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SI 60 Q&A: Frank Deford on dimples, diatribes and hunting rabbits with Bobby Knight

In this SI 60 Q&A, Ted Keith talks with Frank Deford about the latter's famous Sports Illustrated profile of Bobby Knight, "The Rabbit Hunter." 
Frank Deford SI 60 Q&A

By the start of the 1980-81 college basketball season, Bobby Knight occupied a unique standing in American sports: loved for his accomplishments and often loathed for his behavior, and all by the age of 40. Knight, who had played on Ohio State's 1960 national championship team, became a Division I head coach at age 24, at Army, and six years later he took over the storied program at Indiana. He almost immediately resurrected the Hoosiers' program, taking them to the Final Four in 1973 and in 1975-76, guiding them to a 32-0 season and the national title. It is still the most recent undefeated campaign at that level. Yet Knight also developed a reputation as a bully, most notably for his behavior at the 1979 Pan American Games, where he was accused of assaulting a police officer. 

A year later, Sports Illustrated assigned Frank Deford -- who, like Knight, was atop his profession -- a lengthy profile of the controversial coach. That story, "The Rabbit Hunter," ran in the Jan. 26, 1981 issue and was later anthologized in The Best American Sportswriting Of The Century.

It remains notable as much for its brilliance at the time as for the way it continued to provide relevant insight into Knight as his career progressed. He took the Hoosiers to a second national title just two months after this story was published, and he would win a third in 1987. But he was fired in 2000 for violating a "zero tolerance" conduct policy the school put in place in response to a 1997 incident in which Knight was filmed appearing to put his hands around the throat of one of his players, Neil Reed. Knight later coached at Texas Tech before retiring in 2008 as the sport's all-time winningest coach (since passed by Mike Krzyzewski, a former player of his at Army).

I spoke to Deford about the story and the coach.

SI: One of the great things about this story is how prescient it is, which might just be another way of saying that even though it was written in 1981 Knight never really changed much by the time he left Indiana in 2000 and probably even today.

The Rabbit Hunter: A penetrating profile of Bobby Knight

DEFORD: I think everybody felt, like [ex-Cal coach] Pete Newell said in the story, that Bobby was always so close to destructing. You could see that he was always walking a fine line. But in general it it was self-destruction that finally brought him down. I think it’s fair to say this, Ted, it would have been harder and harder to find good players that would have come and played for him. I think that’s what was getting more and more difficult. Why would a kid put up with that crap? Particularly the ones who were only going to be there for a year or two. I think he would have had a harder time winning even if you lay everything else aside.

SI: Did you know Knight at all before writing this story?

DEFORD: That’s a funny story. I had not ever covered Bobby Knight, never even encountered him. I had stopped covering college basketball after Lew Alcindor’s sophomore year at UCLA (1966-67). During the '60s I covered both college and pro basketball, and the sport was not looked upon with a great deal of favor at SI. Nobody else wanted to do it, it was a sweaty sport and we were still quasi upper class. I was covering them both and they gave me the choice and said, “What do you want, you can’t cover them both anymore,” -- not like a punishment – “which would you want to cover?” In a flash I said, “The pros.” I liked the pros better and I knew Alcindor was going to win two more titles, so what was the point of it? It also was true that Curry Kirkpatrick liked colleges better.

So I’m gone from college sports from ‘67 on. After the Knicks won the NBA championship in 1970 I got off the basketball beat altogether. From then on I was doing almost exclusively features. So you can see there was a long gap between me being a basketball writer and Bobby Knight being on the scene. So it wasn’t surprising that I hadn’t known Knight when I did this story.

Knight had a real [animus toward] the magazine, mostly because of Kirkpatrick. He really despised him. Curry was kind of cute and a real dude and everything that Knight didn’t like. Curry was the real guy that got under his skin, so I thought to myself, If I just call the guy up he may just slam the phone down and then we’re lost. So I wrote him a letter. In the letter, Ted, this is what was really funny, I said, “I know you have an animus against SI but you’ve got to admit that I’ve never written a negative word about you, so I’m starting off fair and square.”

