Coach-pupil relationship remains strong

The story of friction between Bob Knight and Steve Alford is officially now a fable.

Updated: December 23, 2003, 11:17 AM ET
By Andy Katz |

DALLAS -- The story of friction between Bob Knight and Steve Alford is officially now a fable.

It didn't happen as far as both are concerned. There was no tension, no distance between the two. They just didn't talk much.

So, regardless of the facts from the past, this relationship's present and future are clearly blossoming.

Knight and Alford did an interview together earlier Monday with ESPN's Fran Fraschilla. Knight wasn't too pleased when asked about the perception that there was distance in the relationship, especially when Alford joined the Big Ten five years ago.

Knight bristled at the question and went into a profanity-laced tirade, directed at the media, for making this a story when he said it wasn't.

Alford didn't say much. It wasn't his place. After the interview, Alford was getting ready for his team's shootaround at American Airlines Arena and talked about how it doesn't matter how old you are, how many kids you have, or whether you played for the former Hoosier coach or not. Knight has a presence that is unmatched by most men.

When he speaks, even when he enters a room, people listen and wait to see how he will respond. He commands respect, which, at the very least, lets him have the first word on nearly every subject.

Alford's reverence for Knight is more apparent now than at any point in his coaching career. He seeks out Knight's advice on coaching philosophies, how to discipline his players and the overall way to run a program.

Take the decision to sit Mike Henderson, a guard out of Waterloo, Iowa. Alford didn't play the freshman against Northern Iowa on Dec. 9 because Henderson missed a class, then lied about it when confronted. Alford said that decision could have cost the Hawkeyes the game, since they missed Henderson's quickness and ball-handling in the 11-point loss.

Three years ago, Alford probably wouldn't have made the call to sit Henderson. But since he sought out Knight in Lubbock in the summer of 2002, Alford has changed his approach to coaching. He is trying to mirror his mentor now more than ever.

And the respect Alford has for Knight was clear before and after Iowa's 65-59 loss to Texas Tech on Monday in Dallas.

"He's the best coach there is,'' Alford said of Knight. "It's bittersweet. If I had to lose, I would only want to lose to him.''

Alford said that when the game ended, Knight told Alford he should give him a call and they could talk about the Iowa team. It's a practice that Knight has kept up with those he cares about or those who seek out his advice.

Alford didn't have to play this game. Knight asked him to do it so he could get a game in Dallas, a market that Texas Tech wants to tap more often. Knight, who has been critical of the declining attendance in Lubbock, championed the crowd that turned out at the Mavericks' home court. He said that the Red Raiders should make this game an annual event.

But the Iowa game next year -- yes, there will be a return game -- will be at the United Center in Chicago. There is no word whether the series will continue beyond 2004.

Knight said the hardest person he has had to coach against was his own former coach, Ohio State's Fred Taylor.

"I look in the paper and look for scores every day for guys who have either played or coached for me,'' Knight said. "If there are a bunch of them on the left-hand column, then that's a good day for me. I feel good about that. I don't like to see our guys lose. I don't like to see Steve lose this game.''

Knight recalled when Indiana beat an Evansville team that was coached by former Indiana assistant Jim Crews at Madison Square Garden in New York.

"I still see Jimmy sitting in the hallway at the Marriott in Times Square, exhausted,'' Knight said. "I almost cried for him. A win for Evansville over Indiana in that game would have been infinitely more important for them than for us.''

Knight argues that he has probably played more games against former assistants or coaches than anyone else, except maybe Henry Iba.

"There has never been a time that I have played these kids that played for me or coaches who coached with me that I haven't wanted our kids to win,'' Knight said.

At the same time, like the last two times, Knight didn't revel in sending Alford home with an 'L.' This wasn't about Knight versus Alford. This was about Texas Tech's quickness on the perimeter, holding Iowa below 60 points, and Iowa missing 13 free throws.

Texas Tech has the look, at 10-2, of a potential NCAA Tournament team if its freshmen guards can mature enough in the Big 12. Iowa has more work to do to integrate Glen Worley back into the offense after his return from a hand fracture, to make free throws and to find some offensive cohesion, especially against pressure.

Alford was straight with his team after the game in a very Knight-like way. He told the players that their free-throw shooting woes (65 percent before Monday) can only be fixed by them. He put the onus on the players by being honest with them. He will call Knight to discuss his team, but he already has learned plenty about how to handle a slump. His direct approach and his assertion of control show how much Alford is maturing as a coach.

He is and will always be the student to Knight-as-teacher, the player to the coach. This wasn't a love fest, but the earnest meeting had all of the appearance of being genuine. Each of these two head coaches respects and admires what the other has accomplished. They express it differently, but the message was clear: They are friends, good friends, and they will remain so.

Andy Katz is a senior writer

Andy Katz | email

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