“When my time on Earth is gone
And my activities here are passed
I want they bury me upside down
And my critics can kiss my ass”
Bob Knight, March 12, 1994
Clair Bee was unquestionably one of the greatest college basketball coaches in history. While he was at Long Island University from 1931-51, Bee’s teams won 95 percent of their games and two NIT championships, and in 1968 he was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. For men of a certain age, however, Bee is best remembered as the author of the Chip Hilton novels. The series included 23 volumes that were published between 1948 and ’66. The eponymous hero was a tall, handsome, deeply principled athlete whose moral code was often challenged but never unmoored. Chip’s teams almost always won the big game in the end, but when they didn’t, it was because he chose the more virtuous path.
The publisher of those books, Grosset & Dunlap, enjoyed great success with previous series like the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mysteries, so it was expert at getting Bee’s books into the hands of adolescent boys. Two of those hands belonged to a tall, handsome, deeply principled athlete from Orrville, Ohio, named Bobby Knight. Bobby’s mother, Hazel, was an elementary school teacher, and she instilled in him an early love of reading. Bobby dreaded having to traipse through department stores in Akron with his mother and grandmother on Saturdays, but one of those excursions led him to discover Chip Hilton. He was instantly hooked. The books cost $1.25 each, and every time his mother sent him to the store to procure another installment, Bobby would spend an hour picking one out. By the time he was in high school, he owned more than a dozen volumes, and by his mid-20s he had read all 23. Bobby had no idea at first that the author was also a famous basketball coach. He only knew that he wanted to be like Chip.
That is how it all began for Bob Knight. Sports was never just fun and games, but rather a morality play in which it wasn’t enough to win. You had to win the right way. He chased that ideal from his days as a multi-sport athlete at Orrville High to a benchwarming basketball player at Ohio State to a 42-year coaching career at Army, Indiana and Texas Tech. During that time Knight won 902 games, the fifth-most in Division I history, collected three NCAA titles, coached a U.S. team to an Olympic gold medal, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1991. The winning, however, was never the point, and it only tells part of the complicated story which ended with Knight’s death Wednesday at the age of 83.
“It is with heavy hearts that we share that Coach Bob Knight passed away at his home in Bloomington surrounded by his family,” the Knight family said in a statement. “We are grateful for all the thoughts and prayers, and appreciate the continued respect for our privacy as Coach requested a private family gathering, which is being honored. We will continue to celebrate his life and remember him, today and forever as a beloved Husband, Father, Coach, and Friend.”
At 6-foot-5, Knight was a big man who always seemed larger than life. He possessed a massive intellect, a prodigious temper, and a towering certainty that he knew best the difference between right and wrong — even when he was wrong. He was a cauldron of contradictions who preached discipline to his players but was unable to harness his own demons, an overbearing bully whose mean spirit cloaked a loving heart. Knight would stop at little to one-up his adversaries, but he also gave unfettered loyalty toward those he loved, especially his players. Knight was an icon if ever there was one, and his passing marks the end of a quintessentially American life.
Assessing Knight’s legacy is no layup, but it starts with the inarguable fact that he had one of the greatest minds the sport has ever known. He was one of the foremost exponents of man-to-man defense, and the motion offense he devised during his early years in Bloomington was one of the more significant basketball developments of the last 60 years. He demanded the world from his players, even more from himself. Knight coached many future pros but only one, Isiah Thomas, the star guard of his 1981 champs, ever played in an NBA All-Star game. His teams didn’t win because their talent was overwhelming. They won because their coach was Bob Knight.
“The brilliance of Coach was that somehow, he knew you had more to give than what you were giving,” Thomas says. “He would cross all boundaries to bring that out of you. If you look at all the guys who played for him, we all have the same kind of mettle and toughness. We can all say we wouldn’t be the type of men we are today if we didn’t play for Coach Knight.”
In the end, alas, Knight was defeated by his greatest opponent — himself. His volatile insecurity drove him to tremendous heights, but it also led to his Shakespearean downfall in 2000 when Indiana president Myles Brand fired him for chronic bad behavior and insubordination. Knight finished his career at Texas Tech, retired in 2008, and moved back to Bloomington in 2019 to live out his final years.
Knight may have been obsessive about basketball, but he also lived a joyful, well-balanced life. He was an avid hunter and fisherman who loved to play golf and chew the fat with his buddies. He was a voracious reader whose insatiable curiosity led him to forge relationships with celebrated figures across many sports as well as celebrities, heads of state, and yes, even a handful of sportswriters. He also formed countless friendships with scores of non-famous people he met along away, men who went to great lengths to tail along and subject themselves to Knight’s merciless teasing.
