It’s difficult to overstate the reputation that Frank Deford enjoyed among readers and writers during the 1980s. In an era when long-form sports journalism — the literary-minded profile, or “takeout piece” — was ascendant, Deford’s stories were widely regarded as the apotheosis of the form. “Deford’s Monet,” Tony Kornheiser once said. “There’s a whole lot of people trying to paint, and they do pretty good work, and then Deford would come out with a piece, and people would go, ‘Monet.’ He’s the best ever at the takeout — there’s nobody within 100 miles of that guy.”
Deford — surely the only sportswriter whose looks were compared (more than once) to Clark Gable’s — had carved out a niche writing basketball for SI in the ’60s, before graduating to longer stories. He exhibited a remarkable empathy for his subjects, and an intuitive sense of story structure. He could spend just a few days with a person1 and find a way to explain him or her to the world (and, in some cases, to the person him or herself).2 Deford seemed particularly adept when dealing with difficult, prickly personalities, so it was natural, in the fall of 1980, that he would write a profile on the principled, combustible Indiana basketball coach Bob Knight.3
In this case, the challenge of a “difficult subject” was more pronounced. By 1980, Knight was reportedly mad at SI over the magazine’s portrayal of him, especially by college basketball writer Curry Kirkpatrick. “I thought the best thing to do was not to call him up out of the blue, because he would not take the call, or slam down the phone or something like that,” Deford says. “So I wrote him a letter. I said something to the effect of, ‘Look, I know you’re pissed off at the magazine, but you and I have had nothing to do with each other. I promise you I’ll write a fair piece. I’ve never written anything negative about you before.’”
A couple weeks passed, and Knight called Deford and quickly proved the writer wrong, quoting verbatim a line from a 1977 Deford movie review that glancingly referenced Knight. “So there I am, held up to dry, a liar and a sonofabitch just like all of you guys,” Deford says. “He just had me dead to rights. I didn’t remember it; it was one sentence in one movie review, right?”4
But Knight agreed to let Deford visit him in Bloomington before the 1980-81 season. In Deford’s memory, the initial preseason appointment was set for a Wednesday morning. When he showed up at the IU basketball office, however, a secretary told him Knight had expected him a day later. “I have no idea to this day whether this was intentional or whether we had just misunderstood each other,” Deford says. “I always sort of figured that this was one more way of sticking it to me, OK? So I just said, ‘Thank you very much,’ and went back to the hotel room and then met him the next morning and never said a word about it. I was not going to give him the satisfaction of saying, ‘Well, you know, I was here yesterday.’ Because I knew then he was going to say, ‘Well, but you were supposed to be here today.’ And so began my conversations with Coach Knight.”
By Frank Deford
Success is feminine and like a woman; if you cringe before her, she will override you. So the way to treat her is to show her the back of your hand. Then maybe she will do the crawling.5
As Bobby Knight is the first to say, a considerable part of his difficulty in the world at large is the simple matter of appearance. “What do we call it?” he wonders. “Countenance. A lot of my problem is just that too many people don’t go beyond countenances.”
That’s astute — Bobby Knight is an astute man — but it’s not so much that his appearance is unappealing. No, like so much of him, his looks are merely at odds. Probably, for example, no matter how well you know Coach Knight, you have never been informed — much less noticed yourself — that he’s dimpled. Well, he is, and invariably when anyone else has dimples, a great to-do is made about them. But, in Bobby’s case, being dimpled just won’t fly.
After all: DIMPLED COACH RAGES AGAIN. No. But then, symbolically, Knight doesn’t possess dimples, plural, as one would expect. He has only the prize one, on his left side. Visualize him, standing in line, dressed like the New Year’s Baby, when they were handing out dimples. He gets the one on his left side. “What the bleep is this?” says little Bobby, drawing away.
“Wait, wait!” cries the Good Fairy or the Angel Gabriel or whoever’s in charge of distributing dimples. But it’s too late. Bobby has no time for this extraneous crap with dimples. He’s already way down the line, taking extras on bile.
“Countenances,” Knight goes on, woefully. “I just don’t have the personality that connotes humor. It kills me. I get castigated just for screaming at some official. And the other coach? Oh, he’s perfect, he’s being deified, and I know he’s one of the worst cheaters in the country. It’s like I tell my players: your biggest opponent isn’t the other guy. It’s human nature.”
Knight happens to be a substance guy in a style world. Hey, he could look very good in polyester and boots and one of those teardrop haircuts that anchormen and male stewardesses wear. Very good: he’s tall, 6′5″, and dimpled (as we know) and handsome, and the gray hair and embryonic potbelly that have come to him as he crosses into his 41st winter are pleasant modifying effects.
In the early ’60s, when Knight was a big-talking substitute on the famous Jerry Lucas teams at Ohio State,6 he was known as Dragon. Most people think it was in honor of his fire-snorting mien, with the bright and broken nose that wanders down his face and makes everything he says appear to have an exclamation mark. Only this was not so. He was called Dragon because when he came to Ohio State, he told everybody he was the leader of a motorcycle gang called the Dragons. This was pure fabrication, of course, but all the fresh-scrubbed crew cuts on the team lapped it up. It was easy. People have always been charmed by him; or conned; anyway, he gets in the last word.
It’s never neat, of a piece. When Knight stands up, coaching, with his hands in his pockets, he looks like a street-corner guy. But with his tousled hair, the tie forever undone, there’s also a childish aspect to his appearance:
Wear your tie, Bobby.
All right, Mom, I’ll put it on, but I won’t tie it tight.
The boy-coach who got his first major-college head-coaching job at 24 may be middle-aged now, but still, every day, in some way, adolescence must be conquered again. “Listen to me,” Woody Hayes pleaded with him once. “Listen to me, Bobby, because I’ve made a lot of mistakes and you don’t have to repeat mine.”
