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The Complexities of Bob Knight: The Greatest Coach of All-Time?

Publish Date: 01/23/2024
Fact checked by: Mark Lewis

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The Complexities of Bob Knight

Bob Knight, born in 1940 and raised in Orrville, Ohio, was an acclaimed college basketball coach: a brilliant yet complex man of deep loyalty to many friends and former players who could be brutal to current players, assistant coaches, referees or the media. Ultimately he was dismissed from Indiana University for reasons that remain controversial today. The main reason was that the administration was so happy to have a great basketball program that he could do whatever he wanted. That came to a head with the arrival of Myles Brand to oversee the program; Brand was a pathetic man who could not be trusted and did not like having a head basketball coach bigger than himself. In the end, Brand’s ego got rid of Knight, and ever since that happened, the Hoosier Basketball program has fallen on hard times. From Mike Davis, who was a solid coach but was thrown in over his head, to Kelvin Sampson, who was the opposite of coach Knight, which means Sampson had no qualms about breaking the rules to get the players he needed.

Coach Knight was the only child of railroad man Pat Knight and Hazel, his school teacher wife. Pat was nearly deaf and rarely spoke, yet he instilled an enthusiasm for hunting and fishing. Bob would accompany his Dad on cold, snowy nights as they checked to ensure all boxcar seals were tight and nothing had been broken into – even though no one from the railroad would ever know about their walk through the bitter cold. It is said that Pat would tell Bob, “If you’re going to accept payment for something, do it properly,”

Sarah Henthorne, Hazel’s mother, lived in the home and lavished attention on Bob. But when he wanted something, Grandmother Sarah often said, “If wishes were horses and beggars would ride.” It was a reminder that Bob must earn his way in life, from playing baseball as a tall first baseman for the Mizer Tykes to learning basketball in sixth grade and becoming an all-around local star. While Bob loved football and baseball too, basketball eventually won him over because it rewarded his height and allowed him to practice alone at something new every day, leading to success in life.

Bob took this with him; the teaching of his mother and grandmother showed that Knight pushed everybody around him to be better and impose their will to get what they wanted. Sometimes the way he did it pushed the envelope, eventually ending his career. But that will and drive to succeed gave us the greatest basketball coach ever.

Video: Bob Knight Clips

Bob Knight Clips

Bob Knight the player

Bob Knight was an impressive student-athlete who also loved to read. As a champion reader for Orrville Library’s summer reading competition (when all other top finishers were girls), Coach Knight championed libraries at Indiana University and Texas Tech, becoming a staunch supporter of libraries in both institutions.

Coach Knight was dedicated to academics at Orrville High School. Although his profane outbursts in high school may have scared some people and disgusted others, his temper never bothered him; that may have fed into his lifelong concern that things earned can be denied due by the political process. That was one reason he loved basketball so much – the scoreboard was always visible, and no one could take away your victory if one team were better!

Bobby Knight stood out among many basketball greats by paying attention to the little things that mattered: setting screens and fighting through them, blocking out, and playing help defense. At Orrville High, Knight spent time not just with other boys but with coaches too – Bill Shunkwiler being his most influential coach, a disciplinarian who required jackets and ties on team buses while using film-based teaching methods. Once Knight moved on to coaching, these skill sets became part of his repertoire. Nobody was better at breaking down film and figuring out how to beat a team. Don’t believe me? Ask Dean Smith.

As a freshman, Bob Knight earned his spot on Orrville High’s Varsity basketball team and enjoyed four successful years, improving as an athlete while enjoying its games and rivalries. Unfortunately, his senior year ended in disappointment when his basketball coach left to become an elementary school principal, believing that winning meant all your starters scoring 10 points each game. This new coach told Knight to stop shooting so much; as a coach, he never wanted balanced scoring; rather he wanted his scorers scoring, rebounders rebounding, shot blockers blocking shots – everyone playing their roles best suited for them.

