Good Knight, Bad Knight

Bob Knight didn't earn his record-setting win on Thursday, but he did get a technical foul in Thursday's loss to UNLV.
Bob Knight didn't earn his record-setting win on Thursday, but he did get a technical foul in Thursday's loss to UNLV. (Mike Stone - Reuters)

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By John Feinstein
Friday, December 29, 2006

It is always the same whenever Bob Knight is in the news. It doesn't matter if he is making news by setting the all-time record for victories as a men's college coach (or failing to do so as he did last night) or snapping a player's chin or having a fight with a college chancellor at a salad bar.

The defenders line up on one side and recite chapter and verse on The Good Knight: brilliant coach; turns boys into men; graduates most of his players; has never come close to breaking an NCAA rule; a principled man in a business frequently lacking in principles.

Everything they say is accurate.

Then the detractors line up on the other side with their arguments about The Bad Knight: he's a bully; he emotionally abuses everyone around him, most notably his players; he's not nearly as loyal to friends as he claims to be; he's never admitted to being wrong about anything.

Everything they say is also accurate.

Which is why Knight has been such a galvanizing figure for most of 40 years. People want heroes to be heroes and villains to be villains. It is rarely that simple and it isn't even close to being true with Knight. He is, without question, in the first paragraph of any discussion of the greatest college basketball coaches of all time. John Wooden, Adolph Rupp, Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski and Knight. That's the top five and you can put them in any order you want. He will retire having won more games than any of them with only Krzyzewski (115 behind as of today) having a chance to surpass him. Neither Knight nor anyone else will touch Wooden's record of 10 NCAA championships, but it doesn't really matter. Regardless of how you frame the conversation, Knight is right there.

Knight has insisted for years that breaking Smith's record means nothing to him. He has also insisted he doesn't care what people think of him while raging constantly at any and all criticism that is directed at him. In recent days though, he has seemed almost at peace with the notion that people see this milestone as important. He has credited others, while constantly playing down his own achievement. He's been gracious and almost thoughtful, reflecting on all the people who have helped him reach this milestone. He has, at least for the moment, been The Good Knight.

Most of his ex-players swear by him, say he was a huge positive force in their lives. There has never been a coach who has played more by the rules of the NCAA than Knight. Twenty years ago when Knight heard that a gas station owner in Bloomington, Ind., was giving his players free gas he drove to the station and told the man in no uncertain terms that if he ever heard that his players had been given anything for free again he would personally run him out of town.

Here though, as Shakespeare would say (and Knight has read Shakespeare), is the rub: Knight believes, as do his defenders, that life works this way: If you commit five good deeds on Monday, you are excused from any bad deed you might commit on Tuesday. Knight believes that because he plays by the rules, because most of his players graduate and because he's gone out of his way to help friends in need, it was okay to grab Neil Reed by the neck and okay to stuff an LSU fan into a garbage can and it wasn't wrong to toss a potted plant over the head of an elderly secretary and it wasn't such a big deal to send that chair spinning across the court -- not to mention all of the other misdeeds and missteps through the years.

Knight's philosophy of life basically comes down to this: If I help a little old lady across the street for 10 straight days, but then yell a profanity at her for walking too slowly on the 11th day when I'm running late, I should be excused because I was nice to her the first 10 days.

Real life doesn't work that way. Knight life does.

Years ago, Knight went to see a high school junior play and was un-impressed by him. He told his assistant coaches that recruiting him was a waste of time that he wasn't good enough to play for Indiana. They tried to convince him the kid had simply had a bad game but Knight didn't want to hear it. That summer, disappointed that Indiana wasn't recruiting him, the kid committed to another school, one coached at the time by a close friend of Knight's.


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