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Knight's fall leaves lousy feeling

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© St. Petersburg Times, published September 11, 2000

This morning, from Indy to Broadway to Sydney, you hear the shouts. Party time for Bob Knight Haters of the World, an extensive and vociferous clan. He's gone. Chased. Disgraced. I see it as no cause for celebration, only sadness. In a way, the General committed suicide as Indiana University basketball coach.

Zero tolerance, zero chance.

Knight, a preacher of discipline to his extended generation of Hoosiers and West Point cadets before that, could never amply harness himself. With maybe half the consistent, concrete attitude he asked of athletes, the General could have established an etched-in-marble legacy as the Vince Lombardi of hoops.

Universally, eternally renowned.

Nobody, not even Knight's fiercest detractors, can legitimately suggest this three-time NCAA champion, working in his fiery red sweaters, was not a man of coaching brilliance, plus extreme personal intelligence, with heavy scruples.

Also a short, lethal fuse.

Take a deep breath, friend and foe. Realize the sadness. Even the haters. That it ends this way. Not because Knight lost too often to Purdue. Not due to an old coach becoming fed up with today's kids.

Due to ... himself.

Don't think it couldn't have been saved. Even lately. Knight, the ever-assertive one, had an obvious chance this summer. Last shot, it now appears. A late but golden opportunity to sway minds, perhaps not among the haters, but with many people. Maybe even a majority.

Three months ago, I got a command performance call from Bloomington. Invited by Christopher Simpson, an IU vice president, along with two ESPN interviewers and six other print journalists, to question Knight about unsubsiding complaints about his behavior.

We wouldn't hear what I wanted. He was clearly backed against the campus ropes. Knight had to understand that. For years I have pleaded guilty to being a Bobby liker, although a critic of his infamous, well-chronicled incidents. I saw too many cons but also a load of pros. Like, for instance, excelling without being a cheater.

Robert Montgomery Knight rushed back to Bloomington from a Bahamas fishing trip, to be granted a quite advantageous forum. Roy Firestone and Digger Phelps pitched TV questions, allowing huge time for the General to assume a different, softer, more likable posture.

He should've ...

Shown humility like never before. Saying how, in the turbulent hours prior to the IU campus media caucuses, a 59-year-old coach came to know he truly, deeply loved coaching Indiana basketball.

He needed counsel. Some PR wizard. A spin-meister. Knight should've have come with a vulnerable, disarming style. Saying he had made too many shaky judgments, said too many harsh things, been too reactionary. Been repentant, with some degree of believability.

Then, we might have heard observers say, "Maybe he has changed. Maybe he's realized. Maybe an old dog can learn new tact." It was not out of reach for Knight to make a whopper turn toward being at least a somewhat sympathetic figure.

He chose otherwise.

That weekend, I spent maybe four hours in Knight's company. You could see he understood his problem was severe. That he really could be fired from the campus where for so long he was an unimpeachable king.

Bobby didn't truly, deeply think he'd done anything that was really wrong. Yes, he seemed to want to make the zero tolerance thing work, continuing to coach the sport he loves, but I wonder if he ever really believed he had a path to go on and on.

You knew he would be baited. Teased. dared. Tested. We can only imagine how it might have been if Knight had made those trips this season to hostile Big Ten arenas at West Lafayette, East Lansing, Ann Arbor, Evanston, Madison and all the other revved-up places.

If he was to have any shot at living with zero tolerance, a massive alteration was needed in Knight mind-set. If a driver is told, "One more speeding ticket and your license will be lost for life," I would think a constant pace at least 5 mph below the posted limit would be mandatory.

In recent days, when an IU student shouted, "Hey, Knight," the coach needed to swallow hard, keep silent and hot-foot it around the challenge. Nothing to gain; a career to lose.

Instead, there was a confrontation, however mild or wild. IU, whose management of the Knight years has been riddled with weak-kneed leadership, decided to pull the rip cord. To take its critical hits and run.

You cannot see Knight's end without thinking of his old hero from Ohio State, football coach Woody Hayes, who was similarly bright and gifted, but who brought himself down by opting to put an angry sideline hammer on a rival linebacker from Clemson.

This isn't the same. The General didn't uppercut some Boilermaker forward or Spartan pivot man. His eventual takedown, it seems, was relatively mild in comparison. But enough, IU says, under zero tolerance.

So, go ahead, bellow with joy, Knight Haters. I choose to feel lousy, that this man with so much to offer, with so many basketball conquests, so many good but unpublicized deeds with fellows he has coached, is so skewered with infamy.

Still like him? Yeah, I do.

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