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Knight deserves to stay

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By HUBERT MIZELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 16, 2000


Bob Knight will be okay if he's as courtly as Dean Smith, as civil as Mike Krzyzewski, as restrained as John Wooden, as fatherly with his players as Tom Izzo and as patient as that Bible guy, Job.

Indiana University, with well-documented and deeply bruised reasons, is demanding not only a new day but a new Knight. If the General can handle this, he should be coach of the year and front-runner for the Nobel Peace Prize.

But, an apropos resolution.

IU president Myles Brand made the Monday best of a soiled Hoosier situation. Providing extended coaching life for Knight, but putting an administrative cannon to the coach's temple.

Brand eased the load on his presidential shoulders. Had he fired Bob, the dealings with Knight backers among IU donors/supporters would have been messy. So the weighty onus was placed on the General.

Brand said it's "one last chance." Applying the term "zero tolerance." Has any sports coach been swathed in such deportment demands?

Smooth move by Brand, a university prez who proves to be a crafty politician. If this were about Congress, not basketball, Tim Russert and Sam Donaldson would be high-fiving over an escape coup.

If, years ago, Indiana University's management of Knight, applied by Brand predecessors, had been so firm and apparent as Monday's message, perhaps a more-controlled, less-controversial, less-troubled basketball wizard would have evolved.

I'm glad he's staying. Eager to see if Knight, in his 60s, will make constantly astute behavorial judgments, polishing his manners, while managing to not compromise the toughness that helped make the General a hoops icon.

This is far more pressure for Knight than playing a Final Four or recruiting some tall and spectacular teen-ager. He accepted the challenge. Indicating it was fair. Admitting his shortcomings. There will be a 30th season for Knight at IU, unless something bad happens between here and tipoff.

How many voices will suggest, "He'll never be able to do it!" Millions? Maybe that will be the critical impetus for the General to show the world that discipline can also fully work with the coach who preaches it. Nah, forget that motivation. Knight is not that concerned with what you think.

Go ahead, boo if you wish. First Amendment freedom. Same statute that permits me to say I think Robert Montgomery Knight is worth sparing, while being ordered to operate beneath a purposeful and unrelenting IU administrative hammer for the first time.

Never too late.

In an uncharacteristic Saturday apology, the lightning rod in the red sweater confessed to a lifetime of temper eruptions. If sincere, that is a colossal first step to a new Knight.

Before a person troubled by alcohol, drugs or abusive behavior can have a chance for beneficial change, he or she must recognize there is a problem.

Knight must change only about 2 percent of what he does. Think about it. I'm still not bowing, videotape or not, to that twerp, Neil Reed, who left IU and then massively alienated his coach and teammates at another school, Southern Mississippi. As wrong as Knight was, let's hold the martyr talk.

Give the new Knight a chance. This is a brilliant man, plenty smart to recognize pre-eruption when something might trigger a nasty action that can cost him Bloomington employment the General obviously so clearly covets.

More than ever, Knight should be appreciative of his professional lot. Often, we don't amply embrace a dear possession until somebody threatens to take it away.

When it came to IU decision time, Knight did not want to go limping away from his craft, stiffing his team and coaching assistants, losing the competitive excitement and privilege of battling Michigan State, Purdue, Iowa and others.

I've got a near-perfect ending. Knight coaches two more seasons, maybe three. Bob stuns critics with sweet stratas of self-discipline. Wins his 12th championship in the Big Ten Conference. Makes another Final Four. Putting a delightful concluding stamp on an extraordinary career that has reached 763 victories.

Then retire.

Go out on a white horse, instead of just ahead of a lynch mob. Don't be a Woody Hayes. If Knight can look back on this stout exam of 2000 and say, "I learned, I got better, I achieved," that would be superlative.

Knight's most objectionable eruptions are not germane to his IU basketball success. Not once, with the Neil Reed thing or whatever, if the General had decided "I'm not going that far," would it have caused Indiana to lose a basketball game.

Now, the new Knight has a bonus shot at not only winning more games but winning over many who have come to loathe him. Not that it matters to Bob. America is, to a deep degree, a forgiving nation.

Knight, if wholly willing, is sharp enough to make this work. They aren't apt to ever love him in East Lansing, West Lafayette, Iowa City or Madison, but a reshaped approach can greatly enhance the respect.

I don't want to see Knight as a weak-spined, marshmallow coach. We won't do that. It would never work for him. Toughness is okay, if properly applied. I hope the General will feel no need to coach as though a President Brand spy camera were monitoring his every twitch and word, or as though some Lieutenant Columbo were taking intrusive notes at practice.

Knight is a military history nut. George Patton, a fellow general, awes him. Bob knows shot-by-shot histories of famous battles. Not unlike a fellow Ohio State notable from the past, Buckeyes football coach Hayes.

Oh, yes, similarities. . .

Hayes was a brilliant man, effective football commandant and had a notorious temper. Sound familiar? His splendid OSU career went down in flames in the Gator Bowl when, after a Clemson linebacker made a game-saving interception, Hayes lost control, smashing the opponent across the throat.

That cost Woody his job. An ignominious end for a celebrated coach. For a lot of hours, as IU trustees investigated and debated Knight, it seemed he could suffer a similar fate. As with Hayes, it would've been sad but self-triggered.

I do hope for a new Knight, but not so new it's phony. Knowing him, I can't imagine that. This is the monumental challenge of his career. To keep graduating players, creating good adults, winning a lot of games and managing the behavior of Little Lord Fauntleroy. I'm counting on the General researching it, analyzing, understanding the new IU situation and victoriously dealing with it.

Let the new Knight begin.

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