The real issue isn’t the countenance, anyway. The real issue is the rabbits. And Knight knows that. In the Indiana locker room before a game earlier this season, Knight was telling his players to concentrate on the important things. He said, “How many times I got to tell you? Don’t fight the rabbits. Because, boys, if you fight the rabbits, the elephants are going to kill you.” But the coach doesn’t listen to himself. He’s always chasing after the incidental; he’s still a prodigy in search of proportion. “There are too many rabbits around,” he says. “I know that. But it doesn’t do me any good. Instead of fighting the elephants, I just keep going after the rabbits.” And it’s the rabbits that are doing him in, ruining such a good thing.
Pete Newell, the former Cal coach, a mentor: “There are times Bobby comes so close to self-destructing.” Edwin Cady, a Duke University professor, after the Indiana Athletics Committee he chaired recommended Knight’s hiring in 1971: “He’s in a race now between overcoming immaturity and disaster.” And even the warmest, most benign observers of the man offer variations on these themes.
Others are much more critical — especially since the sad events of July 1979 at the Pan American Games in Puerto Rico when Knight, the U.S. basketball coach, was arrested for aggravated assault on a police officer (and subsequently convicted in absentia and sentenced to six months in prison). “Bobby’s so intelligent, but he has tunnel vision,” says another Midwestern coach. “None of that stuff in Puerto Rico had to happen. On the contrary, he could’ve come out of there a hero. But he’s a bully, always having to put people down. Someday, I’m afraid, he’s going to be a sad old man.” Says an Eastern coach, “He’ll get away with the bullying and the vulgarity only so long as he wins. But the shame is, he’s so smart, and he’s so faithful to his principles, so why can’t he understand that other people have principles too?”
Such criticism doesn’t necessarily affect Knight in the ways and to the extent that most people imagine. In a sense, he enjoys being misunderstood, so no one can get a fix on him. It’s like the effect Indiana’s good defense has on the coaches of its opponents. “The average coach wants his team to score points,” Knight says. “It’s his character, his machismo, whatever you want to call it, that’s at stake. So if I make a coach concerned enough about my defense stopping his offense, then he’ll forget about my offense.”
Though Knight may not give a hoot whether most people like him, it genuinely upsets him that anyone might think he’s impulsive, much less berserk. “Hey, I’m not dumb, and too many people look at our operation as if we’re all dumb here,” he says. “Only people really involved here know what the hell we’re doing. See, I don’t think people understand what I can or can’t do. They’re not cognizant of my situation and what I know about myself. I always know what I’m doing.”
Yet as intelligent as Knight is about most things, as searching as his mind is, he’s also encumbered by a curious parochialism that too often brings him to grief. When all is said and done, his difficulties in Puerto Rico resulted mostly from his inability to concede that San Juan isn’t just another Chicago, or that the Pan Am Games aren’t another Mideast Regional — and it’s their own fault that they’re not.7 Knight’s mind is too good to be wasted on a mere game — and he probably recognizes that — but he’s personally not comfortable away from the precisely circumscribed environment in which college basketball is played. Therein lies the great conflict in him.
Does anybody else in this universe of shifting sands still have the control of a coach? No wonder it’s difficult for a person like Knight, who tends toward prepossession anyway, to be confused about the limits of his dominion. Puerto Rico, women, writers, shoe salesmen, NCAA bigwigs … all of them are just more Rubicons to cross. He’s in command; an awful lot of what you see is a good act. Says Harold Andreas, the high school coach who first hired Bobby as an assistant, “He can be as charming as anybody in the world or he can be the biggest horse’s ass in the world. But he makes that decision, and he does it in a split second.” Everyone identifies Knight with bad language, but the fact is that he can talk for hours, if he chooses to, using much less profanity than the average Joe.8 He doesn’t have a foul mouth; he simply deploys bad language when it can be a weapon.
Knight is forever putting people back on their heels, testing them, making them uncomfortable in some way. Stop them from scoring points, and they won’t be prepared to stop you. Although it’s fashionable to say Knight rules by intimidation, he actually rules more by derision. He abuses the people he comes into contact with, taking the license to treat them as he does his players.
“O.K., it’s true sometimes I intimidate a kid,” Knight says. “Usually when I first get him. That sets up the best conditions for teaching. But that’s only true with basketball players, not with anyone else. I don’t think I’m overbearing with people, but look, that’s an awfully hard thing for a man to judge of himself.”
Most find him guilty. But, here, you judge. Here’s five minutes of typical Bobby Knight. This isn’t extreme Bobby Knight. This isn’t Puerto Rico Bobby Knight. This is just some everyday stuff, the way he keeps an edge, even over people he likes.
It’s practice time, and two of Knight’s acquaintances are sitting at the scorer’s table. One is a black man, Joby Wright, who starred on Knight’s first Hoosier team in 1971-72. Six years after his athletic eligibility ran out, Wright returned to Indiana to get his degree; now he’s going for a master’s in counseling and guidance.9 All along, Knight helped Wright and encouraged him with his academics, as he has many of his players. In Knight’s nine years, only one Hoosier among those who have played out their eligibility has failed sooner or later to get a degree.
The other person at the table is a white woman, Maryalyce Jeremiah, the Indiana women’s basketball coach.10 Now it’s an accepted fact of life — disputed, perhaps, only by Nancy Knight, Bobby’s wife — that Knight is a misogynist, but Jeremiah he at least abides. She’s a coach, after all.
Knight advances on Wright, and says, “Hey, Joby. Do me a favor.”
“I want you to get my car and go downtown.” Wright nods, taken in. Knight slams the trap: “And I want you to go to a pet shop and buy me a collar and a leash to put on that dog out there.” And he points to one of his players, a kid Wright has been working with.
