A Coach Who Frequently Lost It Seemingly Had Nothing Left
It is never easy or simple with Bob Knight.
His decision to walk away from coaching two-thirds of the way through his 42nd season is bound to be questioned and, in some quarters, criticized. But who among us would expect him to leave the game in predictable fashion? If there has been one consistent about Knight, it is that you can never guess what he will say or do next.
He's not the first iconic coach to walk away in midseason: John Thompson left Georgetown nine years ago after the Hoyas had dropped their first four Big East games and to this day has never really explained the timing. Lefty Driesell did the same thing at Georgia State five years ago and did explain his thoughts: "I woke up in a motel room in Nashville one morning, looked around and said, 'I'm 71 years old; what in the world am I doing here?' " Dean Smith quit on the eve of the first practice of the 1997-98 season because the idea of going to practice didn't excite him anymore.
The truly great ones, the ones who put every drop of energy they have into what they do, often reach a point where, very suddenly, it occurs to them that they aren't what they once were. Their energy level isn't the same; their enjoyment of what they do isn't the same; their desire isn't the same. And, in most cases, they aren't winning as much, and every one of them craves winning.
For all his success, Knight had reached a plateau at Texas Tech that was well below where he wanted to be or thought he should be. His work in 6 1/2 seasons in Lubbock was admirable: four NCAA tournament bids, one trip to the round of 16. But that's a long way from the glory days at Indiana: all the Big Ten titles, the five trips to the Final Four, the three national championships. Knight last won a national title in 1987; last went to a Final Four in 1992. In his last 14 seasons as a coach he reached the round of 16 twice and never went beyond that.
At some point, a man who takes every loss as a personal affront was going to get tired of that. He had set all the records he was going to set. He had won his 900th game, and his team was 12-8 and sputtering along in the middle of the Big 12. There had been losses to Sam Houston State and Centenary and, recently, a 26-point loss at Texas.
Army Coach Jim Crews, who played on Knight's first national championship team in 1976 (the last undefeated college team) and then coached under him for eight years, almost predicted this three days ago. Crews is as bright and thoughtful as anyone in coaching and understands Knight as well as anyone who ever played or worked for him.
"I just wonder how much longer he's going to want to do this," Crews said when the subject of Knight came up Sunday. "I remember looking in the paper and seeing they had lost to Centenary and thinking, 'Wow, I just can't imagine what it must be like around there right now.' I think there's going to come a point where he says, 'Enough is enough.' I wouldn't be surprised if it was sooner rather than later."
Crews probably didn't expect it this soon, but he obviously knew what he was talking about. Those who will criticize Knight for walking away from his team will miss the point entirely: There is no doubt he believes it is better for his players to be coached by an energized Pat Knight than by a worn-out Bob Knight. That's a fact.
His legacy will always be a mixed one and that's the sad part. The chair (1985) will always come up and so will Puerto Rico (1979), the LSU fan in the trash can (1981), Neil Reed and his firing at Indiana (2000), the salad bar incident with the Texas Tech chancellor (2004) and on and on.
There's no excuse for that behavior or for the bully act he frequently put on or for some of the emotional abuses he heaped on players and assistant coaches and, for that matter, close friends. Those who try to justify that behavior are just as foolish as those who refuse to acknowledge all that he accomplished.
Most who played for him swore at him frequently while they were with him and swore by him after they left. His often convoluted notions of loyalty could make life very difficult, but almost everyone who has ever been around him for any length of time would agree they learned from him and that if you dealt with all the baggage, he would be there for you when you needed him.