Bob Knight, college basketball's Wicked Stepfather.

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
March 15 2002 10:36 AM

Bob Knight

It's OK if you hate him. He hates himself, too.

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For three decades, Bob Knight glowered on Indiana University's sidelines as college basketball's Wicked Stepfather. He stuffed a belligerent fan into a trash can during a Final Four. He berated his team's cheerleaders for distracting an IU player during a free throw. He head-butted one player and kicked another—who happened to be his son. In the end, he self-destructed, as so many predicted he would, fired amid allegations of choking a player, throwing a vase at a secretary, and breaking another son's nose and dislocating his shoulder during a hunting trip.

But only two years later, Knight is back at the Big Dance—this time as Cinderella, the unexpectedly fetching belle of the ball. Coaching the Texas Tech Red Raiders has brought out Knight's good side: He doesn't cheat, he graduates his players, and he wins. So far this year, Knight's team has gone 23-8. This at a school that forfeited victories in the late '90s for using academically ineligible players, graduated only 27 percent of its basketball players over the past four years, and won only nine games the year before Knight showed up.

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Despite his reputation for physical intimidation, Knight rules more by acid tongue than by iron fist. He forged his methods at West Point, where he took over as basketball coach when he was 24. He took Army to the semifinals of the National Invitation Tournament three times (and because of West Point's height requirements, he did it without a player over 6 feet 6). Two teams and 37 seasons later, he's still a foul-mouthed, hot-tempered drill sergeant who mercilessly derides his players and demands total obedience. (Click here to listen to the Bob Knight who inspired Brian "Playing my game is what got you here!" Dennehy's performance in the TV movie A Season on the Brink.)

And he may be the best coach in the history of college basketball. At 61 years old, Knight stands 92 wins—probably five seasons—shy of Dean Smith's record of 879. In his second year at Indiana, Knight took the team to the Final Four. Over one two-year period, Indiana went 63-1, including back-to-back 18-0 seasons in the Big Ten. Knight is the youngest coach to win 300 games, 400 games, and 600 games. He coached the 1984 Olympic team, considered by many as the greatest amateur team in history, to a gold medal—including an 8-0 record in exhibitions against NBA stars. Only Adolph Rupp and John Wooden have won more national championships, and Knight's 25 NCAA tournament appearances are second only to Smith's 27. And he's not finished.

Knight's academic successes rival his athletic ones. At Indiana, he graduated nearly 80 percent of his players. The national average for Division I schools is 42 percent. He endowed two chairs, one in history and one in law, and he raised millions for the library. He's doing the same at Texas Tech, donating $10,000 to a fund that's now raised $100,000. To increase graduation rates, he wants the NCAA to adopt this rule: Revoke a team scholarship for every player who doesn't graduate within five years. (Under that sort of stricture, some NCAA teams wouldn't have any scholarships left.)

Knight succeeds through exacting standards—he's cut players for skipping class and for doing drugs—and through unrelenting, Full Metal Jacket-style abuse. He once put Tampax in a player's locker as a motivational insult. In a 1981 Sports Illustrated profile, Knight tells a black player to help out another player, "Because if you don't start to shape him up, I'll have to get some white guys working on him. You guys don't show any leadership, you don't show any incentive since you started getting too much welfare."

To Knight, taunts like these aren't a sign that he's a misogynist or a racist. They just demonstrate that his sense of humor is misunderstood. Like Jokey Smurf, what Knight thinks of as pranks continually blow up in his face. In another questionable incident, Knight playfully lashed star player Calbert Cheaney—who is black—with a bullwhip (a gift from the team) during practice. Despite criticism from the media and from black leaders, Knight's players generally stand by him. The only IU player who has ever criticized Knight for his racial attitudes is Butch Carter, who later became coach of the Toronto Raptors. In a book, Carter wrote, "I don't know if Knight is a racist, but I know he does not like educated, strong-willed blacks."

In sports, winning heals all wounds, and Knight's critics are right that his tactics wouldn't be tolerated from a lesser coach. But unlike Vince Lombardi (another dictatorial coach), winning isn't the only thing for Knight. Most people are attracted by the binary nature of sports: It's black or white. You win or lose. But Knight has an aesthete's approach to the game. Winning doesn't satisfy Knight. He wants basketball perfection. He gave this definition of "discipline" that he developed at West Point to Playboy: "doing what has to be done, doing it as well as you can do it, doing it when it has to be done, doing it that way all the time." Like a writer who can never successfully translate his thoughts to the page, Knight can never fully realize this impossible vision.

This Knight, the self-loathing artist, continually toys with quitting. In 1981, he nearly left coaching to become a basketball commentator for CBS's NCAA tournament coverage. He threatened to leave Indiana for the University of New Mexico at one point. In another instance, he said he would have retired if the team hadn't signed a particular recruit. But like an artist, he doesn't know how to do anything else. An Indiana history professor said of Knight, "Bobby is the greatest teacher I have ever seen."

If Knight has a weakness as a coach, it's that he doesn't produce great players. No Knight team has turned out an NBA star since Isiah Thomas, who left Indiana as a sophomore in 1981. North Carolina's Dean Smith, the other great coach of Knight's generation, churned out superstar after superstar: Michael Jordan, James Worthy, Vince Carter, Rasheed Wallace, to name only a few. But Knight's approach to the game does something different: It turns out great coaches. Iowa's Steve Alford and Duke's Mike Krzyzewski both played for Knight, Alford at Indiana and Krzyzewski at West Point. More than two dozen other head coaches either played for Knight or coached under him.

At Texas Tech, Knight has been on his best behavior all year—leading many to wonder if he's mellowed, if he's changed his approach. He hasn't. It's only a matter of time before Knight blows up again. He idolizes men like Lombardi and Ted Williams, who carried themselves with masculine authority and an "inner arrogance." But it's Knight's outer arrogance that gets him in trouble. A college coach, especially one as successful as Knight, is more than a mentor to the players on the team. He's the face of the university and a role model for every student. By the end of Knight's tenure at Indiana, the student body was teeming with mini-Knights, obnoxious thugs who burned IU's president in effigy, threatened a professor who was a prominent Knight critic, and printed "Wanted: Dead" posters of the student who cost Knight his job.

Indiana grew tired of looking in the mirror and seeing Bob Knight. Texas Tech will, too.

Chris Suellentrop is the deputy editor for blogs at Yahoo News and a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine. He has reviewed video games for Slate, Rolling Stone, and NewYorker.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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