When college basketball's most combustible coach made his way to
the woodshed last Saturday night--the woodshed being Bryan
House, the campus residence of Indiana president Myles Brand--a
question came with him. How do you fire Bob Knight, anyway?
The answer is, you don't. You let him sweet-talk you into one
more chance. In an equivocal conclusion to what had turned into
a kind of off-season on the brink, Brand hauled Knight back from
what would have been an abysmal end to his career in
Bloomington. At a press conference on Monday, after a seven-week
investigation by the school's board of trustees that uncovered
example after example of Knight's misbehaving, Brand announced
that the coach would remain at Indiana, notwithstanding "a
pattern of inappropriate behavior." The president, a philosophy
Ph.D. who specializes in action theory, took action, but it was
mild: He suspended Knight for three games next season, docked
him $30,000 in salary and laid down "zero tolerance" rules for
his behavior at practice, in games and in all public capacities,
including his dealings with the press. "Should Bob Knight
violate any of these requirements, he will be terminated," Brand
said, adding that Knight would have been fired if he hadn't
agreed to all these conditions. "We want to send a clear message
that abusive, uncivil and embarrassing behavior will not be
Brand all but said that Knight's late-night visit had allowed
Knight to coach another day. "Before the meeting I didn't
believe he could change his behavior," Brand said. But the mood
of his visitor, he added, was "clearly unique. I'd never seen
him before contrite and apologetic...sincere. He made a personal
pledge to me to change his behavior. He gave me his personal
word. And I believe him."
For 29 years people beyond Bloomington, seeing only the hurled
chairs, the churlish bullying, the physical and verbal abuse,
wondered why Indiana put up with Knight. If only you knew him as
we do, his defenders replied, citing his loyalty, honesty and
devotion to stout standards for his players in a world gone lax.
So the pattern held, even as recently as two weeks ago. To be
sure, a handful of former players earlier had joined the chorus
raised against Knight, but true believers had dismissed the
critics from within the fold as disgruntled or embittered. Even
after CNN/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED broadcast a videotape of a 1997
practice showing the head of one of the complainants, former
Hoosiers guard Neil Reed, snapping back from a Knight hand
thrust to the jugular, the faithful had insisted, That's just
Bob--"placing his right hand in the vicinity of Reed's neck," as
the hometown Bloomington Herald-Times exculpatorily put it.
May 21, 2000
But by last week even those within Assembly Hall, the swaybacked
redoubt of Indiana basketball, had turned. It was as if, after
years of denial and silence, a critical mass of people had
finally decided to convene a huge group-therapy session. A
secretary in the athletic director's office, Jeanette
Hartgraves, 66, came forward to describe how two years ago
Knight called her a "f------bitch" and advanced menacingly
toward her as she sat in her office, and how, during the 1980s,
Knight hurled a ceramic flowerpot at a picture frame behind her
desk, causing her to be hit with flying glass. A former athletic
department secretary, Terry Cagle, told of an episode from the
1980s in which Knight stormed into the office of then sports
information director Kit Klingelhoffer and, furious over a press
release, threw him to the ground. Even Bob's son Tim, who
handles his father's business affairs, confirmed that during a
hunting trip in Argentina in 1994, Bob broke Tim's nose and
dislocated his shoulder in a fit of anger.
Then, just before a Sunday meeting of the board of trustees to
hash out Knight's future, a new witness came forward, one from
Hoosier basketball's sanctum sanctorum, with the timeliest story
yet. According to sources close to the probe, Ron Felling, who
served Knight as an assistant coach for 12 years, told the
trustees that he hadn't chosen to retire, as a Dec. 4 university
press release claimed. In fact, Knight had fired Felling--and
had done so moments before launching into yet another violent
Felling told the trustees that on Dec. 1, the day after Indiana
had struggled to beat Notre Dame in overtime, he fielded a call
in the office from former Hoosiers assistant Dan Dakich, now the
coach at Bowling Green. The two chitchatted about drills and
defense, and Felling mentioned that the Indiana players were
doing a good job of picking up Knight's defensive teachings.