O.K., it’s a harmless enough dig, and Wright laughs, easily. But Knight won’t quit: “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.”
Wright smiles again, though uneasily. Now, understand, Knight isn’t anti-black. Just anti-tact. That’s the point. One of his former black stars once recalled a halftime against Michigan when Knight singled out two of his white regulars as gutless, and then went over as they cowered and slapped their cheeks, snarling, “Maybe this’ll put some color in your faces.” It isn’t racial prejudice. Still, still.…
Knight walks down to the other end of the scorer’s table. “Hey, Maryalyce.”
Brightly: “Yes, Bobby?”
“You know what a dab is?”
“A dab — D-A-B.”
“No, what’s that?”
“It’s a dumb-assed broad,” he says, smirking.
“I don’t know any of those,” she replies — a pretty quick comeback.
But he won’t leave it alone. The edge, again: “Yeah, you know one more than you think you do.”
And he moves on. The white woman shrugs. It’s just Bobby.11 The black man shrugs. It’s just Bobby. But why is it just Bobby? Why does he do this to himself? He’s smart enough to know that, in this instance, he isn’t hurting his two friends nearly so much as he hurts himself, cumulatively, by casting this kind of bread upon the waters, day after day. Why? Why, Bobby, why?
What a setup he has. Forty years old, acknowledged to be at the top of his profession. Says the very coach who disparages Knight for being a bully, “Any coach who says Bobby’s not the best is just plain jealous.” Knight has already won 317 games, and nobody, not even Adolph Rupp, achieved that by his age.
Someday Knight could even surpass Rupp’s record 874 wins,12 a seemingly insurmountable total. Knight has won one NCAA championship, in 1976, and five Big Ten titles in nine seasons; he was twice national coach of the year; he’s the only man ever to both play on and coach an NCAA champion. He’s the coach at one of America’s great basketball schools, one that’s also an academic institution of note. The state worships him; Hoosier politicians vie for his benediction. His contemporaries in coaching not only revere him for his professional gifts, but some of his esteemed predecessors — mythic men of basketball lore — see Knight as the very keeper of the game. The torch is in his hands.
He’s also a clever man and delightful company when he chooses to be. Beyond all that he has an exemplary character, without any of the vices of the flesh that so often afflict men in his station and at his time of life. He’s devoted to his family, Nancy and their two sons, Timothy, 16, and Patrick, 10. His supporters fall over themselves relating tales of his civic and charitable good works, a light that Knight humbly hides under a basket. In this era of athletic corruption Knight stands four-square for the values of higher education that so many coaches and boot-lickers in the NCAA only pay lip service to. His loyalty is as unquestioned as his integrity. He is the best and brightest … and the most honorable, too. He has it all, every bit of it. Just lying there on the table. He has only to lean down, pick it up and let the chip fall off. But he can’t. For Knight to succeed at basketball — not only to win, you understand, but to succeed because “That’s much harder,” he says — all the world must be in the game. All the people are players, for or against, to be scouted, tested, broken down, built back up if they matter. Life isn’t lived; it’s played. And the rabbits are everywhere.
Perhaps the most revealing statement that Knight makes about himself is this: “You know why Havlicek became such a great pro? Just because he wanted to beat Lucas, that’s why.” Yes, of course, Knight hasn’t even mentioned himself, but that’s the trick. Obviously, if only subconsciously, he’s not really talking about John Havlicek superseding Lucas; he’s talking about himself superseding Havlicek and Lucas both.
The best thing that ever happened to Knight was that after high school — he’s still the greatest star ever to come out of Orrville, Ohio — he didn’t amount to a hill of beans as a player. Knight the failed hero has not only served as the challenge for Knight the coach, but also Knight the disappointed hero is the model for the Everyplayer Knight coaches. That boy was limited, self-centered, frustrated, a pouter, then a bitcher, ultimately a back-biter against his coach, Fred Taylor, who once called Knight “the Brat from Orrville.”
The one thing Knight could do was shoot, a strange low-trajectory shot that was deadly against zones when he had the time to get it off. To this day, no Knight team has ever set up in a zone defense. It’s like Groucho Marx, who once said he didn’t want to be part of any club that would have him as a member.
Although Knight only started two games in three years on the Buckeye varsity, he was a major figure on the team, something of a clubhouse lawyer and a practical joker (which he still is). Dragon and a roommate led the Buckeyes in hustling tickets, and he stunned his wide-eyed teammates with his brash high jinks. On a trip to New York he boldly swiped a couple of bottles of wine from Mamma Leone’s restaurant, and not only pilfered a few ties from a midtown shop, but with the contraband under his coat, he went over to a cop who entered the store at that moment and started chatting him up.
There is little Knight’s players can put over on him because he did just about all of it himself. Taylor wasn’t the only coach Knight challenged, either. In his senior year at Orrville, he defied the school’s new coach by refusing to leave a game for a substitute and was booted off the squad. Although subsequently reinstated, he found that season so unsatisfying that he gave up his baseball eligibility to barnstorm with an all-star basketball team in the spring. “I regret that more than anything I’ve ever done,” he says, because he could hit a baseball and hit with power. Knight probably would’ve been better at baseball than he was at basketball.
Knight was also a pretty fair football end, and as he should’ve been a baseball player, so, by temperament, he would have made a better football coach. Wilkinson, Bryant, Hayes, Schembechler, Paterno and Royal13 are all friends and/or models of his, and he has a tape of Lombardi exhortations, plus a Lombardi polemic hanging on his office wall. And, like football coaches, Knight devotes himself to studying film, back and forth, over and over, like some Buddhist monk with his prayer wheel.
