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Good Knight, Bad Knight

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.

Soon after that, Knight was at a summer camp and noticed the kid dominate a game. "Why in the world," he asked his assistants, "aren't we recruiting that kid?" (This happens frequently with Knight. His vaunted memory is very selective, especially when it comes to his mistakes).

"Coach, you told us to back off him and he's verbally committed now."

Of course the kid was still interested in Indiana, and he eventually reneged on his commitment to the smaller school and signed with Indiana, where he became a very good player. When the coach who had lost the player confronted Knight, Knight responded by citing all the ways he had helped the coach's career.

That may very well have been true. It also didn't make Knight's actions less wrong. In fact, it can be argued that Knight would have publicly ripped another coach for not respecting a verbal commitment made to an opposing school. In this case, the wronged coach still doesn't talk publicly about what happened, not because he's afraid of Knight's wrath but because he knows Knight will never understand why he was wrong.

Like so many other hugely successful people, Knight is surrounded by people who tell him he's done nothing wrong; who listen while he explains why it was Krzyzewski's fault that the two men didn't talk for most of 10 years; Steve Alford's fault that they were estranged for just as long; Myles Brand's fault that he was fired at Indiana; all of Puerto Rico's fault that he had the confrontation with the cop in San Juan; and Jeremy Schaap's fault that he blew up during his Indiana exit interview six years ago.

The world is littered with people who have done misdeeds to Knight.

Of course, there also is an impressive list of people who have cared greatly about Knight: Pete Newell, Henry Iba, Joe Lapchick, Red Auerbach and Fred Taylor -- just to name five coaches who are in the Hall of Fame. All of them saw greatness in Knight. All of them worried about him because of his penchant for self-destruction.

The question that is asked most often about Knight is whether he will have an ending similar to Woody Hayes, another of his mentors.

The sad truth is this: He's already had it. Knight can talk all he wants about how happy he is in Lubbock cobbling together good teams at Texas Tech, a place where basketball will never be as important as spring football. He can talk about how much he likes the people there and how little he misses Indiana.

It simply isn't true. Knight belongs in Indiana. It is where he should have broken the record and finished his career. Imagine Wooden not finishing his career at UCLA; Smith not coaching at North Carolina; Rupp at Kentucky; Krzyzewski at Duke. How is it possible that a man who coached three national champions and an Olympic gold medal-winning team and did so without cheating while graduating his players and standing for all the right things about sports ends up fired?

It can't happen to an icon. Unless he slugs a player on national TV during a bowl game. Or refuses to believe that zero tolerance means zero tolerance for him. It can only happen to someone who simply refuses to understand that, even for icons, there are some rules. Knight never has understood that. Rules have always been for everyone else but not for him.

One day in practice 20 years ago, a frustrated Indiana player let loose with several profanities. Knight raced over to him, got in his face and said: "I don't want to hear that kind of [expletive] language in here. I here it again, you'll be running from now until [expletive] dawn."

He was completely serious. Profanity, for his players, was strictly off-limits.

Those were the rules. Knight's rules. He has always lived by them. They have served him well.

And not so well.

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