Spending time with Knight shows you the entire him
LUBBOCK, Texas -- Texas Tech's basketball team was scrimmaging with gusto, Bob Knight's demanding eyes assessing every twitch. Suddenly, the 66-year-old coach was distracted. His 8-year-old grandson, Braden, came dribbling up a boundary line. It was beyond cute. The General's focus shifted away from the big kids.
"Left hand, then change it to the right, Braden, and back to the left," the 6-foot-4, 240-pound Knight commanded the little thumper. "Then turn around, and come dribbling back toward me. C'mon, you've got to pound the ball harder. This is not like you're patting your girlfriend on the ass."
He is notably blunt, usually intense, frequently vulgar. Robert Montgomery Knight goes hard at everything, from coaching basketball to hunting birds or fishing or golfing or being father, husband and grandpa.
He is about to leapfrog North Carolina hoops god Dean Smith as Division I's all-time winningest men's college basketball coach. "It's not a record I covet," said Knight, who spent 29 seasons at Indiana (1971-2000), where his Hoosiers won three national championships. "This is not like Hank Aaron passing Babe Ruth in career home runs.
Knight tied Smith at 879 wins on Saturday when his Red Raiders topped Bucknell 72-60. Two weeks ago, his 877th was a 98-64 whopping of Centenary in Lubbock, vaulting the controversial Ohioan past Kentucky legend Adolph Rupp.
"I was a junior at Ohio State and we eliminated Rupp's team from the NCAA Tournament," Knight said. I scored seven or eight points. Beating the ornery old SOB in 1961 was far bigger to me than winning one game more than him as a coach."
While no devotee of the Baron of the Bluegrass, the fellow from Orrville, Ohio -- better known as home base of Smucker's jams and jellies -- had warm things to say about Smith, as well as 10-time national champion UCLA coach John Wooden, now 96, and Knight's long-ago point guard at Army, Duke's highly successful 59-year-old Mike Krzyzewski. Smith won two national championships and Coach K has three.
"Those three coaches had a lot in common," Knight said. "They believe in things that also mean a great deal to me. Dean, John and Mike had a definite way to play basketball. It won for them, and consistently.
"Each demanded good ballhandling. Strong and nonstop defense. Playing the game intelligently. Always adjusting to the talents of their current players. Wooden succeeded with smaller centers but then played a bit different when he had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton. Dean and Mike did similarly."
Knight recalls telling Dean in 1997, the 75-year-old Tar Heel's final season, "I'm glad you went by Rupp to get the record." The first chance at No. 880 comes at home on Dec. 28 against UNLV. If there's a second chance needed, it would be on New Year's Day versus New Mexico.
Knight coached six seasons at Army (1965-71) with a record of 102-50. Krzyzewski played there from 1965 to '69. In his IU period, Knight's record was 662-239, with 12 Big Ten championships. Over a two-year mid-1970s stretch, IU went 63-1.
After being fired in 2000, he sat out a season before an old pal, Texas Tech athletic director Gerald Myers -- the Red Raiders' basketball coach from 1971 to '91 (326-261 record) -- offered the General a fresh chance. In his sixth season in Lubbock, his record is 114-64. For all 40-plus seasons, it has reached 878-353.
After the Centenary game, Knight eschewed media interviews to go pheasant hunting for the third time in a week. His stand-in was his 36-year-old son, Pat, who has the title "head coach designate" and will take over when Bob quits. Nobody is sure, including the General, if that'll happen months from now, or in a year, or more.
"You were expecting Brad Pitt but you're getting Martin Short," joked Pat Knight, going to a press-room microphone. "As for passing coach Smith, it has never been brought up among our staff or players." Pat usually refers to the boss as "Coach," something near-universal among Tech basketball operatives.
Pat spoke about planned moves to enhance Red Raiders team unity.
"All our players and coaches will have Christmas dinner at Coach's house," he said. "We might take the kids bowling, too."
A reporter, knowing Bob opted to go hunting and not do the media gabfest, asked if players and assistants might share a bird shoot with Coach. Pat grinned and answered, "None of us has volunteered to be around dad when he has a loaded shotgun."