Most of all, Knight loved being with other basketball coaches, especially the older ones. That included the man who wrote those Chip Hilton books. Knight first befriended Bee when he was coaching at Army, and over time Bee became more of a father figure than a mentor. When Knight won his first NCAA title in 1976, Bee was the first person he mentioned at his postgame press conference. Several years after Bee’s death in 1983, his Chip Hilton series was acquired by a different publisher and re-issued in full. Bee’s children asked Knight to write a foreword that would appear in each book. He happily obliged. It was a remarkable, full-circle moment. Knight had fallen in love with a story when he was a young boy, and then wrote himself into it as an older man. It’s one of many measures by which he left this life a winner.
It is a delicious irony that this man who barreled through life at full volume was raised by a father who was hard of hearing. After Pat Knight would come home from a long day working on the Orrville railroad, he liked to plop down in his favorite chair, turn off his hearing aid, and read a newspaper in total quiet. So it was that Bobby learned at a very young age that if he wanted to be heard, he had to be loud.
Pat didn’t engage in long conversations with his son and almost never attended Bobby’s games. He introduced Bobby to hunting and fishing, though, and admonished him not to gamble, which Bobby rarely did. Despite the scarcity of words between them, Bobby revered his father and believed him to be the toughest, most disciplined person he ever knew. One winter morning when Pat left the house, he slipped on the ice and landed painfully on his right wrist. He went to work anyway, wrote left-handed all day, and waited until afterward to go the doctor’s office, where an X-ray revealed he had broken two bones. Pat didn’t believe in credit cards and drove just two cars his entire adult life. He never owned a home until he built one in 1956. “If you can’t pay for it,” he liked to say, “do without until you can.”
Pat and Hazel became parents relatively late in life — Pat was 43, Hazel 38. Bobby was born on Oct. 25, 1940, and they never had another child. When Bobby was asked as an adult if he could change one thing about his childhood, he replied, “I would like to have had brothers and sisters.”
Hazel’s mother, Sarah Henthorne, lived with the family, too. She stayed in the second bedroom while Bobby slept on the pullout couch in the living room. When Bobby got old enough to drive, he would take his grandma to the movies or to go shopping, and escort her to Bingo nights with her friends. Bobby came home during a break in his sophomore year at Ohio State and found his grandma sitting in her favorite chair with her eyes closed and her ankles crossed. It took him a short while to realize she was dead. It shattered him. Knight’s relationship with his grandmother was in many ways closer than the ones he had with his parents. It imbued in him a deep respect for his elders, and a rigid intolerance for those who didn’t evince the same.
Although Ohio was football country, Bobby cottoned to basketball, partly because it was something he could do alone. His excessive competitiveness concerned his mother. When she pointed out to him that someone has to lose, he replied, “I agree with you, but it doesn’t have to be me.” He started on the Orrville High varsity as a freshman and was named captain his senior year. He already had designs on becoming a basketball coach and spent his weekends coaching sixth-graders. Before his senior season started, however, Orville High changed coaches, and the new man in charge was more interested in sharing playing time than outscoring the opponent. He and Knight butted heads so badly that Knight served a one-game suspension.
Knight had several options to play after high school for small colleges as well as Cincinnati, but he reached for the big-time and chose Ohio State. When he arrived on campus, he bragged to his new teammates that he was the leader of a motorcycle gang called the Dragons. It wasn’t true, but it earned him the nickname Dragon for the rest of his time in Columbus.
Knight had the misfortune of arriving as part of one of the best recruiting classes in Ohio State history, which included two future Hall of Famers in John Havlicek and Jerry Lucas. During his first year as a sophomore on varsity (freshmen were ineligible back then), the Buckeyes won the 1960 NCAA championship, and they reached the championship game the next two years. Knight started just two games during his college career, and he perpetually complained about his lack of minutes. “He probably set the NCAA record for the number of times to quit a squad,” Fred Taylor, his coach at Ohio State, said in 1975. “He was a nonconformist, and that only made it harder for him.”
Knight’s disappointment over not playing more was a searing, formative experience. It fomented a burning desire to prove he was good enough. He left Ohio State on bad personal terms with Taylor, but the relationship was repaired the next year when Bobby attended a clinic Taylor was holding nearby. A few months later, Taylor recommended to Army coach George Hunter that he bring Knight on as an assistant, which would require Knight to enlist in the Army as a private. After Hunter got fired, Taylor convinced his successor, Tates Locke, to honor the offer.
Shortly after his first season at Army concluded, Knight married Nancy Falk, who was one year behind him at Orrville High. He got to know an assistant football coach named Bill Parcells who also lived in the junior officers’ quarters and became one of Knight’s best friends for life. As a basketball coach, Knight impressed Locke and his superiors so much that when Locke left two years later to become the coach at Miami of Ohio, Knight was promoted to replace him. He was all of 24 years old, making him the youngest head coach in Division I.