In the dazzle of the tight arena, basketball coaches tend to be popinjays, ruling by force of personality, glint of teeth, while football coaches are distant, solid sorts, administrators, with scores of lieutenants and troops. Being a basketball coach doesn’t seem to prepare you for anything else in life, but even football coaches who can’t win get bumped upstairs to assistant athletic director (a football coach who wins becomes athletic director). “I’ve always thought there’s a greater depth to football coaches,” Knight says.
But that’s subsidiary to the main point: Knight loves all coaches. He will ask people who knew Rupp well to tell him about the old man. What made the Baron tick? Why did he do this? How? He has spent many hours listening to Sparky Anderson. He calls in the old basketball masters and studies at their feet. In his office, the only photographs (apart from those of his teams) are of Pete Newell and Clair Bee. Even as a boy, he would go off on scouting trips with coaches. Bill Shunkwiler, his football coach at Orrville, remembers that after school, when other kids were hanging out, chasing, Bobby would come by Shunkwiler’s house and the two of them would sit and have milk and cookies and talk coach talk.14 Knight still keeps in touch with many of his old coaches, still calls them “Mister,” and there is, in Coach Knight, almost a tribal sense of heritage and tradition.
“I just love the game of basketball so,” he says. “The game! I don’t need the 18,000 people screaming and all the peripheral things. To me, what’s most enjoyable is the practice and preparation.”
The ultimate contradiction is that Bobby Knight, of all people, profane as he is, seeks after purity. What troubles him is that the game must be muddied by outlanders and apostates — the press, for example. In fact, Knight has studied the subject, and he understands the press better than some writers who cover him understand basketball. He even numbers several writers as friends, and sometimes he will actually offer a grudging admiration beyond his famous institutional assessment: “All of us learn to write by the second grade, then most of us go on to other things.” But his truest feelings were probably revealed one day recently when he blurted out, “How do they know what it’s like if they’ve never played? How? How? Tell me: How can they know?”
At the base of everything, this is it: if you’re not part of basketball, you can’t really belong, you can only distort. He has taken over the microphone at Assembly Hall, the Hoosiers’ arena, and told his own fans to back off, be good sports, even to stop using dirty words. Imagine, Knight telling people to improve their language. “It showed no bleeping class,” he snapped afterward.
He just always wanted to be Coach Knight, officially expressing this desire in an autobiography he wrote when he was a junior in high school. It was entitled It’s Been A Great Life (So Far). Nancy Knight remembers nothing otherwise: “All Bobby ever wanted was to be a coach, in the Big Ten.” Even now, when Knight deliberates on the rest of his life, he doesn’t go much beyond his one love. “I hope,” he says, “that when I retire I’ll have enough assistants in head jobs so I can live anywhere I want and still have a place nearby where I can go over and help out and watch some films.” As much as there is such a thing, he’s a natural-born coach.
III: OLDER PEOPLE
Knight’s father — his square name was Carroll, but everyone called him Pat — was a railroad man from Oklahoma, who came to Orrville because it was a railroad town, a division point. The main Pennsy line passed through, and the city slickers from Cleveland and Akron had to journey down on a spur to little Orrville to catch the Broadway Limited. So, despite having only about 5,000 folks when Bobby was growing up, Orrville was not quite as closed and homogeneous as you would expect of a Midwest coloring-book place, set in a dell, with a water tower.
Knight was born there, one of the last of the Depression Babies, on Oct. 25, 1940, a couple of weeks before FDR won his third term over Wendell Willkie and the objections of the Orrville electorate. He was reared in the ’50s. Actually, the ’50s were not much different in attitudes and values from the two decades that preceded them, but what sets the ’50s apart is that they came right before the upheaval of the ’60s. But just as the ’60s flowered, Knight went off to coach at West Point, where his ’50s just kept on going, even becoming sort of a badge of separation.
The ’50s are too often disparaged for being simple, everyone in lockstep. But more accurately, what the ’50s offered, in spades, was definition. In analyzing pre-’60s coaches like the unrepentant Knight, observers tend to confuse definition with discipline. Knight most of all wants to know where people stand — and that they do stand for something. Here’s an example of how rigidly lines were drawn when Knight was growing up.
Shunkwiler takes out a copy of the 1958 MemORRies, the high school yearbook when Knight was a senior, and peruses the photographs of the boys, skipping the ones with pompadours, stopping on the ones who, like Bobby, wore crew cuts: “Athlete … athlete … athlete …,” he says. He comes to yet another boy with short hair. “Not an athlete.” And hastily, “But a good kid.” It was that easy then. More than one-third of the 200 or so boys were involved in athletics. Many of these were also involved in girls, too, but only in their place. If a coach so much as saw one of his players holding hands, he would bark out: “Hey, no skin-to-skin!”
The coach, you see, was a giant of a man in this well-defined culture. Shunkwiler recalls that if a coach was notified by a teacher that one of his players was causing a problem, the coach would take the boy aside and, presto, “That would be the end of the trouble.” Jack Graham, another of Knight’s Orrville basketball coaches, once kicked Bobby out of practice. Knight didn’t head to the locker room, though; he waited patiently in the hallway so he could see Coach as soon as practice ended. “Bobby understood,” Graham says. “I told him, ‘There’s only one man who can be the boss out there, and, Bobby, that’s the coach.’”
Early this season Knight purposely overreacted one day so that he could boot his star, sophomore Guard Isiah Thomas, out of practice. He needed to show the kid, and the whole team, that there can be no exceptions. Some things don’t change. Coach Knight can throw his star out at Indiana University as sure as Coach Graham could at Orrville High. On the team, on the court, time is frozen; it’s been a great life (so far).
What Knight didn’t learn from his coaches came by example from his father, though theirs was an unusual relationship. The father and son weren’t buddies, which has led some people to conclude that Knight’s deep affection for older coaches is a manifestation of a perpetual search for a father figure. To some extent this analysis may be true, but the relationships in the Knight household were more complex than that analysis suggests.