I spent four days in Lubbock, attending three Tech practices in United Spirit Arena, a place Bob Knight calls "the best on-campus facility in college basketball." When the facility opened on Nov. 19, 1999, the inaugural game was a Tech loss, 68-60, to Knight and Indiana. It is ironic that the 15,000-seat arena is located on Indiana Avenue. Little did Knight know that day that he was coaching his last season with the Hoosiers.
Every night I was in Lubbock, Knight and I went to dinner, always in the company of people in town to visit him. Among them was 1976 National Player of the Year Scott May, now 52, hero of that season's 32-0 band of Hoosiers, the last Division I team to go undefeated. May still lives in IU's town, Bloomington. On the way to Lubbock, May stopped by Charlotte, where 6-foot-9 son Sean, a former Carolina player, is a standout rookie with the NBA Bobcats.
In all, I was around Knight for maybe 18 hours in Lubbock, half of those offering opportunities to converse. Yes, he yelled at players four or five times. Used a bit of salty language. But, always, it was verbal fire from a rambunctious teacher clearly in search of more efficient play. Not once was there anything close to a physical confrontation.
I posed this to Knight: What if you were recruiting a high school senior. It comes to a chat with parents, and they say, "Coach, we like much of what you do -- the academics, behavior demands, pursuits of basketball excellence -- but you have a reputation for physical conflicts, so we're not convinced we want our son playing for you."
Knight didn't flinch, then replied, "I would tell them that their son needs to find another place for his college basketball. I will not try to sell myself to anyone who has such questions and/or reservations."
His confrontations are subject to frequent media recycling. How many times have you seen his chair heave? Knight haters are numerous. I checked out his latest "incident," when critics ripped him for slapping his knuckles beneath the chin of 6-foot-7 Tech sophomore Michael Prince.
"It was absolutely nothing," says Prince. "I can't believe so much was made of it."
Prince played a terrific game against Centenary. When he was lifted with four minutes to go, Knight faked a pop on Mike's chin but stopped a couple of inches away. Both of them laughed. Tech's crowd roared its approval.
Lubbock is a city of 200,000 in the far western high plains of Texas. While it appears as flat as a basketball court, gently rising elevation puts the Tech campus at almost 3,300 feet. Its most famous native is singer Buddy Holly, honored with a downtown statue.
"I wasn't a Holly fan," said Knight. "Didn't much like rock and roll."
There is no bigger crop in Lubbock than cotton. Landing at the local airport, you see an adjacent field of white stuff. Basketball is not a sizzling commodity at the university which has 28,500 students, but think about it: There are only three states where hoops are bigger than college football -- Indiana, North Carolina and Kentucky.
Tech usually sells out its arena against Kansas, Texas and other especially magnetic opponents, but the United Spirit house often is one-third empty. Lubbock is not an easy place from which to recruit basketball talent, being geographically remote, a five-hour drive from Dallas and 10 hours from Houston, the two hot spots for in-state high school aces.
Knight's team is 10-3 this season, although he is a bullet or two shy of a full holster. Arkansas, which the Red Raiders beat in Little Rock for Knight's 878th win, easily is the most notable Tech victim.
"It's a challenge here, but I'm enjoying it," he said. "Lubbock is great for me. So many friendly people. I love being able to get almost anywhere in 15 minutes, including between home and work and also to the airport where check-in takes maybe five or 10 minutes."
He is more than excited about signees for next season, including "three of the best players from Texas, a better group than Tech has ever been able to recruit." Bob says his health is good, "although my ass does get real tired," so it is not beyond belief that Pat might have to wait awhile before assuming command.
In a way, Lubbock has become Knighthood. Bob has Pat and his other son, 41-year-old Tim, in the Tech hoops operation. A graduate of Stanford, Tim is assistant athletics director for special projects. Braden is Tim's son, as is Coach's other grandson, 9-month-old William Walker.
Also in Knighthood are Pat's and Tim's spouses, plus Bob's wife of 18 years, Karen.
"No man has ever had a better companion," he said, showing a touch of softness. "Hey, it will surprise nobody that I will never make the top 10 list of husbands who're easy to get along with.
"Karen was a championship basketball coach in her native Oklahoma and knows the sport so well that we have wonderful talks about on-court strategy. She understands me and tolerates my schedule and idiosyncrasies. I'm really a lucky guy."
Knighthood also includes Mary Ann Davis, his administrative assistant for more than 20 years at Indiana. She was fired by Bob's successor, Mike Davis, then hired to do the same job at Texas Tech.