As someone who relished discipline and had a fondness for history, especially military history, Knight fit in well with the ethos of West Point. Army regulations prevented him from recruiting any player taller than 6-6, but Knight didn’t see that as a disadvantage. He relished the opportunity to coach young men who were accustomed to being criticized in harsh terms. As a head coach, Knight made an immediate impression in more ways than one. Early that first season, he brought the Black Knights to a tournament at Madison Square Garden. When a referee made a call he disagreed with, Knight walked towards the stands and kicked a spectator’s chair so hard that it splintered. The New York media bestowed him with the nickname “Bobby T.”
After the Black Knights went 18-8 his first season and reached the semifinals of the NIT, Knight was offered the head job at Florida. He accepted but changed his mind after Taylor reminded him that Army had taken a chance by promoting him at such a young age. When Knight informed his superior, Colonel Ray Murphy, that he had turned down Florida, he expected Murphy to be elated. Instead, the Colonel replied tartly, “I knew you would.” It was a lesson on humility and loyalty Knight would never forget.
One of Knight’s earliest Army recruits was a skinny point guard from Chicago named Mike Krzyzewski. He played his way into his coach’s good graces by heeding Knight’s instructions not to shoot unless it was absolutely necessary. When Krzyzewski’s father died from a brain hemorrhage his senior year, Knight left the team for a few days so he could accompany Krzyzewski home for the funeral. Krzyzewski never forgot the compassion his coach showed as he sat at the kitchen table for three days and consoled his mother. That was the beginning of the most decorated coach-player alliance in college basketball history, a stormy relationship that culminated in 2011 when Krzyzewski was the coach at Duke and surpassed Knight’s NCAA record for all-time wins.
In six years at West Point, Knight led his team to four NITs, and they reached the semifinals three times. He was frequently approached about other jobs and finally said yes when Indiana called in 1971. The Hoosiers had won two NCAA championships under Branch McCracken in 1940 and ’53, but they had not fared well under his successor, Lou Watson. Indiana offered Knight a chance to return to his native Midwest and coach at a place where basketball was important. Most of all, it gave him an opportunity to find out how well his version of basketball would work against the best teams in the country.
Of the many mentors Knight collected during his four-plus decades in the business, he became especially close with Pete Newell, who won an NCAA championship at Cal in 1959 but had to retire the following year because of burnout. Newell’s teams utilized what he called the West Coast offense, a cutting-edge system predicated on passing and cutting away from the ball. When Knight was at Army, he studied Newell’s offense as well as the one devised by Pete Carril at Princeton, which emphasized backdoor cuts. Knight combined those concepts to run what he called a “reverse action” offense, but he longed for a paradigm that blended all these assets into one synchronous system.
After coaching Indiana to a 17-8 record his first season, Knight flew to California to discuss his ideas with Newell. He sat in Newell’s living room and laid out 74 index cards on which he had diagrammed various actions. The offense Knight envisioned required constant movement, usually around screens. Centers and forwards knew they could only post up for two seconds. His many conversations with football coaches like Parcells alerted Knight to the importance of shot fakes and other forms of deception.
Knight called his invention the “motion offense,” and when he unveiled it in Bloomington, a revolution was born. Knight never gave his guys a playbook because there were no structured sets. Rather, he taught them to read the defense and react accordingly. Just like man-to-man defense, Knight’s motion offense depended on having all five players work in concert. If a player cut the wrong way on offense, or rotated a half-second late on defense, the whole thing would break down. “If you liked to think, his system really appealed to you,” says Jim Crews, who played guard at Indiana from 1972-76 and was an assistant under Knight for eight years. “It was very intellectually stimulating because he made everybody a quarterback.”
Indiana had historically been the forerunner of up-tempo basketball — McCracken’s teams were often referred to as the “Hurryin’ Hoosiers” — but Knight’s pace was much more deliberate. The fans resisted it until the wins poured in. In just his second year, Knight took the Hoosiers to the Final Four, where they lost to UCLA. During the 1974-75 season, Indiana appeared to be cruising towards a perfect season when Scott May, its second-leading scorer and rebounder, broke his left arm in late February. May played sparingly the rest of the way, and Indiana lost in the regional final to Kentucky, 92-90, to finish with a 31-1 record.
With May healed and the team returning virtually intact, the Hoosiers began the 1975-76 season ranked No. 1. They burst out of the gate and never looked back. With all those wins came lots of attention on the team’s young, fiery coach. On Feb. 7, 1976, Knight got angry when one of his guards, Jim Wisman, committed two quick turnovers during an overtime win against Michigan. He sent a substitute to the scorer’s table, grabbed Wisman by the front of the jersey and shoved him towards the bench. An Associated Press photographer captured the moment, and the next morning the image appeared in newspapers across the country.