Bob Knight After Orrville High, Knight went to Ohio State, where he served as a reserve on the legendary teams of John Havlicek and Jerry Lucas. A 6’5″ kid with good shooting range, Knight was brought in at times as an extra shooter to help pull opponents out of zone defenses; however, his lack of quickness meant that he never got the playing time he thought he deserved; he could barely keep up with college players without getting hurt, plus his frequent foul trouble added insult to injury.

Knight had come in during the first half and played well, so he assumed he’d start for his team’s second-half starters. When Coach Fred Taylor announced that only those who started in the first half would start in the second, Knight felt deflated. As a coach, it’s always essential for coaches to recognize subs who played well during their initial appearance and promote them into starting roles for subsequent halves. Knight did this when he became a coach and a perfect example would have been the 1981 National Championship game when Ted Kitchell got in foul trouble. Backup Jimmy Thomas played well coming off the bench, as did sub-Steve Risley; instead of bringing back Kitchell in the second half, Knight rolled with Thomas and Risley and easily won the game.

John Havlicek, not Bob Knight, was the star player for Ohio State. But even then, Knight himself didn’t contribute much or play well enough to warrant such praise; for such a promising high school star, it must have felt like something of a letdown. Later when the head basketball coaching job opened up at Ohio State, Bob Knight’s name was often mentioned; an accomplished coach with Ohio roots and an alum from those glory years seemed natural choices, yet Coach Knight never wanted the position due to too many negative memories from playing basketball there.

Video: Robert M.

Robert M. “Bob” Knight’s Basketball Hall of Fame Enshrinement Speech

Bob Knight, the coach

Knight was soon drawn into coaching, and it quickly became evident that he had a special focus. Even when friends stood near him at practice waiting to chat with him, Knight walked past them without acknowledging them. No matter how well-versed in basketball Knight was already, he still found new things about it daily.

At 24 years old, Bob Knight earned the head coaching job at Army. While their talent level was often low — how many top high school players committed to the service Academies? Knight’s teams were resilient and tough to play against. They were well prepared and accepted discipline well; it became part of life at Army. Additionally, they played excellent defense, forcing other teams out of their comfort zones. Knight taught his players to impose their will on the other team. Knight led the Black Knights to the NIT tournament, which was a fantastic feat, remember, the NIT in the late 60s was a big deal as only conference champions got to go to the NCAA Tournament.

Knight then became the head coach at Indiana University, coaching an even more extensive roster of talented athletes. Yet he still coached as if they lacked talent and needed to play above their heads to stay competitive. That was always Knight’s most formidable challenge as a coach – persuading gifted athletes to work harder to succeed on the Division I level. His mantra? ‘I need to discover who you are as a player — what you can and cannot do’. His focus was always 100 times greater on what those kids couldn’t do than what they could do. You lose games because of your weaknesses, which must be eliminated. Knight in just two years had the Hoosiers in the final four, and without a horrible 5th foul call on Hooiser, star Steve Downing may have beaten UCLA.

Knight was dissatisfied with how Big Ten recruiting worked. He would become furious when summer league and AAU coaches took advantage of college coaches by offering incentives or cash in return for sending star players to those schools. Sleazy coaches and mysterious playground figures lured kids and their families into taking money in exchange for loyalty to them and the college program they were fronting for. Players even signed up for absurd courses like Basketball History at these institutions. Coach Knight declared that Indiana University would no longer tolerate recruiting violations or fake classes. To do this, Knight closed practice to boosters and others who’d been giving players handouts — mostly small items which did not violate NCAA regulations but which, nonetheless, were wrong. It was up to him to clean up the basketball program for the benefit of all concerned.

In comparison, you had a man like John Wooden who, in 1966, started allowing a car salesman named Sam Gilbert around his team. Ultimately, Gilbert had a huge hand in coach Wooden’s successes over his last decade at UCLA. Wooden said he knew about Gilbert but did not know how to stop it. If Gilbert had been in Indiana, Bob Knight would have stopped it.

Video: Bob Knight On John Wooden:

Bob Knight On John Wooden: “I Don’t Respect Him”

Bob Knight had an intangible paradox: He never seemed completely controlled, yet insisted his program and players be under control. Furious after a loss or depleted as if someone close to him had died, Coach Knight could patiently analyze any aspect of a basketball game to uncover why their team lost. Winning wasn’t enough for him; he needed to study the film to be certain why their win had come about.