Bobby was born six years into a marriage that had come late in life. Though he was an only child, he had a companion at home — his maternal grandmother, Sarah Henthorne. “A classy lady — the love of Bobby’s life,” says Pauline Boop, who was Knight’s childhood next-door neighbor and remains his friend. No wonder he gets along so well with older people; he grew up in a house full of them.
Both of Knight’s parents worked — Pat on the railroad, Hazel as an elementary school teacher — and although they were loving, they weren’t enthusiastic about the thing their only son loved the most, basketball. But at least Knight always had an ally in his grandmother. She was the one who followed his basketball closely. No matter what the hour, when Bobby came home he would go and kiss her good night. “I think he was closer to his grandmother than he ever was to me or his father,” says the widowed Hazel Knight, who still lives in the house on North Vine Street, across the field from the high school where Bobby starred for the Orrville Red Riders.
Knight came home for spring vacation of his sophomore year at Ohio State, right after the Buckeyes had won the national championship. One day he returned to the house in the afternoon, and his grandmother was sitting there in her favorite chair. She had gone shopping in the morning and was tired. It took a while before Bobby realized that she wasn’t napping, that she was dead. He remembers it very well: “She was just sitting there. Her legs were crossed at the ankles.” Knight’s grandmother had been sick all winter, and there are those in Orrville who say she willed herself to stay alive until the season was over and her beloved Bobby could come home from his basketball to see her. It was during the next two seasons he had all the trouble with Fred Taylor.
Knight’s father died a decade later, when Bobby was 29. In those 29 years, Pat Knight owned only three automobiles. Most places, he walked. He rarely tipped; “Nobody tips me,” he would say. The only thing he ever bought on time was the house on North Vine Street. And he hated to do that. He took out a 20-year mortgage and paid it off in 4½ years. He gave up golf and many other pleasures until he could square accounts. Now, you see, now we are talking about discipline. “My father was the most disciplined man I ever saw,” Bobby Knight says. “Most people, they hear the word discipline, and right away they think about a whip and a chair. I’ve worked up my own definition. And this took a long time. Discipline: doing what you have to do, and doing it as well as you possibly can, and doing it that way all the time.”
Pat Knight was very hard-of-hearing, which limited his communications with his son. He would turn off his hearing aid every night and read the evening paper, front to back. “And he believed every word he read,” Knight says emphatically, explaining why he becomes so distraught when the press fails to meet his expectations. Pat also introduced his son to hunting and fishing, and to this day that’s Bobby’s escape. There are no outsiders to louse it up; it’s as pure, God willing, as basketball should be.
“People are always surprised when they hear about my fishing,” he says. “Everybody thinks I’m going to get so wound up I’m going to have to leave in five minutes. But I don’t carry over that stuff you see on the court. There’s nothing I enjoy more than winding down some river, floating along, watching for deer, counting the squirrels.” A warm smile, a pause, and then: “And nobody knows what you’ve done that day except you and the guys involved.”15
This particular day, he had been away, hunting down in southern Indiana with some of the guys. Nancy had a meeting to attend in the evening, but she passed it up, because Bobby was late getting back. She cooked a huge, scrumptious dinner, but apparently that’s standard fare at the Knights’.16
Whatever other ambiguities Knight has to deal with in these cloudy times, Nancy isn’t one of them. “She’s just a great coach’s wife,” he says. She knows her man, too, knows not to intrude on the game. When Indiana won the NCAA in Philadelphia in 1976,17 Knight and some old friends from basketball and Orrville went out to dinner afterward — the victory celebration, the culmination of his career. Neither Nancy nor any other woman was included.
Says Steve Green, one of Knight’s better players, who graduated in 1975, “He feels women are just an obstacle that must be overcome. Players’ girl friends didn’t really exist for him. Just didn’t exist. If he heard me talking to someone about my wedding, he’d be yelling, ‘Don’t do it! Don’t do it!’”
It is instructive that Knight’s language seldom goes beyond the anal stage. In the course of a day, he describes an incredible number of things being done to the derriere: it’s burned, chewed out, kicked, frosted, blistered, chipped at, etc. Plus, almost every time he loses his temper, there is invariably a literal bottom line, involving the suggestion that the posterior be used as a depot — for money, a whistle, the Time and Life Building, what have you. But, when addressing the fairer sex, Knight has a reputation for purposely expanding his anatomical vocabulary to include graphic references to the male genitalia. This curious proclivity has offended people of both sexes and, perhaps more than anything, has tarnished his personal reputation.
One of Knight’s heroes is Harry S Truman, which is why Give-’em-hell Harry is conspicuously honored by bric-a-brac in Knight’s office. But this graphic assessment of another President, Lyndon Johnson, by columnist William S. White, is eerily applicable to Knight: “His shortcomings were not the polite, pleasant little shortcomings, but the big ones — high temper, of course, too driving a personality, both of others and himself, too much of a perfectionist by far …. Curiously enough I think one of the reasons he didn’t go down better … was that his faults were highly masculine faults and that our society is becoming increasingly less masculine; that there’s a certain femininity about our society that he didn’t fit into.”
On the subject of Bobby and women, Nancy Knight demurs: “I certainly couldn’t have been married more than 17 years to a man who hates women. But I can understand how Bobby feels about some of them. I believe a woman should try and stay in the home. I’ve never been anything but very happy and satisfied to spend my life raising a family.”
Nancy is, really, the only woman who ever came from the outside into Knight’s life. She isn’t pretentious, and their sprawling house, hidden in the woods just outside of Bloomington, is warm and comfortable. But those who would deal glibly in harsh housewife stereotypes must be careful. Everyone who knows the Knights well has the same one secret: Nancy influences Bobby more than you ever would guess.
Like many coaches, she often speaks for her husband in the first person plural — “We got the job at West Point” — but in neither a proprietary nor insecure way. He has the court, she has the home. It’s defined.