Indiana finished off a perfect 32-0 record by beating Michigan for the national championship. The ’76 Hoosiers are the last remaining unbeaten team and often considered the best team in men’s college basketball history, but their two-year Big Ten record of 36-0 may be the greater achievement. As much as he reveled in the title, Knight could not let go of the disappointment from the prior season. When his close friend Bob Hammel, the sports editor at the Bloomington Herald-Telephone, congratulated him on the championship as they walked out of the arena, Knight replied, “It should have been two.”
The only thing Knight aspired to more than winning an NCAA title was to coach the United States to an Olympic gold medal. That goal was put in jeopardy in 1979, when Knight brought the U.S. team to Puerto Rico for the Pan American Games. As practice was about to begin one day, Knight got into an altercation with a local police officer over whether the Americans had permission to use the court. As the conversation got heated, the officer poked Knight in the eye. It was probably an accident, but it set Knight off, and he ended up being escorted out in handcuffs. He made a brief court appearance to face charges for aggravated assault of a police officer, but he was eventually released back to the team. The U.S. beat the host Puerto Ricans before an incensed, hostile crowd to win the gold, but Knight left the island (before the trial) believing he had blown his chances to be the Olympic coach someday.
That incident highlighted a theme that would recur for the remainder of Knight’s professional life. It was never enough for Knight to know he was right. He had to prove that he was right. That deep-seated need would get him into trouble time and time again.
When Knight went on his home visit to recruit Isiah Thomas, he got into a heated argument with Thomas’ older brother over whether Isiah would have enough freedom in Knight’s constricted offense. Thomas decided to play at Indiana anyway. Knight gave him a lot more latitude than he had given to any other player, but the two butted heads often. It got so bad that Thomas thought of leaving on several occasions. “I don’t think there’s a player that ever played for Coach Knight that didn’t want to quit every other day,” he says. “But now that we’re older, the thing we admire about Coach is that he had the courage not to try to be our friend.”
The Hoosiers won the Big Ten and reached the Sweet 16 in Thomas’ freshman season, and in 1981 they returned to the Final Four. A few hours after Indiana beat LSU in the semifinals, Knight got into an altercation with an LSU fan that ended with Knight shoving the man into a garbage can. He was unapologetic while answering questions about the incident the following day, and while it became part of the unfurling storyline, the Hoosiers beat North Carolina, 63-50, to give Knight his second title.
Knight was just 40 years old and had reached the pinnacle of his profession. In retrospect, it’s evident the early success was not healthy for him. It inflated his ego and made him so popular that few people at the university, let alone around the state, would dare to challenge his authority. It also gave him a disquieting sense that he didn’t have anything left to accomplish. That spring, he came very close to leaving Indiana to accept a role as lead broadcaster with CBS, which had just acquired the rights to the NCAA Tournament. The $500,000 salary the network offered dwarfed what Indiana was paying him. In the end, Knight declined, partly because one of his players, Landon Turner, had been paralyzed in an auto accident that summer, and Knight felt that he needed to stay at Indiana to raise money and help Turner function as a paraplegic.
When the 1984 Olympics came around, Knight’s kerfuffle in Puerto Rico was far enough in the rearview mirror that he was named coach of the U.S. team. Rather than conduct the trials at the U.S. Olympic training center in Colorado Springs, Knight beckoned all the players to Bloomington so he could put him through his basketball boot camp. The ones who survived comprised arguably the best amateur basketball team ever assembled. Led by Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing, Chris Mullin and Sam Perkins, the Americans won the gold at the Los Angeles Olympics. After the final game, the players wanted to lift Knight onto their shoulders, but he insisted they first do that for another beloved mentor, Henry Iba, who was the coach for the Americans when they lost to the Soviets in a controversial final at the 1972 Munich Olympics.
All these early triumphs validated Knight’s basketball philosophies, as well as his militant tactics. His purpose in practice was to create so much physical, mental and emotional distress that the games would feel easy. He played constant mind games to keep the players sharp and frequently invoked his definition of his favorite word, discipline: “Doing what you have to do, as well as you can, when it has to be done, and then doing it that way all the time.” Indiana’s workouts typically didn’t last more than a couple of hours, because he didn’t think his players could concentrate for longer. Knight was peerless when it came to studying video. His scouting reports were so detailed that when the Hoosiers took the floor, they felt like they knew what their opponents were going to do before they did.
Knight paid more than lip service to academics. He had a near-perfect graduation rate and believed that a player who skipped class or blew off a tutoring session did not have the character to play for him. Also, unlike many of his contemporaries, Knight was a stickler for following NCAA’s rules, whether he agreed with them or not. In his four-plus decades as a coach, he never generated a whiff of scandal in that department.
