February 04, 2008

Bob Knight always assured me that he wouldn't go out like Woody Hayes, the iconic Ohio State football coach who imploded on national TV during the 1978 Gator Bowl. Late in the game, Clemson linebacker Charlie Baumann intercepted a Buckeye pass and was tackled on the Ohio State sideline. Hayes punched Baumann in the neck when he got up, and the officials kicked Hayes out of the game. A few days later he was fired by the university where he had won three national championships.

Knight got to know Hayes during his undergraduate days at Ohio State from 1958-62, and, the truth be told, he derived a lot more of his coaching personality and style from Hayes than he did from his basketball coach, Fred Taylor. Even then, Knight knew that coaching would be his destiny, so he often picked Hayes' brains and attended his practices.

He liked the way Hayes emphasized academics, made friends with faculty members, and avidly studied military history. He also noted that like Ted Williams, his baseball idol, Hayes had little use for the media and sometimes allowed his passion for winning to boil over into confrontations with officials, fellow coaches, and fans.

I once asked Knight -- it might have been after the infamous chair-tossing incident in the early 1980s -- if he ever worried that he would pull a Woody.

"No," he said. "It'll never happen. I'm always in a lot more control than I might look. I know what I'm doing. I'm going to go out under my own terms."

And so he did. On Monday night, it was announced that Knight had resigned his job at Texas Tech, effective immediately, and would be replaced by Pat Knight, his son, former player at IU, and university-sanctioned coach-in-waiting.

Why now? Why step aside only days after he had become the first coach to reach 900 career victories? Could it be that the man who began his head coaching career when LBJ was in the White House finally has become burned out? Or is it something more complicated, something that Knight may -- or may not -- share with the media?

I haven't talked with him since late last year, although I did get a Christmas card from Knight and his wife, Karen. I had no reason to think he had become tired or unhappy. I laughed along with basketball fans everywhere at what he said and did when he brought one of his grandchildren to a post-game press conference recently.

He told me he loved living in Lubbock, where he pretty much had the run of the town -- just as he did in Bloomington, Ind., for 29 years -- and could go hunting or fishing whenever he wanted. He said he liked being out of the basketball mainstream, and I suppose, in some ways, he did.

Yet I also think he missed coaching in an area of the country where basketball is more important than it is in West Texas. Think about it. He grew up in the heart of Big Ten country, and his home in Orrville, Ohio, was close enough to Kentucky that he could listen to the the broadcasts of Adolph Rupp's great teams on 50,000-watt WHAS radio in Louisville.

During his career at Ohio State, the Buckeyes were the dominant program in college basketball. Led by center Jerry Lucas and forward John Havlicek, the Buckeyes won the 1960 NCAA title, then were upset by in-state rival Cincinnati in two straight championship games.

Although Knight never rose higher than sixth-man status during his playing career, he loved being a part of the action. From his seat on the bench, he studied the great coaches and teams of the time. He wanted to know what made Jerry West tick, or why California coach Pete Newell played the offense he did.

At West Point, where he succeeded Tates Locke in 1965, Knight spent a lot of time attending games in Madison Square Garden, where he made it a point to befriend legendary older coaches such as Clair Bee, Joe Lapchick, Pete Carlesimo, and Doggie Julian. The old-timers were pleased to be remembered, and they shared their stories and philosophies with the eager kid.

Of course, from the day Knight set foot on the Indiana campus in Bloomington, Indiana always was on the cutting edge of what was happening in college hoops. He took his second team to the NCAA Final Four, where it lost to Bill Walton's sophomore team at UCLA. The game turned in UCLA's favor when Walton got the better of a charge-block situation with IU's Steve Downing, and Knight still contends it was a bad call.

Love Knight or hate him -- and with most people it was one or the other, no middle ground -- you couldn't ignore him.

Despite his occasional lapses into boorish behavior, the fans throughout the state always forgave him, probably because he embodied the small-town values that Hoosiers hold dear -- hard work, honesty, intelligence, and unpretentiousness.

When Knight would go out to eat, he favored out-of-the-way rib joints to fancy restaurants. He came to eschew coats and ties for sweaters. He was just plain Bob to most Hoosiers, one of their own, and they loved it when he would tell a big-city media wiseguy where he could stuff his notebook.