Bob Knight despised the word “hope.” It implied a lack of effort and acceptance, something to strive for instead of waiting for something to happen. Knight believed in hard work and success – not simply hoping. Phrases such as “It’ll be okay,” “We’re cool”, and “It’s all good” were signs of passivity and acceptance of mediocrity. Such expressions further inflamed his ire.

Knight never intended to become a recruiter; recruiting was often associated with coaches who’d sugar-coat kids, tell them they were exceptional ball players and promise them the moon. Coach Knight could not accept that approach; adults shouldn’t coddle 18-year-old kids, and he certainly wasn’t going to promise them success at Indiana. Too many high school basketball stars had already failed in the Big Ten, so he wasn’t willing to give playing time to anyone who didn’t play team basketball.

Knight often relied on assistants like Mike Krzyzewski for much of the recruiting. Bobby Knight had the luxury of not having to recruit players during his prime at Indiana University; rather, his assistants did most of the recruiting, saving Coach Knight time with prospective students and potential scorchers with his tongue. Instead, Coach Knight selected from among many talented Midwesterners who applied to attend Indiana University – almost all of them Midwesterners! Knight recruited the state of Indiana, and back in the 1970s, that’s all an Indiana coach had to recruit to find the players needed to win.

Knight stood up for important, old-fashioned principles. He prioritized his basketball players getting an education, and if he saw them cutting class or making a habit of it, they weren’t allowed to play in games at all. Coach Knight helped endow two academic chairs at Indiana and was generous to charities. Still, there was always that temper when needed: Jeanette Hartgraves at Indiana said Knight cursed her out and threw a flower pot against the wall behind her!

Coach Knight had a straightforward system for ensuring his players attended class and completed their assignments. Each student had a card that detailed what classes they were taking, whether or not they showed up for class, and what grade point average they achieved during that particular course. Coach Knight was the sole judge of student progress, and when someone wasn’t doing well academically, Coach Knight instructed them to report to the gym at 5 a.m. He met each player at 5 a.m. and told them their academic failures had put the basketball program in an unfavorable light; then instructed them to run up and down the stairs from bottom to top several times until they were allowed out – something Coach Knight was proud of having never had to do twice for one player or another. If a coach did this nowadays they would probably be fired.

He wanted his players to become part of the student body, giving them an actual college experience. Most coaches were delighted when network TV broadcasted Big Ten games in primetime. It meant more money for schools and exposure to programs which helped with recruiting. Bob Knight was the only coach in the league who spoke out against it; he wanted his kids in bed by midnight and doing homework every evening; this wasn’t possible if Indiana started playing games at 9:30 pm.

Knight’s recruits would typically stay at Indiana for four years, learning an immense amount of basketball, how to study effectively and behave responsibly. They could always count on winning multiple Big Ten titles. Five times Knight brought them to The Final Four – in 1976, 1981 and 1987 – each time coming out victorious. The 1973 team lost a tight game to the Bill Walton-led UCLA Bruins when with under five minutes left in a two-point game, a terrible call could out Indiana star Steve Downing who was abusing the great Bill Walton in the game out scoring Walton 26-14. Once Downing had fouled out, UCLA pulled away. Then you had the 1992 loss to Duke, where the officials were hideous and took away a great shot at a win from the Hoosiers.

Bob Knight preferred simplicity and execution over “surprise and change.” His approach to teaching basketball and how to play it better and more intensely than other coaches was done at practice; games were for players to show what they’d learned during practice rather than for coaches to engage in chess matches against one another.

At the end of a game, when most coaches would call timeout and set up a play, Knight disagreed. Calling timeout also gave the other team time to set up their defense. In practice, Coach Knight consistently forced his players to make plays until it became second nature how to run the offense and find open shots. And during an important game? ‘I’m not going to tell you what to do; you know how to run this offense – do it.’

