Tuesday, June 25, 2024
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Bob Knight dies at 83: Legendary Indiana basketball coach guided Hoosiers to three national championships

One of the greatest basketball coaches in history has died. Bob Knight, the coaching baron who lifted the Indiana Hoosiers to immortality on his way to becoming one of the most famous — and controversial — coaches in American sports across the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, is gone. His death was announced by his family’s organization on Wednesday, six days after Knight turned 83.

Knight died where he lived out his final years, the place his legacy will forever loom largest: Bloomington, Indiana. The Hoosiers were under Knight’s command for 29 seasons from 1971 to 2000. He elevated Indiana to blue blood status in men’s college basketball with the Hoosiers becoming the most consistently successful program in the Big Ten.

Knight retired from coaching in 2008. When he stepped away, his 902 wins were most all-time in men’s college basketball. He now sits sixth all time in men’s Division I history. Knight coached IU to national championships in 1976, 1981 and 1987. Nearly 50 years later, his 1975-76 Indiana team is still the last Division I men’s team to go undefeated. The season before that, Indiana finished 31-1 and lost in the Elite Eight to Kentucky. Knight said it was that team, not the undefeated one, that he thought was his best overall. He also guided IU to Final Fours in 1973 and 1992.

Knight won national coach of the year awards in 1975, 1976, 1987 and 1989; he was an eight-time Big Ten Coach of the Year. In 1991, Knight was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame. The following season, Indiana took its last Final Four trip under Knight.

Knight’s motion offense was a revolutionary concept when he brought it to Indiana in the 1970s. It influenced a generation of coaches who followed in his footsteps. Though not nearly as popular as it was in in the 1980s and 1990s, it is still used by some coaches today. 

He developed the nickname “The General” both due to his time at Army and because of his no-nonsense, authoritative coaching style. Knight carved out the majority of his legacy while at Indiana, which included contempt and counterblast when he was fired in 2000 by IU athletic director Myles Brand after striking a student. 

The strict taskmaster was put on a zero-tolerance warning in 2000 after a video from a 1997 Indiana practice aired on CNN. It appeared to show Knight choking former player Neil Reed. Months later, Knight’s fate was sealed when he allegedly grabbed IU student Kent Harvey, who had approached him and purportedly said, “Hey, Knight, what’s up?” Knight refused to resign when asked by Brand, and he was then dismissed.

The firing prompted waves of intense backlash around Bloomington. Indiana fans and students protested for days on campus. Knight’s firing made national news and created a rift in the program that lasted for nearly two decades. Knight went on “The Dan Patrick Show” in 2017 and said of anyone affiliated with his firing, “I hope they’re all dead.”

“I think I’ve always really enjoyed the fans. I always will,” Knight said during that interview. “On my dying day, I will think about how great the fans at Indiana were. And as far as the hierarchy at Indiana University at that time, I have absolutely no respect whatsoever for those people. With that in mind, I have no interest in ever going back to that university.”

But he did go back. On Feb. 8, 2020, Knight returned to Assembly Hall to be honored. It was his first appearance at a Hoosiers basketball event in 20 years — a momentous occasion, considering the two decades of ill will from Knight’s side that preceded the reunion.

In the closing years of his life, as his health waned, Knight warmed to the program. The mending was aided by the fact that one of his former players, Mike Woodson, was hired as Indiana’s coach. During the 2022-23 season, Knight made the short trip from his home to Indiana practice multiple times per month to watch Woodson tutor his team. Quietly, and without seeking attention for it, Knight chose to embrace the place that brought him to glory and the forefront of American sports.

Looking back on Knight’s legacy

Robert Montgomery Knight was born Oct. 25, 1940, in Massillon, Ohio. His first brush with greatness in college basketball came where he played: Ohio State. As a teammate of future Naismith Hall of Famers Jerry Lucas and John Havlicek, Knight was part of the 1959-60 OSU team that won a national championship. He played on Final Four teams in 1961 and 1962. Within three years of graduating from Ohio State, Knight got the head coaching gig at Army, where he led the program for six seasons and established his magisterial streak.

It was at Army in 1966 that he met and mentored the man who would, 45 years later, surpass Knight on the all-time wins list: Mike Krzyzewski. 

Knight and Krzyzewski had no-nonsense attributes to their coaching personas that will connect them forever. Many chapters in the story of college basketball are connected to those two men, with eight national titles and more than 2,000 wins to their name. In 1992, Krzyzewski’s Duke team beat Knight and Indiana in the Final Four on its way to a second straight national championship. It became an awkward plot twist for teacher and pupil, one that impacted their relationship. 

