees. He has visited nursing homes and shelters for abused women. He has come to the aid of Landon Turner, a member of his 1981 championship team who would be paralyzed in a car wreck.
Knight also stands as a fundamental genius. To watch him work a drill is to wish your son or daughter could find a coach or professor so dedicated to his or her craft.”
But, for O’Connor, the sins outweigh the good deeds and, ultimately, the result is that Knight has trashed his own legacy. After rehearsing the familiar litany of Knight misdeeds, O’Connor concludes his piece by recounting a conversation with a one-time victim of Knight’s temper:
“When it became clear that Knight was about to become the new sheriff in Lubbock, I called the police officer whom Knight struck in Puerto Rico during the 1979 Pan Am Games.
Jose Silva Guilfu said Knight broke his jaw after he insisted the coach vacate a practice court for the waiting Brazilian women's team. Knight left Puerto Rico and was convicted in absentia to a six-month jail term he never served.
"I don't hate Bobby Knight," Silva Guilfu told me then. "I do believe in God and I know something will happen to make him pay for what he did to me.
"He's received some punishment already. People know all about his conduct."
Yes, people know all about his conduct as the General prepares to march into history as the winningest college basketball coach of them all. Bobby Knight spit fire at everyone in his path, and ended up burning down his own legacy.”
In a similar vein, Pat Forde of ESPN.com believes that even Knight’s record-setting win will be tainted by the fact that it’s not happening from the Indiana bench:
“Knight, who is now tied with Dean Smith at 879 victories, likely will become the winningest coach in Division I men's college basketball annals during the Red Raiders' ongoing four-game home stand. In hope that people actually will show up to see Knight enter the record books, Tech has been offering $8.80 general admission seats to the four games at United Spirit Arena. And if you buy a lower-level ticket to those games, you can get one upper-level general admission seat for free.
It's not an easy sell. Texas Tech averaged 6,707 fans in its 15,000-seat arena for four of its early home games this season (attendance for Sam Houston State was not listed) before pulling in 11,561 for the record-tying game against Bucknell this past Saturday.
This is the bed Bob Knight made for himself: He'll make history at an out-of-the-way school with no men's basketball heritage in a football state, in front of a house that very well could be less than full. He'll make history in exile, in effect.
Not exactly the moment of glory this could have been.
If it had happened at Assembly Hall in Bloomington, Ind., there would be no need for sales promotions to fill seats. And it could have happened at Assembly Hall, if ... “
Forde then writes a hypothetical article, one that should have been written about Knight, had his penchant for ultimately self-destructive behavior not taken him away from the place that made him a legend. That would-be paean to Knight concludes:
“Now he can finish his career in a perfect spot: in a state where basketball is a religion and Knight is its high priest.”
In today’s Washington Post, John Feinstein also sees Knight’s career trajectory as a tragic indictment of his self-destructiveness. For Feinstein, Knight has already had his Woody Hayes moment:
“Here though, as Shakespeare would say (and Knight has read Shakespeare), is the rub: Knight believes, as do his defenders, that life works this way: If you commit five good deeds on Monday, you are excused from any bad deed you might commit on Tuesday. Knight believes that because he plays by the rules, because most of his players graduate and because he's gone out of his way to help friends in need, it was okay to grab Neil Reed by the neck and okay to stuff an LSU fan into a garbage can and it wasn't wrong to toss a potted plant over the head of an elderly secretary and it wasn't such a big deal to send that chair spinning across the court -- not to mention all of the other misdeeds and missteps through the years.
Knight's philosophy of life basically comes down to this: If I help a little old lady across the street for 10 straight days, but then yell a profanity at her for walking too slowly on the 11th day when I'm running late, I should be excused because I was nice to her the first 10 days.”
“The question that is asked most often about Knight is whether he will have an ending similar to Woody Hayes, another of his mentors.
The sad truth is this: He's already had it. Knight can talk all he wants about how happy he is in Lubbock cobbling together good teams at Texas Tech, a place where basketball will never be as important as spring football. He can talk about how much he likes the people there and how little he misses Indiana.
It simply isn't true. Knight belongs in Indiana. It is where he should have broken the record and finished his career. Imagine Wooden not finishing his career at UCLA; Smith not coaching at North Carolina; Rupp at Kentucky; Krzyzewski at Duke. How is it possible that a man who coached three national champions and an Olympic gold medal-winning team and did so without cheating while graduating his players and standing for all the right things about sports ends up fired?
It can't happen to an icon. Unless he slugs a player on national TV during a bowl game. Or refuses to believe that zero tolerance means zero tolerance for him. It can only happen to someone who simply refuses to understand that, even for icons, there are some rules. Knight never has understood that. Rules have always been for everyone else but not for him.”
In these parts, while Dean Smith has been his usual magnanimous self about the impending surpassing of his record, others have not been so pleased. Here’s Barry Jacobs, the longtime ACC area basketball writer (and local Chapel Hill politician) on the meaning of Knight passing Smith:
“Maybe this won't be as bad as we thought.