Knight was funny, but his humor was rarely self-deprecating. He believed his judgement should never be challenged. There was no give-and-take in his gym — it was all give. He could be an ogre while his players were under his auspices, but the moment their time at Indiana was done, he went out of his way to make himself available for favors, advice and whatever support he could offer. He also ingratiated himself with the IU fan base by spending much of his off-season driving around the state to speak at various local clubs and functions. He wasn’t much of a drinker, but he could eat with the best of ’em.
Knight often downplayed his lust for winning — “Winning is just a by-product of doing things the right way,” he liked to say — but no one took losing more personally. That’s why the 1984-85 season was such a difficult challenge. The Hoosiers had gone to the Elite Eight the previous season and began that season ranked No. 4 in the AP’s preseason poll. A four-game losing streak in January sent them out of the top 25. The Hoosiers were 14-10 going into their Feb. 23 home game against their biggest rival, Purdue. Knight typically wore checkered suit coats during games, but that day he opted for a golf shirt. Early in the first half, Knight argued a call and was whistled for a technical. That sent Purdue guard Steve Reid to the foul line. As Knight steamed on the sideline, he turned around, picked up a chair off the Indiana bench and tossed it spinning across the floor. Knight later contended that the only reason he threw the chair was because he didn’t have a suit coat he could toss, but that was hardly an excuse. He was ejected from the game and harshly criticized by the press.
At first, Knight agreed that the proper response from Indiana would be to suspend him for a game. He later reversed his position and insisted that he would resign if the school suspended him. Indiana left it to Big Ten commissioner Wayne Duke to lay down that hammer. It was a stark reminder that there was no one in the administration willing to hold Knight accountable for his actions.
Many of those closest to Knight openly fretted that he would meet the fate of another one of his coaching heroes, Woody Hayes, the longtime Ohio State football coach whose career ended when he punched an opposing player who had the gall to intercept his quarterback’s pass. Harold Andreas, who gave Knight his first job as a junior varsity coach at Cuyahoga Falls High school, summed up Knight’s bifurcated personality well when he told Sports Illustrated’s Frank Deford, “He can be as charming as anybody in the world, or he can be the biggest horse’s ass in the world. But he makes that decision, and he does it in a split second.”
When engaging in chronic combat with sportswriters, Knight often derisively said, “All of us learned to write by the second grade, but then most of us grew up and did other things.” In fact, he counted many in the press among his closest friends. He claimed that he didn’t give a damn about what any of those SOBs wrote about him, but when one of them criticized him, he flew into a rage. He demeaned them often, but he craved their approval.
That desire led Knight to allow a rising Washington Post reporter named John Feinstein unprecedented access to the program during the 1985-86 season. From his view on the inside, Feinstein thought about the old adage that “there’s a fine line between genius and madness.” Knight straddled that line constantly. “It was hard to watch the way he treated the kids day in and day out, and it made me wonder why they put up with it,” Feinstein says. “He crossed the line a lot of times, but they tolerated it because they knew his intentions were good. They knew that if they listened to him and did what he was telling them to do, they would become better players and better people.”
The season ended with the Hoosiers losing to Cleveland State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Under most circumstances, such an ending would kill a book’s commercial appeal, but Knight was such a compelling protagonist that the final product, “A Season on the Brink,” became the best-selling sports book of all time. It caused quite a sensation when it was published during the 1986-87 season, but it did not prevent Knight from getting the program back on track. He had never recruited junior college players before, but he made a major concession by bringing in two such transfers who spent that season in the starting lineup. The Hoosiers won the Big Ten regular-season title and returned to the Final Four, where Keith Smart, a 6-1 guard who transferred from Garden City (Kan.) Community College, hit a baseline jumper with four seconds remaining in the NCAA championship game to give Indiana a 74-73 victory over Syracuse.
Knight could be unyielding when defending himself to outside criticism, but on that night he sought to deflect credit. “To me as a coach, it doesn’t mean anything,” he told CBS’ Brent Musburger as he was surrounded by his players shortly after the game ended. “Sure I’m tickled, but for these kids to come back like they did, and to hang in the game the way they did, and for these last two years, my first thought is what these kids have done.” Then he reached out his right hand, squeezed the back of Steve Alford’s neck and said, “And especially right here, what this kid has done.”
For Alford, the 6-2 senior guard from New Castle, Ind., who attended Knight’s camp as a first-grader and was named the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player, that gesture was the ultimate validation. “It obviously meant a lot to me, but I knew all along that he cared about me,” Alford says. “He was tough, but he was fair-tough. Were there times I didn’t understand it? Yeah, but I always knew he had my best interest in mind, and I think that’s what true love is all about.”