Nancy acknowledges that Bobby’s disputes with the press may well be exacerbated by her overreaction to criticism of him. “I read about this ogre,” she says, “and he’s the gentlest, kindest person to his family. He does so much good everywhere. I just can’t stand to see the man I love being torn apart.”
It would also seem that Bobby is equally protective of Nancy. His seemingly exaggerated responses in two major controversies may be traced in part to the fact that Nancy was involved peripherally in each. His protracted altercation with this magazine centers on disputes he has had with Senior Writer Curry Kirkpatrick, who did a piece on the Hoosiers in 1975. But Nancy was also personally wounded by a throwaway line of Kirkpatrick’s, just as she had been by a passing reference another SI writer, Barry McDermott, made in an earlier article. In trying to humorously mock Knight’s martinetism, McDermott suggested that the Hoosier players had gone over to the coach’s house for a holiday meal of bread and water. Nancy, who prides herself on being a gracious hostess and accomplished cook, took the crack literally. “I cried and cried,” she says.
Then there were the 1979 Pan Am Games. Puerto Rico was, in many respects, an accident waiting to happen. Those who know Knight best say the episode traumatized him, and while he’s a chatterbox, he talks compulsively on this subject. And he still won’t give an inch. “There is no way I was going down there and turn the other cheek,” he says. “If there was trouble, I was ready to give it right back to them. The first day we were down there, they burned some American flags. There was tremendous resentment toward the United States, tremendous hostility. Listen, America means a lot to me. If the guy …”
“The Guy. If The Guy says tomorrow, hey, this country is in trouble and it needs you in this position or that one, then I give up coaching tomorrow and go.”
So, even before the officious San Juan policeman threatened him — cursing him, poking at him — Knight was simmering. Then he became concerned for the safety of Nancy and his two sons. “It was terrifying,” she says. “We had to change apartments. I couldn’t sit in my seat at the games. I had to stay at the press table. I feared for my life and my children’s.”
However Knight behaved in Puerto Rico — “You have no respect for anybody. You treat us like dirt. You are an embarrassment to America, our country. You are an Ugly American,” a Puerto Rican sports official snapped at him after the Pan Am basketball final — it must be understood that Knight perceived, correctly or not, that the three things he values most in his life were being menaced — his family, his country and his team.
Late in his senior year at Ohio State, Knight considered a job at a high school in Celina, Ohio as the coach of basketball and an assistant in football. He liked the place, but walking back across the school’s gridiron, he kicked at the turf and shook his head. “I thought, if I’m going to be a basketball coach, I can’t be diverted,” he says. “I wanted vertical concentration. That’s still the essence of my coaching.” So he took a lesser job as a basketball assistant, without any football responsibility, in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. In his first game as head coach of the 10th-graders, he broke a clipboard.
A year later, with Taylor’s help, the Brat from Orrville got the assistant’s post at West Point under Tates Locke, enlisting in the Army to qualify for the job. When Locke left in 1965,18 the brass stunned everybody by giving Pfc. Knight the job. “I’ve never had any apologies for being a head coach at 24,” he says. “I was making $99 a month then. I have no sympathy for people who don’t make progress because they won’t accept the pay somewhere.” Money has never motivated Knight. He has turned down raises, preferring that the money go to his assistants, and he professes not even to know what his salary is — except that, relative to what other teachers at Indiana make, it’s too much. This is not to say, of course, that Knight wears a hair shirt. He has a television show, a summer basketball camp, the free use of a car, and, he volunteers, Checkers-like, “I did take a fishing rod once.” Also, it’s an absolute point of pride with him that he must be paid as much as the Hoosier football coach, Lee Corso. But just as pointedly he has advised alumni and the commercial camp-followers who grubstake coaches on the side to take a wide berth. Recently, however, Knight decided he was a fool to look a gift horse in the mouth, so he solicited bids from shoe companies that were willing to pay him in the hope that his players would wear their sneakers. Adidas won, but instead of sticking this “pimp money,” as he calls it, in his own pocket, Knight is turning it over to the university.
This isn’t going to endear Knight to the coach who’s looking to put a new Florida room on the house, just as a lot of Knight’s colleagues weren’t thrilled two years ago when he kicked three players off his team for abuses of training rules (drugs, obviously), and then trumpeted that he was the only coach extant with the “guts” to live up to his principles. But his honor even exceeds his smugness. “He just doesn’t cheat,” says Newell. “Never. Bobby doesn’t even rationalize. Instead, what he does do is the single most important thing in coaching: he turns out educated kids who are ready for society.”
Now Knight is on an even broader crusade, trying to impose on others, by legislation, his devotion to academics. He would like the NCAA to pass a regulation that would deny a college some of its allotment of athletic scholarships if its players don’t graduate within a year after their eligibility ends. That is, if a coach has five so-called student-athletes finishing up on the team in 1981 and only two graduate by 1982, then the coach can only replace the five with two new recruits. “With this, you’re making the faculty a police department for the NCAA,” Knight says. “Even if you can get a few professors to pimp for a coach, you can’t buy a whole damn faculty.” He laughs, devilishly. “And how can a coach vote against this plan? How can anyone vote publicly against education?”
Nothing pleases Knight as much as the success his players have had off the court. Indeed, he uses their accomplishments to justify the controversial “way we operate,” saying, “Look, if all our players were losing jobs, I’d have to reassess my way. And if I heard some of my old players blistering my ass for the way I run things, I’d have to reassess. But, you see, despite all the crap you read, the only ones who’ve ever complained are the kids who didn’t play, got frustrated and quit.”
But, tit for tat, it may also be true that Knight’s players have a high success rate because only success-oriented types would select Indiana basketball in the first place. In other words, the twigs only grow as they were bent a long time ago.