For Krzyzewski, Knight’s influence was never far from his basketball philosophies. 

“We lost one of the greatest coaches in the history of basketball today,” Krzyzewski said Wednesday. “Clearly, he was one of a kind. Coach Knight recruited me, mentored me and had a profound impact on my career and in my life. This is a tremendous loss for our sport, and our family is deeply saddened by his passing. We offer our sincerest condolences to Karen, Tim, Pat and their families during this difficult time.”

In Indiana, basketball meant more there than maybe anywhere else. That was true before Knight arrived in 1971, but on his way to winning three national titles, IU hoops became a religious experience for so many in the Hoosier State. Knight was their god, and he knew it.

Knight used fire-and-brimstone tactics to will Indiana to top-tier status in the sport. For this, he became beloved in Indiana and hated in many other places. He was confrontational and arrogant, often chiding the media — be it with genuine scorn or through droll sarcasm. His reel of memorable press conference quotes and antics is as long as maybe any other coach in history. Of print media, he once proudly said, “All of us learn to write in the second grade … most of us go on to greater things.”

Knight was never far from controversy. He was accused of assault against a Puerto Rican police officer in 1979. In 1988, he made abhorrent comments about rape to NBC News journalist Connie Chung. Many other incidents peppered his career and made him one of the most polarizing coaches in American sports history.

He was stubborn, no question. That stubbornness is also what brought him to the apex of his profession. It’s what led him to be regarded by some as the greatest college basketball coach ever; it can be argued no men’s coach ever won more with less. For the players who chose to stay and play for him, many swore by his style, even if some hated the process as they made their way through college. Knight also prided his near-100% track record of graduating Indiana student-athletes. To Knight, showing up for class was just as important as showing up for basketball practice, if not more so.

Complicated as he was, Knight was outspoken about how he abhorred cheating. Even amid the sagas he spurred with his legendary temper and oft-unchecked conduct, Indiana men’s basketball under his watch was never in the NCAA’s crosshairs for wrongdoing. 

To play for Bob Knight was to be known as one of the toughest-minded players in the sport. As is the case with most great coaches, his teams were a reflection of his personality, his clashing ethics and sometimes-brutish behavioral tendencies. He demanded his players comport themselves with high character, yet this was a man who was quick to be red to the face and instantly capable of hurling a chair, mid-game, across the floor of Assembly Hall

Over three decades, Indiana watched legends emerge under Knight — Kent Benson, Quinn Bucker, Scott May, Isiah Thomas, Calbert Cheaney, Steve Alford — but a portion of Knight’s legacy as an elite, all-time coach is tied to how he recruited and developed athletes who were not sure-fire future NBA players. Thomas was the only player he coached who went on to be an NBA All-Star.

And still, Knight knew greatness when he saw it. 

In 1984, Knight coached Team USA in the Olympics where a group that featured Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing, Chris Mullin and Wayman Tisdale won the gold medal in Los Angeles. Knight is one of three coaches to win an NCAA championship, an NIT championship and an Olympic gold medal.

His legendary reputation as a coach included a sharp scout’s eye. As he coached a young core of immensely talented players at those Olympics, Knight identified Jordan’s athleticism, competitiveness and all-around basketball ability as one of the best he’d ever seen. 

Jordan had yet to play a game in the NBA.

The final stage of Knight’s coaching career lasted from 2001-08 when he coached Texas Tech. He took the program to the NCAA Tournament four times in seven seasons, lifting the Red Raiders from college hoops dormancy. Upon his retirement, Knight segued from coaching to broadcasting, serving as a color commentator at ESPN from 2008-15. 

The definitive profile on Knight as a coach — and as a human guided by everything from big motivations to minor slights — was written in 1981 by legendary Sports Illustrated writer Frank DeFord. In “The Rabbit Hunter,” DeFord poignantly encapsulated what made Knight tick, what drove him, and the behaviors that foreshadowed his downfall at Indiana nearly two decades later. It’s considered one of the greatest pieces of sportswriting in the history of the form. Knight was a subject befitting of the accolade.

Knight was a man and coach from another era. He will never be duplicated, and the reasons for that are plenty. He set a mold for coaching that can’t be done today, for obvious reasons.

He built up a legacy that will live forever in Indiana and in college basketball. To some coaches, he is still the most gifted basketball mind to storm up and down a sideline or whistle and scold his way through a practice. His convictions could seemingly hold the temperature of lava, and his intimidating tactics left an imprint on the college game that will never be forgotten. 

Bob Knight validated Indiana Hoosiers basketball for decades and lifted his sport’s popularity in a way few other legends can claim. As it always was with Knight, his enduring legacy remains as controversial as it was undeniable. 

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