If this were a Chip Hilton book, it would have ended there. Alas, this was real life, and the remainder of Knight’s career played out in slow, painful fashion. Knight was fond of warning his players, “Your biggest opponent isn’t the other guy. It’s human nature.” That spoke to the overriding tragedy in his own story. The man was a mentor to so many, yet he never had his own Bob Knight who could set him straight when he needed it most.
In the spring of 1986, Bob and Nancy got divorced. Their 22-year marriage produced two children, Pat and Tim. Bob remarried two years later to Karen Edgar. Knight had a complicated relationship with women, to put it kindly. “I don’t like women at all,” he told the Indiana Student Daily in 1975. “I can’t bear all the small talk and the social amenities that women put you through.” Knight once tried to bar female reporters from his locker room at Indiana, and when that drew criticism, he decided to forbid all reporters, period. Knight’s remarks to and about women were caustic and insensitive at best, chauvinistic and misogynistic at worst. He constantly belittled his players’ toughness by calling them vulgar names referring to female genitalia. If he thought they were being especially unmanly he would leave tampons in their locker.
This worldview caught up to him during a fateful 1988 interview with Connie Chung, a high-profile journalist with NBC News. The fact that a Big Ten basketball coach merited an interview with such a high-profile news correspondent spoke to Knight’s significance in the greater American culture. When Chung pressed Knight to explain how he deals with all the controversies he replied, “If rape is inevitable, relax and enjoy it.” Knight immediately knew it was a dumb thing to say, and he later claimed that he asked Chung and her producers to leave that out of the interview. The remark aired and drew harsh blowback, but once again Knight was left unaccountable at Indiana. Believing that university president Thomas Ehrlich did not sufficiently support him, Knight conducted a drawn-out, very public courtship with the University of New Mexico. Once he felt Ehrlich had been sufficiently deferential, he turned down the job.
In November 1987, Knight was part of yet another international controversy when Indiana played an exhibition game against the Soviet national team. With the Hoosiers trailing, 66-43, early in the second half, Knight was given three technical fouls, which warranted an automatic ejection. He pulled his team off the floor and the game was declared a forfeit. Over the next couple of years, Knight was nominated for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, but he got passed over. He believed it was because of that incident with the Soviets, so he told the Hall to remove his name from consideration. That stance didn’t last very long, and in 1991 Knight was inducted into the Hall.
In 1992, the Hoosiers returned to what would prove to be their last Final Four under Knight. Their opponent was Duke, and while much of the buildup predictably centered on Knight’s history with Krzyzewski, Knight was offended when his protégé appeared to downplay Knight’s impact in an attempt to redirect the conversation. After Duke defeated Indiana, 81-78, Knight abruptly blew by Krzyzewski in the postgame handshake. Afterward, a mutual friend delivered a letter to Krzyzewski from Knight articulating his displeasure. The breach lingered until 2001 when Krzyzewski asked Knight to present him for induction into the Hall of Fame. Knight delivered stirring remarks that night, and before Krzyzewski started delivering his acceptance speech, Knight walked off the stage, took the hand of Krzyzewski’s wife, Mickie, and brought her on stage so she could stand next to her husband.
The dysfunction with Krzyzewski played out in many of Knight’s relationships. “There were times when we were good friends,” his Ohio State teammate John Havlicek once said. “And then, like that, times when he wouldn’t even talk to me.” Knight’s relationship with Alford likewise turned icy after the latter published a book called “Playing for Knight” in 1990. Their rift spilled into the public when Alford disclosed it at a Big Ten preseason media day shortly after becoming the head coach at Iowa in 1999. That created a lot of tension when Alford brought his Hawkeyes to Assembly Hall in January 2000. As Alford nervously waited for the pregame handshake, Knight surprised him by emerging from the opposite tunnel and smacking him on the back. Alford laughed, Indiana won, and when Knight was queried about Alford after the game, he got into a shouting match with reporters and stormed out of the room. It took some time, but Knight and Alford reconciled and remained on good terms for the rest of his life.
Yet for all the public perceptions about Knight’s irascibility, he could be a lot of fun to be around when the mood suited him, and he forged many meaningful relationships around the sports world. His eclectic list of close confidants ranged from the iconic broadcaster Curt Gowdy to legends like George Steinbrenner, Mark McGwire, Tony LaRussa, Johnny Bench, Jack Nicklaus, Howard Cosell, Red Auerbach, and D. Wayne Lukas, the famed horse trainer. He played golf with Byron Nelson, indulged in long conversations with Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush, and went bird hunting with the King of Spain.