Knight’s honesty extends to his recruiting. When a recruit is brought to Bloomington, he’s introduced to the whole squad, and not merely sequestered with a happy star, a Mr. Personality and a pretty cheerleader. Parents of recruits are encouraged to talk with parents of present squad members. Knight doesn’t have a missionary instinct. He isn’t, he says, “an animal trainer. Recruit jackasses, they play like jackasses.” Instead: “We’ve drawn up a personality profile, and you might even say it’s a narrow-minded thing.”
So, black or white, rich or poor, the neatly groomed Indiana players tend to be well-intentioned young things, upwardly mobile, serious about education and so well adjusted that they can endure Coach Knight’s wrath in fair exchange for the bounty of his professional genius. Calculated coach, calculated players.
The hand-picked Hoosiers are expected to speak to the press, even in defeat, the better to mature and cope. They dress in coats and ties on game days, and during the season must wear trim haircuts, without beards or mustaches.
Significantly, things have gone awry only since the national championship season, soon after which a number of players quit, some castigating Knight, and two seasons after that when the coach bounced the three players for disciplinary reasons. “All of a sudden I won, and I thought I could be a social worker, too,” he says. “I thought I could take a guy off death row at Sing Sing and turn him into a basketball player.” Never again. The prime result of that convulsion has been an even more careful weeding-out process. A single blackball from a team member can eliminate a prospect from consideration, and as a consequence, a sort of natural selection of the species has occurred. The system has become so inbred that, as contradictory as this sounds, rough-tough Knight’s team now includes a bunch of nice Nellys. The Hoosier basketball coaches all worried about this even before this rather disappointing season — Indiana was 10-6 at the end of last week19 — confirmed their fears. Knight himself, like a grizzled old soldier, waxes nostalgic about the single-minded roughnecks who chopped their way to victory for him at the Point.
Had Knight never won a game at Indiana, he would have secured a lasting reputation for his work at Army, where he succeeded with little talent and no height. At Indiana, as well, the mark of Knight as coach goes far beyond his mere W-L totals. When he arrived in Bloomington, the entire Big Ten played run-and-gun, in the image of Indiana, the conference’s traditional lodestar: racehorse ball, the Hurryin’ Hoosiers. It wasn’t just a catchy sports nickname. It was a real statement. The Hurryin’ Hoosiers. The Bronx Bombers. The Monsters of the Midway. There aren’t many of them. But no matter how much the old alumni whined at the loss of tradition and hittin’ a hundred, Knight went his own way. From Knight’s arrival through last week, Indiana has gone 215-65, but, more significantly, the average Big Ten score has declined from 74.0 to 67.5 in that span.
His strategic axioms are firm — no zones, disciplined offense — but he exercises latitude year by year, permitting himself to be dictated to by his material and the state of the art. He has such consummate confidence in his ability as a coach that he suffers no insecurity about crediting the sources of his handiwork. It all came from other coaches, didn’t it? His defense is based on the old Ohio State pressure game, which Taylor had borrowed from Newell. His offense is an amalgam of the freelancing style used at Princeton in the early ’60s, by Butch van Breda Kolff (“The best college coach I ever saw”), intertwined with the passing game that the venerable Hank Iba employed at Oklahoma State.
This season Knight was willing to modify some of his most cherished tenets to permit Isiah Thomas more artistic freedom. But, ultimately, those who would survive at Indiana, much less succeed, must subjugate themselves to the one man and his one way. Incredibly, 10 of Knight’s former assistants are head coaches at major colleges, but those who coach under him are strictly that: underlings. Among other things, they aren’t allowed to utter so much as a word of profanity before the players. Only Bobby.
He prowls the practice court, slouched, belly out, usually with a sour, disbelieving expression upon his visage. He is dressed in Indiana red and white, but of a different mix-and-match from his assistants’. Except for a few instructions barked out by these subordinates, the place is silent as a tomb. Only the most privileged visitors are permitted to watch this class.
The chosen few watch on two levels of consciousness: what they see before them, and what they anticipate Coach Knight might do next. If he really contrives to make a point, he will perhaps merely rage, or pick up a chair and slam it against the wall, or dismiss a hopeless athlete. It’s like technical fouls — you don’t ever get them, you take them. And, like every good coach, Knight knows how to deal with the unexpected. One day a few years ago Knight kicked a ball in anger. He caught it perfectly on his instep and the ball soared toward the very heavens, straight up. More miraculously, when it plummeted back to earth, it fell into a wastebasket, lodging there. It was a million-to-one shot, something from a Road Runner cartoon. But nobody dared change his expression. Finally, Knight began to grin, then to laugh, and only at that point did everyone else break up.
“I’ve always said, all along, that if I ever get to a point where I can’t control myself, I’ll quit,” Knight says stoutly, though unmindful, perhaps, that he can drive things out of control even as he skirts the edge himself.
VI: MORE RABBITS
John Havlicek once said, “Bobby was quite a split personality. There were times when we were good friends and, then, like that, times when he wouldn’t even talk to me.” Knight says, “My manners set me apart in a little cocoon, and that’s something that’s very beneficial to me.” Maybe, but too many people humor Knight instead of responding to him, and that may be the single real deprivation of his life.
The one group of people who can still treat him honestly are the older coaches, Dutch uncles, who have earned his respect. A few years ago he took on as an assistant Harold Andreas, the man who had first hired him as an assistant at Cuyahoga Falls. What a wonderful gesture! Andreas retired from coaching in 1977, and so, in Andreas’ place as the father/grandmother figure, Knight hired Roy Bates, who used to coach one of Orrville High’s rivals. Bates, who recently took a leave of absence because of poor health, is a no-nonsense fellow with a crippled left arm, whose teams were 441-82 in basketball and 476-52 in baseball. Bates adored Knight, and though Knight had three younger assistants, it was the older man he was closest to, literally and otherwise. Bates always sat next to him on the bench.
