Knight going to Texas Tech reduces record's luster
Let's strip this thing of its emotional armor -- give us about an hour and a half -- and ask the more esoteric sports question: What does Bob Knight's new coaching record really mean?
I offer this exercise knowing two things: (1) Nobody can ever actually shuck their emotional response to the former Indiana and current Texas Tech head coach (two words: Hey, Knight!); and (2) comparing records in sports is inherently a fool's errand, as it involves different eras, conditions, financial considerations, quality of athlete and, in Knight's case, shades of sweater color.
What can I say? This fool loves his errands. Let's get to it.
Straight up, the man Knight just passed has a winning percentage that Knight won't touch in this coaching lifetime. By the time Knight reached Dean Smith's 879 victories, he had absorbed 353 defeats, almost exactly 100 more L's than did Smith. Dean retired with a .776 win percentage (879-254), while Knight stood at .713 going into his 880th win.
He's no Smith, though. While Knight went from Army to Indiana (no harm, no foul) and then into prolonged controversy and ultimately this weird basketball exile at Texas Tech (tremendous harm, tremendous foul), Smith compiled his record, with all of its brilliance and its attendant heartaches, in one neat 36-year stint at North Carolina. It is an accomplishment that will almost certainly stand taller in the decades to come. It may not be impossible to conceive of a young head coach in 2006 completing an entire career with one university, but it stretches the imagination to Silly Putty dimensions.
Smith is such a great comparison point for Knight. Like Knight, Smith was an innovator (his "four corners" spread offense was imitated by teams for years). Like Knight, Smith coached in what became a basketball cauldron, against consistent frontline competition, and (as network and cable TV jumped on board and the sports/entertainment world exploded partway through his career) often before national audiences and amid expectations that ranged from ludicrous to completely unreachable -- expectations that Smith's own success fostered.
Neither man approaches Tennessee women's coach Pat Summitt's numbers (926-178 as of this week), but the whole men's/women's hoop comparison is inept, at best. Let's skip it and leave Knight's college basketball standing at this: He'll have the victory record, but not the regal bearing that might otherwise accompany it -- the bearing, really, that Smith has, even though he no longer owns the most wins.
Now, Knight among the giants? Again, it's tough to calibrate without incorporating the man's demeanor (and it is worth noting that Knight's abrasiveness was never exclusively limited to reporters or TV types, but in such a way that opinion on him among his own players was famously divided). It is clear, though, that identity with a single school or team matters.
Knight is a different animal in terms of his history. He may wind up coaching a fairly long stint at Texas Tech, especially if he sees out his new contract to its 2012 conclusion, yet this is no Don Shula deal, in which Shula was a success in Baltimore and then went on to a Hall of Fame second act with the Dolphins in Miami. Knight's tenure will always be regarded as pockmarked. Pat Forde's piece on what could have been, if Knight had been able to pull off an uninterrupted march to his career's conclusion in Indiana, speaks powerfully to the notion of a man known more for the institution he coaches (Smith, John Wooden, Tom Landry, Walter Alston) than his own quirks of personality.
Sounds like college stuff -- and it is. Identity and victories are practically inseparable at this level of renown. If history is a fair judge, in fact, two of the coaches who will be most lionized through the ages are names that don't necessarily run to the forefront of the mind: John Gagliardi and Dan Gable. But most college football fans know about the raging success story that is Division III St. John's; Gagliardi has coached football there for 58 seasons, owns a .781 lifetime percentage and went 11-2 this season, after which he turned 80.
And Gable is merely the winner every other coach wants to be. A national and Olympic champion himself who went through his college wrestling career with but a single defeat, Gable was the head coach at Iowa for 21 seasons. The Hawkeyes won 15 national titles, 21 Big Ten Conference crowns and completed seven perfect seasons.
Gable won, won all the time and won with a single program, in a single town, at a single dot on the sporting landscape. It's the one type of winning that eludes Bob Knight today, and it's the reason that Knight's record feels more like a simple number than perhaps it should.
Mark Kreidler of the Sacramento Bee is a regular contributor to ESPN.com and ESPN's "Cold Pizza." Reach him at email@example.com.
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