© St. Petersburg Times, published March 16, 2003
Bob Knight took my call at a courtside phone. Texas Tech players were shooting around, preparing for their last chance -- the Big 12 Conference tournament -- to rescue a season of shortfall.
In the tough, cerebral, 62-year-old voice there wasn't the usual electricity of hope, that his soldiers were peaking in March, with a real chance to go perking into the sport's ultimate theater, the NCAA tournament.
'Too many mistakes,' said the coach who recently won his 800th game, a legacy built on a bedrock of textbook fundamentals at Army, Indiana and now with the Red Raiders. 'I watch tapes and don't like what I see. Defensive positioning is always breaking down. We got much less from this season than I expected. Nobody is to blame but me.'
But he was still grinding. Searching. Pushing. Coaching. Texas Tech never led until the last breath of its Thursday tournament opener against Baylor, but the Raiders squirmed past the Bears by a point.
Texas (22-6) would be next in the Big 12 bracket Longhorns so mighty. Third-ranked team in America, with a shiny chance to become one of the top-seeded kings at the NCAA ball.
From somewhere, the old coach found magic. Tech didn't just trip up Texas, the Raiders put an 11-point strangling on the Horns. So, today, when a 65-school NCAA field is chocked, the Raiders will, after all, have a shot at dancing.
Coming to the Big 12 circus in Dallas, Knight was deeply dismayed by his 16-11 record, even if there was far more disturbing slippage going on in the sport the General loves, with St. Bonaventure, Fresno State, Villanova and Georgia engulfed by scandal.
Michigan's players and coaches, through no guilt of their own, are banned from the NCAA tournament due to selfish, rules-shattering acts by the school's celebrated but greedy Fab Five from the early 90s.
Still, in his world, the General saw towering failure in the mirror. His judge, his jury. Knight chose a few days ago to 'fine' himself $250,000, base salary from an overall Texas Tech income of about $900,000.
Let's search our jock brains; when did any coach/manager or professional athlete give back a load of money after underachieving? I'm talking people who didn't come close to anything as solid as a 16-11 season.
Are you listening, Greg Vaughn, the Devil Rays having paid you $8.75-million for a 2002 baseball summer that merited far, far less? Any thought of giving back a few mil, because of a mega flub? I mean, to do what is right?
I thought not.
Any payback, Wilson Alvarez?
What about you, Mike Holmgren?
Pat Riley? Steve Spurrier?
News of Knight's paycheck tear-up would appear in intriguing juxtaposition with frights of the past few days that carved Nova, the Bonnies and two bunches of Bulldogs. Some of his most frequent, harshest critics are saying the fellow from Lubbock wears a white hat this time; a good guy on a hoops drama too crowded with black hats.
Knight has forever loathed cheaters. Nobody contests that the General works diligently to operate within NCAA law, while pushing athletes to get stout educations, working toward meaningful lives beyond basketball.
Regarding the March messes involving Nova, the Bonnies and two bunches of Bulldogs, Knight said, "I don't know if it's any different than it's always been. It's no worse. It's just that some things came to light. But, I have to say, it's basically impossible for a coach to prevent rules from being broken.
'All you can do is work constantly to educate kids to pitfalls and possible penalties. You try to scare the hell out of your school's boosters, hoping they understand what gets a program into trouble.
'But if you, Hubert, offer one of my players $100, telling him it's really okay and that nobody will ever know; that you just want to help him out . . . well, no coach has enough eyes and ears to keep up with every minute of every day with every player.
'It's like being a parent. You preach what is right and what is not. You tell them what penalties can come about. Then you, to a degree, most let them go on their own. Hoping your words and actions have a positive effect, causing them to avoid the really bad stumbles.'
What he's saying, I think, is that coaches and/or administrators who have historically been prone to cheat are probably still doing it, to whatever degrees they thought might slip under the radar of policing eyes from conferences and the NCAA.
This time, many are shackled.
Knight was tossing a quarter-million dollars, but this guy is a competitor who doesn't give up until the final gasp is squeezed out of him.
Bill Parcells, new coach of the Dallas Cowboys, was there to cheer the fat upset by Knight, his pal from long ago when both were fledglings in their careers at West Point.
Knight's record had become 18-11. Earning more high-life chances for Raiders who had seemed to be backpedaling. Not bad for a coach who was self-fined a quarter mil. He can be tough on players, tough on media, tough on university poobahs but this week is silver-haired proof that the General is toughest of all on himself.