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Like Knight and Day

The Coach Has Mellowed, but His Passion for the Game Remains

By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 24, 2005; Page D01

ALBUQUERQUE, March 23 -- Thirteen years ago, Bob Knight was in vintage form here, bringing a bullwhip to a news conference and contorting his face into a dozen outlandish expressions when a reporter asked about a "game face."

When his Texas Tech team arrived at The Pit on Wednesday, he left a much different impression, conducting what was generally a docile news conference that provided little controversy. Those who know him best say Knight has mellowed this season even as his program has established itself as a national contender.

Texas Tech's Bob Knight -- with his son Pat Knight, left, and assistant Bubba Jennings, right -- is back in the NCAA tournament's round of 16 for the first time since 1994. (Stephen Dunn -- Getty Images)

Knight will make his first appearance in the NCAA tournament's round of 16 since 1994 Thursday night when sixth-seeded Texas Tech meets seventh-seeded West Virginia. There are indications Knight is cognizant of the past missteps that have defined his career as much as his success -- though he won't acknowledge as much publicly.

"I'll tell you what's amazing," said Knight's son and assistant, Pat. "He always talks to me about not making the same mistakes he did: 'Be careful, watch your language. Don't do what I did early on. You have a good rapport with guys, you enjoy talking, keep that up. Don't fall into the same traps.' "

Knight has told his son that years ago he thought it was "funny" to call a reporter out during a news conference before more than 20 onlookers. But Knight has since realized, his son said, the reporter then could criticize Knight in a newspaper article for a readership that might approach millions.

If his demeanor has calmed in the public forum, there is little question that his coaching ability has not diminished. Knight has taken a team without its leading scorer and rebounder, Andre Emmett, who is now in the NBA, to the Big 12 tournament final and an upset of third-seeded Gonzaga in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

"I was kind of going through some of the things this morning that we had put up in our locker room way back in October," Knight said. "And no one had picked this team to finish higher than seventh in the Big 12, and not one single person had picked them to go into the NCAA tournament. That may show a lot of things about people that pick finishes."

There is no star on the Red Raiders, who are 22-10. Their leading scorer, Ronald Ross, is a former walk-on. Pat Knight called this season perhaps his father's finest coaching job.

"Look at all these new-wave coaches that have gotten jobs the last five years, don't have the record compared to him and what we've done at Tech," Pat Knight said. "I get personal about that. You have a lot of these so-called recruiters. But you have to be able to coach, and he has never lost that."

Clearly, part of the success comes from a comfort level Knight has in his fourth season at Texas Tech. Pat Knight expects his father to remain at Texas Tech for the remainder of his career and envisions him coaching until he is pushing 70.

Because Lubbock, Tex., only has one newspaper, Knight can avoid excess scrutiny if he so desires. Plus, West Texas offers plenty of hunting and fishing opportunities that appeal to Knight in the offseason.

But his passion -- basketball -- has not diminished. Pat Knight doesn't know what his father would do without it, saying his father was "miserable" the year he sat out after he was fired at Indiana for violating then-school president Myles Brand's zero-tolerance policy. The best mood Pat Knight saw his father in was when he visited Akron, where Pat was an assistant, to work with the Zips' players and watch practice during Knight's year off.

Another adjustment Knight has made in the past five years, according to his son, is how he deals with players. There was a time when Knight would treat every player the same. Now, particularly with the heightened influence summer league basketball has before they enroll in college, players have different tolerance levels, and Knight adjusts to each personality.

"In the past, he'd yell at someone, and that would motivate them," Pat Knight said. "Now he'll do different things. Show movies to them, have them do things together, every little trick you can."

There are still moments when Knight does not bite his tongue. Last week, he said during a radio interview that he had stayed at Indiana six years too long and that, had he not been fired, he was planning to replace current Indiana head coach Mike Davis, then his assistant.

Wednesday, after the news conference moderator detailed specific rules that reporters should follow when asking questions, Knight said, "Damn, you're a tough son of a [gun]." But that was about as bombastic as Knight got.

Ross, who referred to Knight last week as a "latter-day Santa Claus," said Wednesday that, "as serious as he is about coaching and winning, he's really a great guy. He has a great personality. He does joke around with us. It's fun to be around him."

According to Pat Knight, the same could have been said in 1992, when Knight brought out the bullwhip, calling it a "motivational device."

"I bought him the whip," Pat Knight said. "I got up on the bus and said, 'Hey, we're tired of your bad language. Why don't you use this on us instead of your bad language?' We loved it, thought it was the greatest thing ever."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company