Steve Downing, a 6-foot-10 onetime IU star (1969-73), now 56, is in Tech's athletic department administration. Stew Robinson (IU 1982-86) is one of Bob's assistant coaches. Jason Imes is a former Hoosier who is Tech's assistant video coordinator. Even three former IU student managers followed Knight from Bloomington to Lubbock.
"People who really know him think Coach is a wonderful human being," Scott May said. Bob was characterized as "generous" and "a truly giving man." He's notably hospitable when any buddies from his past visit Lubbock. "How many other coaches are as widely respected and liked by former players?" May asked.
Knight was asked what he misses most about Indiana. "Absolutely nothing," he blurted, but then there was an amendment: "Well, that's not totally accurate, since I got to know some great people in my 29 years in Bloomington, many of whom are still regularly in touch."
Dr. John William Ryan, the IU president who hired Knight in 1971 and served until retirement in 1987, is scheduled for a monthlong stay in early 2007 with Bob and Karen. But do not put Bob on the same ski lift chair with Myles Brand, IU's president from 1994 to 2000, who dismissed Knight.
Even many of the more relentless anti-Knight voices will tell you that he is a brilliant man, extremely well-read, and a highly competent analyst on a world of subjects. He was asked to talk about latter-day United States flops in international basketball competitions, especially the Olympics.
"You can't just ask players, even NBA stars, to be Olympic team members," said the coach of the 1984 gold-medal team in Los Angeles. "They must agree to go through a series of tryouts, with the squad being cut down along the way. They also must be treated like any other Olympic athletes. No fancy housing or limos, Let them walk in the Olympic Village with all the pole vaulters, swimmers and gymnasts."
OK, another subject: basketball phenoms who take early leaps to the NBA. Knight had clearly given the subject heavy thought.
"I would say high school seniors should have an opportunity to declare themselves for the pro draft," he said. "But if they do, that would make them totally ineligible to play in college.
"If the NBA then disallowed a fellow to play until age 19, that's their problem. College basketball should not allow a rent-a-player mentality."
An example of the "rent-a-player" could be Ohio State 7-foot freshman Greg Oden, who is expected to go pro when turning 19 after one season with the Buckeyes.
"If a kid does not declare for the draft while in high school, he can become a college freshman," Knight continued. "At the end of his first year on campus, there would be another opportunity to declare for the NBA draft. But if he does it then, the young man would be legally bound to play at least one more college season before going pro. I plan to talk to [NBA commissioner] David Stern about my idea."
Knight is the antithesis of a house man for the National Collegiate Athletic Association, whose current president is the same Myles Brand who fired him at IU.
"For generations, the NCAA was efficiently operated by a giant of a leader named Walter Byers," the coach said. "I promise you, Byers and one secretary could operate the NCAA better than the 800 people now employed there."
There is no stronger dislike in Knight's mind than for "NCAA rhetoric." He recently addressed the National Press Club in Washington, bringing along an NCAA rules manual, which was roughly as thick as the Chicago phone book. For effect, the Tech coach dropped the publication onto the floor in front of his lectern. It made a loud crash.
A moment later, Knight whipped out a one-page document.
"This is the U.S. Constitution, guidelines for a great nation," he said. "There have been, I think, 29 amendments over 200-plus years. That NCAA book might be amended 29 times today."
Knight says he can cure that.
"Make me the chair of a committee composed of some really smart people," said the coach. "I am sure we could redo the NCAA rules and achieve it in 10 pages or less. Trouble is, the NCAA tries to tell everybody what they cannot do. If they told us what we can do, we can assume anything else could mean trouble."
Bob uses a similar system with his team. It's an idea Knight got from NBA coaching legend Joe Lapchick in 1965 during Bob's rookie season at West Point.
"I don't really have any rules," he said. "We let our players know what they can do, like attending class and making grades and behaving and showing up on time and playing basketball as hard as they can."
Knight's kids at Tech all have short, military-style haircuts. Is it a rule from a coach who cuts his own hair?
"Hell no, there are no rules. But if I see one of my players who I think is getting shaggy, I say 'Get your [expletive] hair cut' and it will be handled."
Lubbock has its own Confucius.
Hubert Mizell is a columnist at the Gainesville (Fla.) Sun.
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