On Senior Night during his son's last season as a player, Knight stood in the middle of the floor and said, "When I die, I want them to bury me upside down so my critics can kiss my ass." That inspired a huge ovation.

But then IU finally got a president, Myles Brand, who didn't buy into the idea that Knight was irreplaceable. He made it clear that he would not tolerate behavior from Knight that would reflect poorly on the university.

Inevitably, Knight took that as a challenge, with the result that his last four or five seasons in Bloomington were rife with behind-the-scenes political strife. Many in the administration, especially in the athletics department, were forced to take sides. It became a power struggle that Knight couldn't win.

One of the many who were caught in the middle was IU Athletics Director Clarence Doninger, who had been close to Knight since he served as his legal counsel during the 1979 Pan-Am Games fiasco in Puerto Rico. When Doninger tried to carry out his boss's orders, Knight felt betrayed.

Leaving Bloomington against his will, Knight was so angry with IU that he sued the university for violating state law in the way his firing was handled. (The suit eventually was tossed out.) He also cut off friends who tried to help the Hoosier basketball program or his successor, Mike Davis. When blue-chip prospect Sean May -- whose father, Scott, had starred for Knight's unbeaten 1976 NCAA title team -- picked North Carolina over Indiana, Knight said he didn't have anything to do with it, but his critics didn't believe him.

After a year away, Knight returned to coaching at Texas Tech. The national media was surprised, because Lubbock, Tex., has never exactly been a hoops hotbed. At the time, however, Tech offered just what Knight wanted -- membership in an elite conference, an excellent arena and a commitment to improving its basketball program, and, most importantly, an athletics director, Gerald Myers, who was one of Knight's old coaching buddies.

Because of his gratitude to Myers and the university, Knight has been relatively well-behaved during his five years in Lubbock. Oh, sure, there was a dust-up with an administrator at a restaurant, the face-tapping of a player, and a recent squabble with a farmer on one of Knight's hunting trips. Mostly, though, Knight has kept himself out of the headlines.

He wanted to coach one more team good enough to make the Final Four, but he quickly found that most high-profile recruits didn't find Lubbock to be nearly as appealing as he did. When I talked with him last year, Knight lamented that he never had to worry about keeping track of unofficial visits because no recruit lived close enough to visit Lubbock on his own.

He also became frustrated that fan support, while vastly improved, still was far below what he had known at Ohio State and Indiana. Football still is king in Texas, including Lubbock. The night he got his 900th win, Knight thanked the fans for filling the arena for a change, a tinge of sarcasm in his voice.

It's anybody's guess what Knight will do now, but don't be surprised to see him turn up as a national TV or radio analyst. Back in 1980, he was legendary announcer Cawood Ledford's sidekick for the national radio broadcast of the NCAA Final Four, and Ledford said he had never worked with a better analyst.

After winning his second national title in 1981, Knight seriously considered retiring so he could accept a lucrative offer from CBS. But he decided to stay in coaching at least partly because he felt an obligation to Landon Turner, a star on his championship team who had become paralyzed in an automobile accident.

Or who knows? Maybe Knight will turn up as some kind of coach-in-residence at one of the service academies. When I questioned him once about his motivation, Knight said, "In a sense, I've never really stopped coaching at West Point. I loved everything about it -- the discipline, the commitment, the values."

That might have been fine in the 1940s or '50s, but it became increasingly difficult to teach and coach that way in the last 25 years. Society changed, but Bob Knight never did.

Unfortunately for Knight, he'll be remembered more for his displays of temper than for his commitment to academics and abiding by the NCAA rules. But all that aside, he was a coaching giant. He revolutionized Big Ten basketball with his emphasis on man-to-man defense, and today almost every major college team in America plays a variation of the motion offense that Knight learned from Newell, Henry Iba, and others.

When Hayes was fired at Ohio State, he said, "Nobody despises to lose more than I do. That's got me into trouble over the years, but it also made a man of mediocre ability into a pretty good coach."

That could fit Knight as well as Hayes, except for this: Neither was a made of mediocre ability. Like Hayes, Knight had a passion for his sport that burned deeply within, often to his detriment.

"Hell, Billy," he once told me, "you have to understand that I can't be what you want me to be. I have to be what I want me to be."

And to the end, for better or worse, he was.

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