St. Petersburg Times Online: Sports

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

And to all, a good Knight

By HUBERT MIZELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 31, 2000


BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- When will Bob Knight lose it? How deep into his 30th season as Indiana basketball coach will "zero tolerance" become ground zero? Boom! Pop goes the General. Where might he throw a punch, uncork obscenities, abuse an athlete, insult the media or otherwise embarrass his university?

Check the Internet. ESPN. CNNSI. There are polls. Office pools are afloat. Head-to-head wagers, too. Vegas surely will get involved. Will the inevitable Bobby blowup come at IU's opener in November? Or maybe when the Hoosiers play crusty rival Purdue? Or when Knight has his next fierce disagreement with a referee?

He cast a Tuesday ballot.

"I've got a great plan," Knight said. "Let's have a lottery. Let people bet (on when he will erupt). Proceeds will go to our library. I'll tell you what would happen; our library would make a lot of money."

His meaning ... I can handle it.

"There are two reasons I am today the basketball coach at Indiana," said Knight, a tempestuous bloke accused of choking a player, berating a secretary, throwing a chair and other questionable judgments. "First, our players, who have been very supportive. Second, it was the (IU) president (Myles Brand), sticking his neck out, making a decision that many people did not agree with."

After months of investigations, Brand opted May 15 to retain Knight but with toothier deportment guidelines. Asked if he had truly feared being dismissed, Bob said, "Not really. I first asked the president if he wanted me to remain as coach. He said he did. I knew I wanted to. So we began working at the things that could allow it to happen.

"I still enjoy coaching," Knight said. "If I didn't, I would not need it financially or for ego or anything. I do think I can live with any set of parameters as long as my mouth isn't taped. I do think you must talk to coach."

ESPN did a one-hour live special Tuesday night from Assembly Hall, the gymnasium where Knight has become legend. Before conferring with Roy Firestone and Digger Phelps, the coach huddled for an hour with seven print reporters.

Preferring to not address a mass media conference, Knight agreed with IU vice president Christopher Simpson's plan to invite only a few. They included William Gildea, Washington Post; Dave Kindred, the Sporting News; Ursula Reel, New York Post; Billy Reed, Lexington Herald-Leader; Mike Leonard and Lynn Houser, Bloomington Herald-Times; and the Mizell fellow, St. Petersburg Times.

Knight showed up 15 minutes late. He wore a golf shirt adorned with a cartoon, Bugs Bunny playing golf. With good humor, a wealth of apparent sincerity and unerring compatibility, the embattled coach answered questions that included the quite personal.

Like is he considering enrolling in an anger-management clinic. "I think my wife (Karen) is as good in anger management as anyone I could imagine," Knight said. "She has magnets stuck up all over our house that say, "The Horse is Dead, Get Off!' In other words, move on.

"It's not going to make me a different person, but there can be a different approach. Sometimes, in my zeal to get a point across, I have gone overboard. There are times that I think I'm so right that I am more confrontational than I should be."

Knight claimed that just once in 29 seasons has he bullied an IU player "in a way that, in retrospect, I see as mean." Not Neil Reed. Not any case that has been aired.

"It was in 1975, when Wayne Radford made a really bad play just before halftime," he said. "I was walking behind him heading for the locker room. I gave Wayne a nasty shove. It was wrong. That was mean. Only time, in my view."

Many will differ.

His reputation for salty confrontations prompted America to blow like Mount St. Helens. Media and public. In nearly every precinct, he was battered. In a life chocked with criticism, Knight has never heard so much as now.

Brand stemmed the bleeding. For now. But the great exam is ahead. Indiana, a five-time NCAA champion, with three in Knight's time, has reprimed its basketball pump with what appears to be exceptional talent. An upswing should occur. But with new rules for the old coach.

"I don't think I can approach it saying, "I can't do such-and-such,' but yes, I look at the sanctions and understand there are areas of concern. I've been dealt a hand of cards. I have to play those cards. My plan is to win with those cards.

"What bothers me most, out of all this, is two things. First, an allegation of making racial remarks. I take a lot of pride in what I've done with minority kids. Second, the allegations regarding women. I am not the greatest supporter of women's lib, but the claims have been frustrating and painful for me."

Away from Tuesday's media sessions, Knight said support from fellow coaches has been all but universal. "I got a call from (Penn State football coach) Joe Paterno. He says, "Bob, I've seen the tape of the Neil Reed incident. Watched it over and over. If that is called choking a player, I could probably be convicted of it 200 times a season.' "

Dick Vermeil, coach of the Super Bowl champion St. Louis Rams, said in a recent interview, "I have 11 grandchildren. I would be delighted to have any of them coached by Bob Knight. He does what 95 percent of good coaches do, but somebody manages to have the world cave in on him."

Knight says he even got a recent offer to coach at another Big Ten school. Well, kind of. "Clarence Underwood, athletic director at Michigan State, thought he might lose Tommy Izzo to the NBA," said the IU guy. "Clarence said that if Izzo went to the Atlanta Hawks, he would love to have me coach Michigan State." Izzo opted to stay with his reigning national champions.

Back to his challenge of the 2000-01 season. How does Knight put a harness on emotions infamous for firestorms? "Taking on things has been my style," he said. "It's like a baseball pitcher who can no longer throw 94 miles an hour. So, to keep competitive, he develops a split-finger (pitch).

"There must be a little bit of changing. For me, it's back to the idea of doing all the time what I, for years, have done most of the time. As far as coaching players, a kid deserves to be pushed. If he's not, he has a right to be upset with the teacher. Our players will still be pushed."

Always, when Knight has appeared in rival arenas, he has been a lightning rod for fans of the Wisconsin Badgers, Purdue Boilermakers, Ohio State Buckeyes or whomever. The juice of those fans in the coming season is apt to be more spiked than ever.

"I would be an imbecile if I didn't think some things could be handled better," he said in 60 minutes during which his voice never became heated or raised. "I'll do like I always have when we play on the road. Check it out, but I've said something to fans maybe twice in 29 years.

"This whole deal has reached astonishing proportions. If they took basketball away from Indiana, it would still be one hell of a university. Wouldn't be hurt one bit. So what is really the importance? Why does one coach merit so much attention?"

After the May 15 proclamation by Brand, the Knights immediately left the country. Fleeing the furor. Karen and Bob toured London. His favorite was visiting the Winston Churchill War Room. Figures. His military history passion is heavy.

They took a train to Scotland. Knights of the Indiana round table escaping a volcano at home. Their brief achievement of getting away was apparent one evening a week ago at Dornoch in the most northern reaches of Scotland.

"It was the only golf I played, renting clubs and knocking two balls around the famous Royal Dornoch course," he said. "Just me, with Karen walking along. As we neared the 18th green, she could see I might've been fired up to play nine more. Karen said, "I'm really hungry.' I got the message. We went to eat."

Calmer, gentler Bob Knight?

He spoke little of his recent apologies, either a statement handed out before Brand's ruling or the letter he wrote former IU athletics secretary Jeanette Hartgraves, whom he was accused of orally insulting.

"Let's just say I'm in agreement with all that has been done. I'm ready to just be a basketball coach. We have some good players returning plus five new kids who may be athletically the best group we've ever brought in.

"I'm ready to duck the spotlight now. Let's do have that lottery for our (IU) library. Place your bets. Maybe a lot of people are going to be really surprised. Put up your money. It'll buy a lot of good books."

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.