Expanding a bit upon this past week’s Historical Perspective Indiana’s 1981 National Championship, this article provides some recollections and observations on Bob Knight’s tenure in Bloomington. This isn’t intended to be an in-depth analysis (as there are many excellent sources already existing), but rather some observations as a long-time basketball fan on Knight’s modus operandi.
As a bottom-line-up-front, Knight was literally a coaching prodigy; taking the Indiana head coach position at the age of 30 (young even by today’s standards), reaching his first Final Four at age 33, and winning National Championship #3 at the age of 46. Knight was also the product of another era; one where the concept of participation trophies didn’t exist. And lastly, Knight - by virtue of his early and sustained success in Bloomington - was for the longest time literally untouchable by the Indiana administration. This combination led to many infamous situations, several of which are discussed as follows.
One of the first things I recall was hearing that Bobby Knight was arrested , detained, tried in absentia, and convicted for allegedly striking a police officer. And this came after Knight was ejected from an opening round game against the Virgin Islands that the US team won by 35 points. If Puerto Rico - where the 1979 Pan Am Games were played - were a foreign country versus a US territory, this would have touched off an international incident. Instead, Knight never returned to Puerto Rico to this day (and the State of Indiana refused to extradite Knight) and basically got off with what amounted to a slap on the wrist; issuing a written apology.
As I mentioned in the Indiana Historical Perspective article, Knight had another run-in 2 years at the 1981 Final Four in Philadelphia, for allegedly stuffing an LSU fan into a garbage can following the Hoosiers win over the Tigers. However, this became almost background noise given the backdrop of Ronald Reagan’s assassination attempt on the day of the National Championship game pitting Indiana against North Carolina.
Another aspect I find interesting was Knight’s relationship with Steve Aford, both as a player and as a coach. Alford was a star recruit out of New Castle, Indiana who not only was the starting point guard on the 1983-84 Indiana team that eventually ended up in the Elite 8 (and that ended Michael Jordan’s career at North Carolina upsetting the #1 ranked Tar Heels in the Sweet 16), but was on the 1984 US Olympic Men’s Basketball Team. However, Knight could be VERY critical of Alford and not above publicly calling out a player to the press (which typically occurs in the locker room, not in a post-game presser). This love/hate relationship extended to when Alford entered the coaching ranks, where Knight addressed and re-addressed his encounter with Alford.
These Knight-isms, in addition to the more infamous ones such as the chair-throwing incident in the 1985 Purdue game, pale in comparison to what occurred at the 1992 NCAA Tournament. As a gag-gift, Indiana senior Calbert Cheaney gave Knight a bull whip; that Knight described in detail during a press conference. Knight’s description of said ‘motivational device” and a faux demonstration on Cheaney’s backside created a media firestorm, which in this day and age probably would have resulted in Knight’s immediate dismissal.
Lastly, I’ll mention an interview that Knight gave to NBC’s Connie Chung. During the 1988 interview (when I was a senior at Maryland) Knight made the off-the-cuff remark that, “I think that if rape is inevitable, relax and enjoy it.” The quote was in response to how Knight used stress to teach and motivate his team during practice. Knight was immediately criticized over this. Indiana University’s President Thomas Ehrlich’s response was simply making the statement, “Coach Knight was not speaking for the university. His reference to rape and his coarse language were in very poor taste. Period. That's all I really want to say.” Period.
In today’s day and age each and every one of these things would get any Division I basketball coach at the very least suspended, if not fired outright (the whip and the interview incidents would certainly cost a coach their job). The excuses at the time were that Knight won games, Knight ran a clean program and didn’t run afoul of the NCAA, and that Knight’s players graduated. To most though, the thought was that Bob Knight was Indiana University: untouchable due to his power and influence.
Bob Knight was literally a coaching prodigy, accumulating wins at a pace more rapid than any other coach that came before him. Knight was also an Ohio State alum, which meant as an athlete he took a freshman vocabulary course taught by Professor Wayne Woodrow Hayes. In a lot of ways Knight emulated Woody Hayes, and in the end at Indiana Knight (just like Hayes at Ohio State) committed one faux pas too many, which cost him his job (as summarized very well in this Sports Illustrated article). Like Hayes, changing times and evolving society values passed Bobby Knight by; making what was tolerable at one time completely unacceptable in this day in age.
Or, as John Feinstein said in A Season on the Brink, Bobby Knight was “A young man with a bright future. If he doesn't destroy it.”