One of his most treasured relationships was with Ted Williams, Knight’s childhood hero. Knight was a baseball fanatic, but he especially loved that Williams was an outstanding fisherman. The two of them indulged in long conversations about sports, history, and a variety of other topics. They even once took a trip to Russia for a fishing show. Knight especially admired, and sought to imitate, the way Williams performed acts of kindness without anyone knowing about it. If someone wrote a letter to Knight expressing a personal hardship, he would often reach out to the person and invite him and his family to practice or send tickets to a game. Knight was an early supporter of Ryan White, a teenage hemophiliac from Kokomo, Ind., who contracted AIDS through a blood transfusion in 1984, and he raised millions of dollars for Indiana’s library and cancer research center. For every ardent critic, Knight had scores of friends and former players who waxed eloquently about the positive impact he had on their lives. “I was a young, snot-nosed mama’s boy, and he taught me how to be a man,” says Calbert Cheaney, who came to Indiana in 1989 as a lightly recruited player from Evansville and went on to become an All-American and play seven years in the NBA. “He taught me how to be a good person on and off the court, to hold myself accountable. He wanted you to care about winning just as much as he did, and he taught us how to compete. So if you did all those things, if you played hard and played smart, on and off the court, no matter what happened you could live with the results.”
Indiana returned to the Elite Eight in 1993 and the Sweet 16 the following year, but Knight never again took the Hoosiers past the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. It was evident that his old-school ways were not resonating with the new generation of players. As the losses piled up and the transfers became more frequent, the litany of controversies grow endless — a slammed telephone at a scorer’s table, a tirade against a press conference moderator, an insensitive at least gag when he pretended to use a bullwhip on his players, some of whom were Black. (The players had given Knight the whip as a gift.) On Senior Day in February 1998, Knight was ejected by referee Ted Valentine, walked dangerously close to Valentine as he stormed off the court, and later called it “the greatest travesty I’ve ever seen in basketball in 33 years as a college head coach.”
The more people tried to convince Knight to adapt, the more he dug in. “What was right 25 years ago is still right,” he told Esquire magazine in 2000. “I’m not going to change. It’s up to (the players) to change. The best teachers I’ve known are intolerant people. They don’t tolerate mistakes.”
The dam finally broke in March 2000 when Neil Reed, who played guard at Indiana from 1994-97 and then transferred to Southern Miss, said in an interview with the 24-hour sports news network CNN/SI that Knight verbally and physically abused him, and that on one occasion he choked Reed in practice. The CNN/SI report also included a claim by several former players that Knight once emerged from a bathroom stall with his pants around his ankles, walked into the team’s locker room, and held up a wad of soiled toilet paper in an effort to show his players how he thought they were playing. Knight vehemently denied Reed’s claims, but in a follow-up report a month later, CNN/SI aired an explosive video from an Indiana practice showing the choking incident Reed described. As a result, the Indiana Daily Student published an editorial calling for Knight’s dismissal.
At that point, Indiana had no choice but to launch an internal investigation. It was led by two trustees who delved into additional allegations of abusive behavior towards a former assistant coach (who alleged Knight punched him into a bookcase), a former sports information director (who said Knight berated him because he didn’t like a press release) and a university secretary (who said that Knight got so angry with her he threw a potted plant into a wall behind her, showering her with glass). When the seven-week investigation was concluded, the trustees presented their findings to Indiana president Myles Brand. Brand met with Knight and came away believing the coach was genuinely contrite. He fined Knight $30,000 and suspended him for three games, but he allowed Knight to stay on the job under a “zero tolerance policy,” which dictated that the next incident of improper behavior would result in his dismissal.
It only took four months for Knight to run afoul of the new standard. In the fall of 2000, he was walking into Assembly Hall and came upon a group of students who were purchasing football tickets. One of them, a freshman named Kent Harvey, whose stepfather was a former radio host who had been critical of Knight, called out to the coach, “Hey, Knight, what’s up?” In Knight’s eyes, Harvey had committed the unpardonable sin of disrespecting an elder. He grabbed Harvey by the arm and profanely upbraided him for not calling him “Coach Knight.” When Harvey went public with his account, it ignited yet another firestorm. Knight left for a previously scheduled fishing trip to Canada even though Brand asked him not to. On Sept. 10, 2000, Brand called Knight in Canada to inform him that he had been fired for what Brand called a “persistent and troubling pattern of behavior.”
In the months that followed, Knight remained in Bloomington and mostly stayed out of the public eye. But he was deeply hurt over what happened and stewed over it for a long time. He revealed his feelings during a lengthy, riveting, predictably volatile interview with Playboy magazine that was published in March 2001. As the writer pressed Knight on the various controversies that led to his firing, the coach erupted. “My f—— heart was ripped out by this goddamn bulls—!” he shouted. Later, Knight calmed down, and his anger gave way to sadness. “How would you like to have had your whole world taken from you for no good reason?”