Then Dakich asked about Knight's reaction to the game. In spite
of the victory, Felling told his former colleague, Knight had
vented at the Hoosiers. It was the same old stuff, Felling said:
Knight was taking the fun out of winning, and Felling wondered
how the players would hold up under such mental strain over the
length of the season.
Felling's concerns were hardly original--basketball aficionados
have long believed that Knight's style accounts for the
late-season fades that have kept Indiana from advancing beyond
the second round of the NCAA tournament for six years in a row.
But Knight had been listening in on an extension and at this
point cut in. He berated Dakich, then accused Felling of
disloyalty and fired him on the spot. Moments later, brought to
Knight's office, Felling apologized for not having shared his
opinions directly with the boss, but he said he stood by their
substance. At that, Knight lunged at Felling, striking him in
the chest with two closed fists and driving him into a bookshelf
full of videotapes.
Knight refused comment to SI on this or any other matter after
he returned to Bloomington last Saturday, following a
bonefishing trip with his son Pat and several friends in the
Bahamas. But in advance of his two-hour personal appeal to the
president, Knight had already gone straight to his public. A
statement faxed from the Bahamas revealed a sort of 12-Step
Knight who fit perfectly into the web of dysfunction in which
the entire university seemed to be ensnared. In a passage that
read like something lifted from a self-help book, Knight
credited the success of his teams to the "three-braided rope" of
his intensity, his demanding nature and his temper. He spoke of
"my temper problem," mentioning that "I'm not very good at just
forgetting about something and moving on, and I'm truly sorry
But with contrition he showed flashes of his intractable,
insuperable self ("I've always been too confrontational,
especially when I know I'm right") and evidence of denial, such
as his assertion that his temper "was not a factor in the
investigated incident." By this he presumably meant that he had
acted with premeditated control when he went at Reed's windpipe,
an alarming admission if true.
Brand said that Knight would personally apologize to Hartgraves.
But there was no sign that he would be apologizing to Reed--even
though John Walda, one of the two trustees Brand had put in
charge of the investigation, agreed that Reed had been grabbed
by the neck in an action that "cannot be tolerated."
Brand's indulgence means Knight still has a chance to break Dean
Smith's Division I record for career victories, which stands 116
wins away. But it left uncertainty hanging over the program.
Would the new Knight really bow to Clarence Doninger, the
athletic director with whom he has clashed and whom Brand has
appointed to chair a special commission to establish guidelines
for coaches' behavior? "I definitely think there's division [in
the athletic department]," said Dane Fife, a sophomore guard, on
Monday. "That's all I'm going to say." If this meant that Knight
and Doninger weren't going to be able to work together, Brand
would have none of it. "Normalization and professional
interaction will be the order of the day, period," he said.
What if more revelations surfaced about bad behavior in Knight's
past? "If something comes out that's worse, we'll take action,"
Brand said. But Walda added, "I don't anticipate that anything
significant is out there that we don't know about."
Asked why Knight hadn't agreed to attend Monday's press
conference, Brand said the coach was embarking on "a
long-scheduled trip." In fact, only five minutes before the
president began the conference in Indianapolis, Knight had
delivered a surly refusal to an interview request by reporters
outside his office in Assembly Hall. Apparently the new Knight
would not emerge until after Brand announced the transformation
"It's an embarrassment to the state and the university," said
David Pisoni, a psychology professor, upon hearing of the deal.
"This demonstrates the priorities of the university. Athletics
come before moral and ethical conduct. The revenue stream is
more important than credibility."
As much as the investigation turned up, it was clearly one for
which the school at first had little stomach. Two months ago,
when CNN/SI aired a report that Knight had choked Reed,
brandished soiled toilet paper in front of his players and
kicked Brand out of practice, Brand denied the last of these
charges and asked Walda and another trustee, Frederick Eichhorn,
to investigate them. Walda, a Fort Wayne lawyer, had already
said publicly that "I would put no stock in" Reed's allegations.
Brand originally stipulated that the inquiry would look only
into Reed's allegations--not into physical threats that Knight
had made to Doninger after Indiana's loss to Ohio State on Feb.