Wouldn’t you know it, he had remembered five or six years before that in a throwaway line in a movie review I had slammed him. It was just a passing line that was about a hard-ass coach in the film, and I said he made Bobby Knight look nice or something like that. [EDITOR'S NOTE: Deford had actually mentioned Knight several times in stories but never written a piece solely about him. The reference Deford makes here is to a 1977 review of the movie One On One, in which he called the film's fictional basketball coach, " villainous a creation that any player would leave Western straightaway in order to play under benign, softhearted Bobby Knight."]  ​

So I don’t hear back from him. Suddenly I get a phone call from him out of the blue. During this time he had been checking out on me, doing his due diligence on Frank Deford. He checked it out with the writers he knew to sort of get the lay of the land. He says, “How can I believe you? You said you’d never written anything bad about me.” I must have turned every color of red, even though I was just on the phone, but he had me dead to rights. He said essentially, “I’ll overlook that.” So he agreed to do the story.

Once he decided to do the story, Bobby’s no dummy, then he was going to cooperate to the fullest. There was no sense, in his mind, in letting us do a long piece on him and making it difficult for us. It always surprises me when people do that. They say yeah you can do it and then they don’t cooperate. It’s stupid, self-defeating.

SI: How was the access he gave you?

DEFORD: He couldn’t have been more open with me. There was only one thing, and I’ve always wondered about this: I showed up at his office on the day I had agreed to meet him, and his secretary says, “Oh no, Coach Knight is supposed to meet you tomorrow.” Now, I have never known and never asked him whether that was gamesmanship. I knew two things. It could have been a natural mistake. Or he could have been waiting for me. So I didn’t say anything to him when we finally met the next day. I didn’t even say, “I’d been by your office yesterday.” I just showed up and we started form there.

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We spent the whole day together, and I think it was 1:30, 2:00 in the morning when I left his house. He’s a great war student, and he was surprised to find that I knew a little bit -- not as much as he did but could hold my own -- so we talked mostly about the Civil War and World War II, not about basketball.

In the time that followed he was just totally open with me. There was this one incredible stretch of five minutes there which really moves your mind, in which he – right in front of me, almost like it was for my benefit -- attacks a female coach and kind of rips into the black assistant. It was weird, really weird. It’s not like he came over afterward and said, “I wish you wouldn’t write that.” Nothing!

That makes you wonder: What was the point of that? Why did he do that? That was what was so intriguing about Knight. Why would he do that? He just was a fascinating guy and he goes on that year to win the national championship and he throws somebody into a trash can down at the Final Four.

SI: Did you ever get an answer?

DEFORD: No. I can remember years later, like five or seven years ago, he was a speaker at the New York Athletic Club at some charity affair. He wears a sweater. Everybody there is wearing a tie. For once he can’t put on a coat and tie? It’s just like, I’m going to be Bobby, I’m going to do things my way and if you don’t like it that’s your problem. And there you’re talking about a mature man in his 60s.

By the way, he got up there and just absolutely charmed the entire audience, even though he started off by insulting the priest. But that’s it. I’m Bobby Knight and I’m going to do it my way. That’s all I can say [about the practice incident]. He was showing me the real Bobby Knight, just like at that dinner.

SI: Were you interested in writing about him?

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Knight had a certain superior attitude, that he was morally better than a lot of his colleagues even thought they got more press for being good guys. You gotta remember he was going to be the Olympic coach. I don’t remember if they had already selected him, but he was held in very high esteem by his colleagues, somewhat like Dean Smith, who was also very admiring of Knight. People would always qualify it: “I wish Bobby Knight wouldn’t do such and such, but he runs an honest program.”

And I never heard that he didn’t run an honest program. I think Knight thrived on that, thinking, People may be harsh on me but they know who I am.