Once Bob Knight discovered that one of his star players, Joby Wright, wasn’t attending classes, he took action to change that. And when Wright’s professional career ended after four mediocre years, Knight encouraged Wright to return to Indiana and earn his degree. As part of his coaching staff, Knight even hired Wright, who went on to coach at two Division I schools – a testament to Bob Knight’s good deed. Knight could be brutal on his players, but the majority of his players made good in life. Of course, there are always exceptions like Dan Dakich.

Coach Knight admired senior coaches, and one day before a Final Four game in 1976, Knight came over to Curt Gowdy, who was broadcasting the event, asking if Gowdy could say something kind during his telecast for Clair Bee, who would be watching along with everyone else. This gesture deeply moved Gowdy from a coach about to lead his team into battle who wanted to honor a senior member of the coaching fraternity.

Bobby Knight had another side, too: that of a bully. A perfectionist coach in an impossible sport like basketball, Coach Knight could often become irritable and depressed during winter due to mild paranoia. Even good people could not always be counted on, which added pressure and made him think people who did things that bothered him might have done so intentionally. All this only served to fuel Coach Knight’s temper as he refused to apologize for anything that went wrong. This was Knight’s biggest problem and ended up being his downfall.

Coach Knight could be pretty critical of sportswriters. He couldn’t comprehend why news organizations would hire college basketball reporters who hadn’t played the sport themselves, nor how people who hadn’t watched tape of games as carefully as he did could pass judgment on those who DID play and coach college basketball and had spent hours reviewing the tape. Coach Knight often quipped: “Being a sports journalist is one or two steps above prostitution.”

Many who knew him or coached with him noted that Bobby Knight was crueller to his friends than his adversaries. He often tested his closest associates, often badgering or deriding them, and when someone was cast out of his circle of friends, it was usually for good.

As an ambitious young coach at Michigan, Bill Frieder sought out Bob Knight and kept a photograph of Knight in his office. On the day before a critical Michigan-Indiana basketball game, Frieder asked Coach Knight as a favor to give an interview with an Ann Arbor basketball writer who had been critical of Frieder for changing lineups too often. “Please say something nice about me to this writer,” Frieder asked.

Coach Knight agreed to be interviewed by the writer, asking if he thought Freider was a good coach. To which Knight replied, ‘he is one of the very best!’ Knight then told him how many lineups HE changed throughout the season, reminding him it’s essential for players to understand that it’s a team game even if certain me-first players disagree. Although Knight felt frustrated about losing this preparation time on game day, at least he felt satisfied for having set that writer straight.

On the following day, when Indiana and Michigan played, Coach Knight became infuriated with the officiating and was whistled for a technical foul. Bill Frieder ran over and shouted at them to give Knight another technical foul – which would’ve sent Knight back into the locker room. Knight was furious; he thought he heard Frieder say, “Give him another tech!”

Bob Knight believed no coach should meddle in another coach’s dispute with the refs – especially after having asked for such a favor just the day before! In the tunnel after the game had ended, Knight charged Frieder and had to be restrained. Although mutual friends tried to patch things up afterwards, Knight would never again speak to Bill Frieder again. Frieder would go on to show his true colors, which I am sure did not surprise Knight.

Coach Knight had some exceptional players in his early years at Indiana University, but he always believed his coaching brought championships. Knight was known to say things like, ‘You know nothing about basketball.’ His assistant coaches silently reminded the students to keep listening because Knight often made an excellent teaching point after all the insults and profanities.

After an emotional Big Ten victory, Coach Knight might issue the following disconcerting warning to his players: “Now everyone’s going to be patting you on the back for three days and telling you how well you played,” as if this were some perverse response to success. Coach Knight believed praise of basketball players should be done sparingly, as too much encouragement can erode a kid’s dedication to playing the right way. Acid criticism and screaming fits also had a place in Knight’s opinion; if someone couldn’t handle a little yelling, they shouldn’t be playing big-time basketball.

Sometimes when journalists visited Bob Knight in his office before practice, he’d often say things like, ‘I have no idea what our record will be this year — but one thing I can assure you is that we have some outstanding kids on our team. You’ll enjoy talking to them.’ Clearly, he was immensely proud of every player he coached; often, his assistant coaches wished Coach Knight would tell them more often but couldn’t;ย  but, Knight thought doing so might spoil them.