Maybe there will be sufficient respect shown for Dean Smith, and what he achieved at North Carolina and the way he achieved it. Maybe this will be less a glorification of a bully and a boor and more a celebration of a coach and of coaching, a paean to sound fundamentals, clean recruiting, fearsome defense, motion offense, and a systematic approach to teaching the game of basketball.
Maybe we will see Bob (or is it Bobby?) Knight smile instead of snarl, acknowledge instead of attack, express humility instead of hostility when he passes Smith as the man with the most wins as a major-college coach.
The best we can do is work toward ambivalence, a grudging acceptance of this shift in the coaching pecking order.
In part, this reflects our admiration and respect for Dean Smith and the way in which he did things.
Unlike Kentucky's Adolph Rupp, the man he surpassed in career wins in 1997, Smith coached throughout his career against full-time basketball coaches rather than moonlighting football assistants at schools that did not take basketball seriously.
Unlike Rupp, who was either a racist or did a good impersonation of one, Smith coached with and against black athletes in a more competitive, highly pressurized, nationally scrutinized game. Unlike Rupp -- a fellow Kansas grad and disciple of Hall of Famer Phog Allen -- Smith never got his program on probation.
And, unlike most college coaches of any period, Smith is a man with a social conscience who, while admittedly comfortable in his status, is unafraid to stand for the values and causes in which he believes. We admire that.
In part, our discomfort with Knight's ascendancy reveals our antipathy for the coach exiled to Texas Tech after one too many transgressions at Indiana.
There's no point in cataloguing Knight's periodic acts of violence, abuses of authority, explosions of ill-temper, and arrogant indifference to the leaders of his own university and to the bounds of conduct expected of everyone else.
Suffice it to say, we will forever marvel at parents who knowingly send their children into his care and at leaders of higher education who tolerate his antics because he wins.
Finally, we regret seeing Bob Knight as the preeminent coach because, frankly, we are ACC chauvinists and he traces none of his roots to these parts.”
<fontsize ="3">On this last point, is Knight really the pre-eminent coach, once he passes Smith in the wins column? Feinstein argues that the five greatest college basketball coaches of all time are, in whatever order you choose – Smith, Knight, Coach K, Rupp and Wooden. I wouldn’t argue with that. It’s taken Knight about four seasons longer than Smith to amass the same win total, and Smith’s got a winning percentage about sixty points higher than Knight. Knight’s won three national championships (as has Coach K), versus just two for Smith, and both are dwarfed by Wooden’s national championship total, though Wooden coached in an era when it was possible to monopolize talent in a way that became impossible about the time Wooden retired in 1975. As Jacobs notes above, Rupp also coached under less competitive conditions than Smith, Knight or Coach K, but his four championships place him second all-time.
Knight’s not had the kind of NBA talent that regularly passed through Chapel Hill. Isiah Thomas was, by far his best player ever and no one else really approached him in terms of NBA performance - compare that to Jordan, Worthy, McAdoo, Carter, Jamison and the endless list of future NBA stars who played for Smith). According to Michael Rosenberg of FOX sports, this makes Knight less than the best recruiter of all time, but it does make him the best coach of all time.
There is one caveat to this discussion (wasn’t that worth the wait?) that I have seen little commentary on: Knight has really faded as a top flight coach over the past decade or more. The last Knight team to make the final four was the 1992 Hoosier edition. The 1993 team, which went 31-4, was the last Knight team to win a conference title. In the five seasons from 1994-95 through 1998-99, Indiana lost at least ten games every season. If you consider that an elite program should - save for the three or so tough games pre-conference games on the schedule - win virtually all of its non-conference games, records like 19-12 or 20-11 just aren’t very good. In fact, nine of the last 11 Bob Knight teams, including four of his five Red Raider teams, have lost at least ten games. Smith, by contrast, lost ten games in a season just four times inhis entire thirty six year career as head coach. Last year’s Tech team went 15-17, the first losing season in Knight’s career, and only three of his five seasons in Lubbock have ended with trips to the Big Dance. Vitale insisted last night that it was “unbelievable” that Knight had managed to take three Texas Tech teams to the NCAAs in the past five seasons. But, this is a preposterously low standard for an all-time great coach trying to get a school from a major conference into a 65-team field. There is simply no comparable stretch of mediocrity in Smith’s career or Coach K’s.
And, to return to the issue raised by Forde and Feinstein, if Knight’s defenders contend that he has had to make do with less than elite talent at a school in a football state, that begs the question of how this all-time great ended up at such a barren basketball outpost.
Leaving aside the off-the-court issues and the controversy, Bob Knight is simply no longer an elite coach though, because of his career accomplishments, he is still treated as one (not unlike Bowden and Paterno). He is an all-time great, but other than padding his win totals, he has not added substantively to his stellar accomplishments in more than a decade.