Two years after leaving Indiana, Knight was hired by Texas Tech, whose athletic director, Gerald Myers, was a longtime friend. The program did not have much basketball tradition, but over the next six-and-a-half seasons Knight took the Red Raiders to four NCAA Tournaments, and in 2005, they reached the Sweet 16. The pinnacle of his tenure came on Jan. 1, 2007, when he surpassed Dean Smith on the NCAA’s Division I all-time wins list. The record stood for another four years until Krzyzewski surpassed Knight with a win over Michigan State in Madison Square Garden.
Knight was in attendance that night, sitting courtside at the broadcast table as a commentator for ESPN. Knight had retired from Texas Tech toward the end of the 2007-08 season and turned the job over to his son, Pat. Knight spent seven years working for the network. Unlike his modus operandi as a coach, he was not big on preparation — he often referred to players with phrases like “the big kid” because he didn’t know their names — but his basketball acumen and acerbic wit came through. He was also a considerate teammate. “He was exceedingly kind to people who couldn’t do anything for him,” says ESPN’s Rece Davis, one of Knight’s broadcast partners. “That includes producers, people in hotels, wait staff. Whenever we went to lunch, he would bring someone who he had met fishing or something who maybe didn’t know much about basketball but who went to extraordinary lengths to be with him.”
Knight left ESPN in 2015 and remained in Lubbock, but in time his health started to decline. Chatter quietly circulated among friends that Knight was forgetting names and losing his mental acuity. He didn’t have many friends who lived nearby, so in 2019 he and Karen moved back to Bloomington, where despite the painful memories had never stopped feeling like home.
The move sparked a new round of speculation that Knight would make a long-awaited return to Assembly Hall. He had steadfastly refused to participate in any reunions or university-held functions. In a March 2017 interview on the Dan Patrick Show, Knight said of the people who forced him out at Indiana, “I hope they’re all dead,” even though several of them were — including Brand, who had died eight years earlier from pancreatic cancer. Once again, Knight was his own worst enemy. He held onto his anger to hurt those he believed had done him wrong, but the person he hurt most was himself.
After many years of gentle coaxing and coercing from friends and former players, Knight finally agreed to participate in a halftime ceremony honoring the 1980 Big Ten champs. On Feb. 8, 2020, walking alongside Pat and other former players, Knight stepped back onto the court where he built his legend. His posture was stooped and his legs were frail, but his eyes still possessed the old fire and humor. As he ambled around the floor and posed for pictures with the other former players, Knight waved graciously to the adoring Hoosiers faithful. Then he quieted them down, scowled and yelled, “Play defense!”
The closure felt that day inside the Indiana basketball family was enhanced 14 months later, when Mike Woodson, a star guard from 1976-80 who coached for 25 years in the NBA, was hired to replace Archie Miller as head coach. Woodson was always one of Knight’s favorites — he paid Woodson the ultimate compliment by calling him “our Chip Hilton” — and he offered a badly needed bridge between the program’s past and his future. “Make no mistake about it, Indiana basketball is Bob Knight,” Woodson said in the fall of 2021. “I’ll never be able to fill Knight’s shoes. I don’t have enough time in the day to do that.”
A few months after Woodson was hired, Knight attended an Indiana basketball reunion at the French Lick Resort. With several hundred former Hoosiers in attendance, Knight was handed a microphone and asked to say a few words at the Saturday night dinner. “I just wanted you to know that there’s nothing that I think more of during my life than having had the opportunity to coach young boys, teach ’em how to be men and do it here,” he said. “I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for letting me do that.”
Knight spent his final days in Bloomington hosting visitors, going to lunch with friends and taking long walks with his wife. “I don’t think he recognizes more than about five people, to be honest,” a close friend said in late 2021. “But he’s very appreciative when his friends come to visit him. He might not know who you are, but he’s aware you were an important part of his life.”
Given his failing health, Knight’s passing does not come as a shock, but it is painful all the same for the legion of players, coaches, friends and family who consider themselves fortunate to have been pulled into his celestial orbit. From Orrville to Columbus to West Point to Bloomington to Lubbock and finally back to Bloomington, Knight collected many treasured relationships during his 83 years of life. In the wake of his death, the sport he dominated will assess his complicated legacy and acknowledge his plentiful contributions, but it’s the men who knew him best and loved him most who will carry his story forward.
“Playing for him was greater than I ever imagined because of how hard he pushed me,” Alford says. “I didn’t always appreciate it at the time, but I had great faith in who I was playing for. We won a championship together, but that wasn’t what mattered. What mattered is that he made me a better person.”
(Top photo: Getty Images)