Coach Knight had a philosophy that you should yell and scream at your best player, the one who’s playing well — so other players will think: ‘If Coach is so mad at THAT guy, what does he think of how I’m playing?’ He believed other coaches had an unhealthy tendency to coddle their star players; regardless of talent level or success rate, Bob Knight’s best players could always count on him for frustration and criticism.

He shouted at seven-footer Uwe Blab that his hands were terrible; he’d never make it as a basketball player until he learned to catch and hold onto the ball.

Coach Knight’s hardest nut to crack was Daryl Thomas, a 6’7″ forward with excellent hands and an athletic build – seemingly born for basketball. Yet Bob Knight believed Daryl Thomas had not reached his full potential and used harsh language when confronting him about it.

Daryl Thomas experienced verbal abuse from Coach Knight. Conversely, when a player had played four years for Coach Knight, even if their relationship had been tumultuous and difficult, Coach Knight became much friendlier and more supportive of them. It seemed as if he’d taken all of the coaching out of himself and the player, and now it was time for them to build a friendship.

In 1987, Indiana University defeated Syracuse University in the NCAA Final with a famous shot from the corner by Keith Smart just before the buzzer. Daryl Thomas had seemed the likely shooter; after considering taking a shot, he passed it outside to Smart for a longer attempt. It may have been considered “soft”, but when Coach Knight recounted that same ending of that game years later, he was kind to Daryl Thomas by saying it had been his little shot fake that enabled Smart’s corner pass. Though others might have thought otherwise, Knight insisted it had been an intelligent move by one of his players.

“As time passed, fewer and fewer top players wanted to play for Bob Knight. In the late 1990s, Knight had three McDonald’s All-American players at Indiana University — Jason Collier, Neil Reed and Luke Recker –. Still, all three transferred after accusations that Coach Knight had put a choke hold on one of them. A video evidenced this claim; ultimately, it was decided that Coach Knight could remain, but there would be zero tolerance in future for such things. It must be changed.

Video: Bob Knight Chokes Neil Reed

Bob Knight Chokes Neil Reed

Neil Reed wasn’t thrilled with Coach Knight’s hands around his neck. According to Paul Daugherty of the Cincinnati Enquirer, “Knight needs to change.” Getting rocks to breathe would be much simpler for him.”

Bob Knight did not believe he worked for the Athletic Director, not the University President. If people said something wasn’t comfortable with his methods, Bob would respond with, “I’M the only one who needs to be comfortable.” In 2000, when a student on campus greeted him with “Hey, Knight,” Coach Knight became infuriated and told them to address head coaches with more respect, sparking off an entire controversy which ultimately led to Coach Knight being fired – some say due to only winning two NCAA tournament games in six years! I say it was because Myles Brand was a spineless coward!

Bob Knight’s passion for basketball didn’t extend to professional play. He would rather watch the frogs mate on the Nature Channel than an NBA game. Sure, players are great athletes, but it’s not team basketball and when players make more money than their head coach? Well, that sets up for trouble.

There will never be another Bob Knight.

That’s a good thing, but it’s also a bad thing. Society as a whole nowadays needs the discipline of A Bob Knight; I know his methods, for a large part, especially at the end of his career, were questionable, to say the least, but he taught kids that they could do more through the team than they could on their own. He taught toughness, which no longer exists in today’s society. Maybe if Knight were a bit nicer, his team would have won a couple more Championships, and everybody would love him like he was John Wooden, but Wooden was a cheater that won with help that shouldn’t have existed. Knight did not win as much as Wooden, but every victory he got was on the up and up, and none of his championships was tainted; his players went to class and graduated. In the end, you will hear all of the talking heads complaining about what a bully Knight was, but in the end, Bob Knight coached the way he wanted and has lived the way he wanted. Don’t we all wish we could have lived our lives like that?

Video: Coach Bob Knight's 50th Birthday Roast! Full 2 hour Show

Coach Bob Knight’s 50th Birthday Roast! Full 2 hour Show

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