Still Bates had to be tested, like everyone else. He has had a radio show in Ohio since 1949, and one time a while ago, when he was staying at the Knights’, he asked Bobby to do a five-minute tape with him. Bobby said sure, but then he put Bates off and put him off. Finally, one day Bates said, “You know, Bobby, I’ve had that radio show for 30 years without you on it.” And with that, he put on his coat and headed for the car. By the time Bates had started up the driveway, Knight was out there, waving for him to come back, and as soon as Bates arrived back at his home in Ohio, Bobby was on the phone to him. Knight was still in control of himself. But not of events.
“Bobby has got so much,” Bates says. “And nobody can ever get him. He doesn’t cheat. He doesn’t drink. He doesn’t even chase women. But for some reason he thinks he has been a bad boy, and no matter how successful he becomes, he thinks he must be punished.”
This may be the best clue of all. Certainly, Knight accepts success defensively, if not suspiciously. His office celebrates underdogs like Truman and Lombardi, who weren’t expected to triumph but, given the chance, thrived on their own sweet terms. And Patton is in evidence, as you might expect. A mean-spirited quote of his hangs on the wall, keynoting a display — an anthology — of paranoid sentiments.
Patton warns ominously that if you strive for a goal, “your loyal friends [will do] their hypocritical Goddamndest to trip you, blacken you and break your spirit.” A flanking prayer advises, “If man thwart you pay no heed/If man hate you have no care.…” And an essay entitled “The Penalty of Leadership” warns, “The reward is widespread recognition, the punishment fierce denial and detraction.”
Is it really that lonely at the top?
Knight also passes out copies of If to visitors.
And yet, as wary as he is of the hypocritical rabbits all around him, Knight is, in many respects, even more unsparing of himself. The game, we hear so often, has passed so-and-so by. With Knight, it may be the reverse; he may have passed it by. But he loves it so, and therefore he must concoct hurdles so that he can still be challenged by it. He even talks a lot about how nobody is really capable of playing the game well. Ultimately, it may be the final irony that the players themselves must become interlopers, separating him from the game.
Already he has gone so far that at age 40 winning is no longer the goal. “Look, I know this,” he says. “If you’re going to play the game, you’re going to get more out of it winning. I know that, sure. Now, at West Point I made up my mind to win — gotta win. Not at all costs. Never that. But winning was the hub of everything I was doing. And understand, I’ve never gotten over West Point. Winning had to be more important there, and I had a point to prove. I was just coming off a playing career during which I didn’t do as well as I’d hoped. I had to win. And so, to some extent, I won’t ever change.
“But somewhere I decided I was wrong. You could win and still not succeed, not achieve what you should. And you can lose without really failing at all. But it’s harder to coach this way, with this, uh, approach. I’m sure I’d be easier on myself and on other people if just winning were my ultimate objective.” He pauses; he is in his study at home, amid his books, away from all the basketball regalia. “I never said much about this before.”
It was a good secret. Now, Bobby Knight is one step closer to utter control of his game. Now all those dim-witted rabbits cannot touch him. They’ll be looking at the scoreboard and the AP poll, judging him by those, but they won’t have a clue, not the foggiest. Nobody holds a mortgage on him. Now, you see, now we are talking about definition.
Nancy says: “People keep asking me if Bobby is mellowing. We’re not mellowing. What we are, we’re growing up with the game. You’ve got to remember that not many people get a chance to start coaching in their 20s. We’re not mellowing. Growing up is still more of the word for us.”
There is still so much time for the Knights to take what is theirs and enjoy it. It can be a great life (someday).
Knight and his team wrote their own epilogue to the cover story,20 recovering from their 10-6 start to capture the Big Ten title, then going on to win Knight’s second national championship, defeating North Carolina by 13 in the title game. Even that victory came with its own off-the-court controversy. The Saturday of the semifinals, after Indiana beat LSU, Knight was back at the team hotel in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, when he got into a scrap with an LSU fan.
After the season, Deford reached out to Knight. “I called him up or wrote him a note,” says Deford. “I think I called him up and said, ‘There you go — shooting rabbits again.’ He was chagrined. He kind of laughed.”
Knight and Deford’s paths would cross again. Deford visited the campus twice for a profile on Knight for the HBO series Real Sports, in the aftermath of revelations that Knight had choked one of his players, Neil Reed, during a practice in 1997. “Then we do the piece and it’s, I think, a very fair piece,” says Deford. “But Gumbel can’t stand him. So the conversation after the piece is Bryant Gumbel really criticizing Knight and almost putting me in a position where I had to defend him.” Knight phoned Deford the morning after the story aired, saying he wouldn’t have cooperated for the piece if he’d known that Gumbel was going to be so critical, and Deford defended himself, saying he had no control over what Gumbel was going to say.21
Of course, Deford’s analysis was prescient. Knight’s inability to control his temper ultimately cost him his job at Indiana. After Indiana president Myles Brand had adopted a “zero-tolerance” policy for Knight in the wake of the Reed incident, Knight reportedly grabbed an Indiana student (who had addressed him simply as “Knight”) and lectured him about respect.
“Obviously, Bob’s sense of proportion was always an issue with him, but I certainly don’t think it was more than one amongst several factors which brought his career at IU to an end,” says Deford. “He didn’t adapt to the times, found it harder to bring in good players who would put up with his old-style coaching. Anyway, especially for coaches, there’s always going to be a time to leave the party, and it’s seldom one thing which ushers even the most successful long-termers out the door.”
More of Deford’s work for Sports Illustrated can be found here.
Michael MacCambridge (@MacCambridge) is the author of America’s Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation and Lamar Hunt: A Life in Sports.