The point I’m making is that there was a lot of good in Bobby Knight, there really was. He was just this bifurcated character. I remember the title of the story, "The Rabbit Hunter." He would blow things up to such an extent. He would go after rabbits with howitzers, with A-bombs. He would tell his own players not to do that and to use a certain amount of proportion and perspective, and then he would himself go berserk.

But we got along together very well. He was very good company, he was fun to be with -- he’ll pontificate, but if you’re doing a story you want them to pontificate.

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SI: Do you think he was ever trying to be someone else around you?

DEFORD: I don’t think so, I don’t think Knight would do that. Never mind my story, it’s John Feinstein’s book [A Season On The Brink] that’s the whole thing. What’s surprising to me about that is that Knight at least affected shock that Feinstein had characterized him the way that he had seen him.

SI: You characterized him pretty well too. You might be the only person who ever wrote about his dimples.

DEFORD: I still think that might be the best lead I ever wrote. Oh God, I thought it was clever. I don’t know where that came from. “But he takes extras on bile,” I said. Where that came from I don’t know but that was as clever a lead as I ever wrote. Maybe the fact that the best part of me is my dimples, so maybe I’m more dimple conscious than most people. That’s just vanity. If I was a big, strong guy I’d probably notice muscles more than I do.

SI: Was the rest of the writing and reporting just as easy?

DEFORD: When you have such rich material if you’ve got that then it’s a whole lot easier to be a good writer and so I had rich material here and therefore it was an easier story.

It was pretty straightforward, he was extraordinarily open with me, we had very candid and good conversations and I don’t remember anytime when he said, "Don’t write that," after he said something. I don’t remember anytime where we got into a harsh argument. Maybe that means I wasn’t tough enough on him but I don’t think so.

The reporting was easy, oh absolutely. I always did better with people who were open with me. I’m not any kind of investigative reporter at all, and the contentious kind of stuff was never my cup of tea. I was trying to understand people and put them in context. You do better with that when you’re talking to someone who is giving of himself. I was always better that way. I was a better conversationalist than a prosecuting attorney.

Bobby Knight 1981 cover

I’m sure there were times I wasn’t as strong a reporter as I should have been because I wasn’t tough enough. But that was balanced by the fact that I could get people to open up with sugar. That was my strength: to bring somebody into my confidence. I’m good with that, much better than pointing the finger.

This is a big generalization: It’s easier for men to interview women and the other way around. Interviewing is like dating in high school. That’s all it is, just taken to a different level. Men are reluctant, they don’t make as good friends with themselves as women do, so they don’t open up. I always felt very comfortable interviewing women and enjoyed it, particularly because in sports you don’t get that many.

SI: What do you think of the story now?

DEFORD: I’m not much for going back and reading my old stories or old books. This story was so overshadowed by John’s book that I guess it had to be sort of rediscovered later on when suddenly the century ended and then people started saying what a fabulous story it was.

SI: Did Knight ever tell you what he thought of it?

DEFORD: I think he liked it, but he didn’t write me a letter or anything like that. He accepted it, because otherwise he wouldn’t have been kind to me in the times that we saw each other in the years that followed. That was his way of saying it was a good story. But no, he never said what he thought about it one way or another, which doesn’t surprise me. The fact that is he did always remain friendly with me right up until that last time I saw him.

SI: When was that?

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DEFORD: He gave a speech a few years ago at Texas Tech and before the speech they gave a little dinner for me and damned if he didn’t show up. We spent a lot of time together. Let’s just say I think he thinks I’m a fair journalist. And I think he must think that I portrayed him pretty accurately.

SI: Do you think he’s still hunting rabbits?

DEFORD: He can’t let things go because then he wouldn’t be Bobby Knight. Then he would be hypocritical, then he would be soft. You can’t do that, you’ve gotta stand up for what you believe and never give in, that kind of thing. It would be hard to use the word mellowed with Bobby Knight but I think that he’s fairly happy with the life that he has right now.

I hope he’s happy and that he’s found a certain contentment and that he’s enjoying his sunset years. He deserves to, he was great