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On an island, Knight waits

By HUBERT MIZELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 11, 2000


Bob Knight's future is harder to figure than Wall Street. He's a tough old bull, but the bears are raging at Indiana University.

After 28 years, three NCAA basketball championships, a personal history deep in controversy, plus a fresh flurry of misconduct charges, Knight has not decided if he wants to continue coaching the Hoosiers.

If he gets a choice.

"I don't know what I'm going to do," Knight told me by telephone over the weekend. "I haven't made up my mind on anything."

What's the timetable?

"When I get ready."

Results of a university investigation are due in June. Neil Reed, a former Indiana player, accused Knight of putting a choke hold on him during a 1997 practice. Reports of other evidence keep surfacing.

Indianapolis television station WRTV said Tuesday that university trustees have new Knight material characterized as "pretty ugly stuff." They will reportedly meet Sunday to reassess. Let's await full, official findings. Not just media swatches. But, you wonder, can any sort of Hoosier jury be unbiased on Robert Montgomery Knight?

They must assess the total package: Mr. Hyde negatives, while not discarding an extensive collection of Dr. Jekyll positives. Funny, but we can only guess how this furor might have been reshaped if the Hoosiers, instead of getting bounced by Pepperdine in the NCAA Tournament's opening round, had become this year's national champions?

Don't say it's not a factor.

This week, Knight is on a Bahamas fishing expedition, quartering on a remote island. Far from combustible Hoosiermania. Next month, with wife Karen, he is to spend 10 days in Scotland. Lots of time, in quiet and far-off places, to think about some heavy subjects.

"At the end of every season since I've been here, I've always said I assumed I would be back the following year (coaching at Indiana)," Knight told me. "No different this time. But, yes, there is . . . stuff. When I decide, call me again and I'll tell you why."

Will he have a choice?

John D. Walda, president of the university's trustees, is investigating along with Frederick F. Eichhorn, an IU trustee and former president of the Indiana Bar Association. They were appointed by Myles Brand, the IU president Knight reportedly kicked out of a basketball practice.

Walda said his goals have been to "get the truth" and "be fair to all parties." He emphasized, "There are no sacred cows at Indiana University. That includes the basketball program."

Predictably, an Indianapolis Star-News poll showed Knight's popularity waning in absolute concert with IU's disappointing recent NCAA Tournament fortunes.

"This past season, we had six plays, if they'd gone our way, we could've been 25-3 or 26-2," Knight said of his 20-9 record. "As many know, we had the Big Ten's best winning percentage in the '70s. But we also had our conference's highest winning percentage in the '90s."

For a college hoops purist, which is darn near a qualification for residency in Indiana, it's the NCAA Tournament taste that persists. Three times, it was a Knight feast, winning national championships. Lately, the last gulps haven't been so yummy, especially the 77-57 dismantling by Pepperdine.

His pluses are obvious. Few coaches are his equal in graduating jocks. Knight's players consistently become smart, productive, long-running achievers. Never, in an era cluttered with rules breaks in college athletics, has IU basketball been charged. Still, his methods annoy many.

What if, on IU judgment day, Knight were given a chance to continue as coach, but with demanded philosophical changes? How might he react? Most of the General's ex-players have rallied to his defense.

"I was around Coach Knight daily, seeing all his tactics and hearing all his words, at times even being the source of his displeasure," Hoosiers point guard Michael Lewis, a senior last season, told an Indianapolis television audience during the Final Four.

"It confuses and amazes me that some guys don't understand that Coach is doing nothing but trying, in his own experienced and proven ways, to make you as good a person and as good a player as you can be.

"Reed was the most me-first person I ever saw in IU basketball. We all were glad when he transferred. To have such a guy triggering these problems, well, it's just wrong.

"I was there that entire season (in 1997, when Reed claims to have been choked) and I saw nothing that was at all bothersome. Unless you're a front-runner and a quitter."

An intriguing study.

Most of us, during the 28-year span of Knight at IU, have experienced significant modifications in American society. Becoming more sensitive, in most cases, to issues involving race, sex and morals. Notably in workplaces. Most people adapt. With some, it's only because they must change or depart.

Knight is not likely to leap to embrace the idea of restructuring his methods. That said, I hope he finds a way to adjust. I hope he gets the chance. To cope. To adapt. A way to continue coaching, mostly on his own terms.

If retirement is to be the call, by Knight or not, if he packs artifacts from an extraordinary career, if he leaves IU, what might the General do in his 60s and 70s?

Fishing and hunting are major Knight passions, but there is too much intelligence and vigor to spend the rest of a rare life in duck blindsor on deep-sea boats or quiet piers.

He could be a strong TV commentator, but Knight says he has no interest. "Twice before, I thought about quitting as a coach," he told me. One network opportunity came just after his second national championship.

"In 1981, I had a chance (from CBS) to do what Billy Packer does, commentating on games," he said. "I decided against it. Now, no matter what, I have no interest."

Asked why, in moments of near-departure, he chose to continue coaching, Knight said, "There were kids at Indiana that I really wanted to work with." Might that again be a motivator to stay? I mean, if he gets the chance.

Critics scream that the General's skills as a recruiter have diminished because of his problems with attitudes among today's young. Indiana hasn't made it to the NCAA Sweet 16 in a half-dozen seasons, but the 2000 freshman class is among the country's most impressive. Knight landed a sensational local prospect, 6-foot-9 Jared Jeffries, from Bloomington North High School.

Across the country, Knight has been extensively battered by commentators but also occasionally defended. "While many (negative) editorials were totally predictable, considering the source of the words," he said, "a lot of pretty stunning positive stances have been taken.

"Bob Verdi of the Chicago Tribune took your entire sports-writing profession to task. Calling his counterparts "The Perfect People'. Explaining the methods a coach might use; stuff that can be entirely misunderstood by many people not used to the highly competitive world of athletics."

Archie Dees, twice Big Ten Conference most valuable player (1957-58) for the Hoosiers, long before Knight became basketball pooh-bah in Bloomington, shared lunch last week with the embattled lightning rod.

Dees, like most pro-Bobs, believes that most claims of abusive Knight tactics are exaggerated. "Archie made a different kind of statement," Knight said. "He said, "Let's say you're guilty of everything you've ever been accused of. I would ask, what's the problem?' Think about that for a moment."

Knight sees the complaints of Reed and other Hoosiers who transferred as the whines of quitters. Guys who came to IU and flunked the General's basketball exam. He sees no problems. No reason for heavy change.

"Spend a week at our practices, not just an hour or even a couple of days; you'll be amazed how different things are from some perceptions. Billy Packer and Dick Vitale, who may watch more college practices than anybody, have both called to say that I would rank way down the list as far as coaches who get tough with players."

We await judgment day.

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