19; not into former Hoosiers forward Ricky Calloway's charge
that Knight had struck two of his teammates, Steve Alford and
Daryl Thomas, during the mid-1980s (both deny that Knight ever
hit them); not into the account of Butch Carter, a former
Indiana co-captain who's now coach of the NBA's Toronto Raptors,
that Knight had used a racial slur during the early '80s; not
into a report that two years ago, Knight had prevented the
transfer of one of his stars, Luke Recker, by threatening to
quit and thereby bring down on Recker the wrath of the state.
However, in his charge to the trustees, Brand did ask them to
look into "the timing of the report" from CNN/SI, as if someone
might have had it in for the Hoosiers by airing such
unpleasantness on the eve of the NCAAs. Only after the videotape
surfaced on April 11--it confirmed the essence of Reed's charge
that he had been choked, if not all its particulars, and
contradicted the claims of Knight and others that nothing of the
sort occurred--did the probe begin to range farther afield. At
Monday's press conference Walda even acknowledged an incident
that hadn't yet come to light in which Knight had failed to
promptly break up a fight between two players at practice.
To be sure, the administration found itself in a pickle: How
much was Knight really at fault when the school had been his
enabler, deep in a denial of its own? The chain of command had
long ago gone kerblooey. Knight's contract assures him the right
of approval of matters pertaining to the basketball program, a
clause that essentially exempts him from having to report to his
nominal superior, Doninger. It also provides for his termination
if he engages in "personal conduct which would be grounds for
punitive discharge of any employee of the university generally,"
meaning that he could have been fired in the past but got
nothing worse than a slap on the wrist. Though Brand emphasized
that Knight had been quietly penalized for previous
transgressions, the president seemed to contradict himself when
he said, "Given the fact that in the past he hadn't had such
guidelines, I believe the ethical approach is to give him one
Yet keeping Knight on could have even more damaging
repercussions for Indiana's image. The coach's last refuge--the
integrity so often invoked in his defense--no longer stands.
Knight lied about the circumstances of Felling's departure. He
lied about the incident with Reed, trotting out members of his
team and staff to testify in his behalf, including All-America
guard A.J. Guyton, whom the videotape depicts looking right at
Reed as Reed is choked. He oversaw the release of unflattering
revelations about former players who backed up Reed's charges or
lodged allegations of their own. All this mocked a school whose
motto is Lux et veritas--Light and truth. High graduation rates
are all well and good, but what's the degree worth when it comes
from a university where you get fired for merely expressing an
opinion, as Felling was?
For years Knight has kept in his office a plaster statue of Gen.
George S. Patton. It was Patton who in 1943 berated and struck
two soldiers hospitalized with shell shock, accusing them of
malingering during the Seventh Army's Sicilian campaign. The act
drew strong condemnation on the home front, even calls for his
dismissal. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered Patton to apologize
publicly, and after he did so, Patton retained his command.
But through 661 basketball victories there'd been no Supreme
Allied Commander in Bloomington. While the university has vowed
to rein Knight in, the revelations that led to Monday's
announcement exacted a huge cost. The public now knows that
Knight's virtues come freighted with conditions. Knight is
loyal--to those who meet an excruciatingly demanding test of
devotion to him. He's honest--when the truth also serves to veil
his program and consolidate his power. He does believe in
discipline--for others, but not for himself. Brand is betting
what's left of his school's soul that Knight will suddenly
consent to submission. Or simply rack up a few more victories.
"If we win a lot of games, all this will die down," said Jared
Jeffries, the state's Mr. Basketball, who will be a freshman at
Indiana in the fall. "People love winners."
And people know this: In pro basketball the player chokes the
coach, and in college basketball the coach chokes the player. On
Monday fans learned another distinction. They learned that in
the pros, the choker is at least dealt with severely. At Indiana
University, he's not.
IT WAS AS IF, AFTER YEARS OF DENIAL, THOSE WITHIN ASSEMBLY HALL
HAD CONVENED FOR GROUP THERAPY
"HE MADE A PERSONAL PLEDGE TO ME TO CHANGE HIS BEHAVIOR," BRAND
SAID, "AND I BELIEVE HIM."