Bobby Knight has this face full of rage. He can't help it, he was born with it, the way Durante came with a comic's mug. If a man's eyes are windows to his soul, Knight's windows are blacked over. His eyes tell nothing. They dare you to ask what is behind them. In anger, darkness owns this face, a devil's mask of flame and smoke. Stamp this face: DANGER, HIGH EXPLOSIVES. "He is, said a friend, of 10 years, "the meanest sumbitch on two wheels."
So here we are, courage screwed to the sticking point, ready to ask Knight if he is, in fact, that mean. On his office wall, a plaque reminds him drakly that "loyal friends" will do "their hypocritical goddamnedest to trip you, blacken you and break your spirit." A minute ago, Knight said he had never been in a real fight but if pressed he had no doubt he would go for the jugular. "And that would not bother me," he said icily, "in the slightest."
This is Bobby Knight, certified maniac, Certified in the national media, anyway. AP and UPI paint him as an irrational martinet, Sports Illustrated makes him a madman, Bobby Knight, ugly American. Blasphemous, profane, brutish. Nothing wrong with Bobby Knight that a personality transplant wouldn't cure. Good thing it was the Pan American Games in Puerto Rico, not the Olympics in Moscow, or we'd be in World War III right now.
Funniest thing ever, Knight said, was the time he played like he was going to throw a TV reporter off a 50-foot high building, hands around the guy's throat, asking onlookers thumbs-up or thumbs-down while the TV guy hung there bent backwards over the balcony railing.A million laughs, this madman. "Remeber," another of 'knight's friends said, "under that surface veneer of meanness lies a really thick layer of more meanness."
Getting himself arrested and handcuffed while practicing international sportsmanship on behalf of the United States in Puerto Rico is only the latest, though undeniably the greatest, of Knight's many stampedes over the sensibilities of all concerned. He has insulted coaches, referees, players, the NCAA, even his own fans (who were chanting a barnyard obscenity when Knight took up the public address system to tell them to shut up: "We don't do that crap here," said the Amy Vanderbilt of profanity).
Next to Knight, Attila the Hun was a sweetie pie, and here we were in the Indiana University basketball coach's office last week asking him if he is really all that mean.
Turns out he is, but with a purpose.
"Do you really think I'm mean?" Knight asked the interviewer.
In the top five.
Knight tilted back in his big easy chair in an office that is an oak-paneled, deeply carpeted work of luxury, fit for Indiana's most famous (infamous?) son, a man who calls the governor "Doc" and has asked his school's president to pretty please shut up, you're disturbing my practice. Among the trophies in the room is a big plaque given to Knight by his former players as solid thanks for teaching them lessons that have served them well in life after basketball.
A mean man? Knight once gathered his team in a little room and said . . .
"Everybody who is satisfied that Tommy (to make up a name) is doing everything he can to be a contributing part of this team and is putting out like everybody else, raise your hand."
No hand went up.
"Now, everybody who is fed to hell up with Tommy's sitting on his hindquarters (to make up a word) and generally acting like a (obscenity deleted), raise your hand."
Eleven hands went up.
Across from Knight's desk, someone said, "Let me play the devil's advocate, Bob, and say that was a mean thing to do to a kid, humiliating him in front of his peers. 'Why didn't you do that in your office, alone? Why is it necessary to be that mean?"
"Hey, those 11 kids didn't raise their hands because I wanted them to raise their hands," Knight said. He put his feet up on his desk, nudging the little sign that says, "The Buck Stops Here." Life is not a cabaret, old chum, and Knight sees no easy way to learn that.
"See?" Knight said. "I do it that way. Is that mean? Is that intelligent? Is that an insight into what will work best? What is that? I'm sure some people will say that's really cruel. I didn't do that with meanness in mind. I did it because I thought it was absolute best way to prove a point."
The meanest sumbitch on two wheels? Or the smartest?
"Well, if you were to ask me to comment on 'mean,'" Knight said, the eye-windows lightening up, "I would say the answer is that I am willing to do some things that other people won't do. And a lot of them center around the word 'no.'
"I believe 'no' is the most important word in the English language. No, I won't. No, I'm not going to. No, I refuse to. All kinds of way to say no.
"But I don't think many people can say no to a lot of things. They can't say no to excesses in alcohol, sex and smoking and eating. They can't say no to the temptation to cheat in recuiting or to steal or to hedge on expense accounts. So I've always based my philosophy of how to behave on the word 'no.'
"No, I'm not going back to Puerto Rico and pay goddamned $500 fine because I don't think it's right.
"That's what I mean by saying 'no.' I'm willing to take stands on things where other people aren't. I am, I guess, a crusader.
"There are lots of times, too, when I feel like I'm a lone ship on a stormy sea and I don't have any sail."
A more politic coach would have walked away from the Puerto Rican policeman who came onto the court during a U.S. workout two months ago. Knight screamed at the guy. In Kafkaesque absurdity, the scream became a six-month jail sentence and a $500 fine after a trial in which Knight's Puerto Rican-recommended lawyer-Knight's lawyer, mind you-once asked for a postponement because "they play the championship game tonight, which Puerto Rico WILL WIN!"
"If I walk away," Knight said softly, articulating the endless demands on a man who has chosen to fight the world's thousand brushfires, "where do I draw the line next time?"
He really wanted to know.
The news in Bloomington is not that Bobby Knight is among the world's greatest basketball coaches. Everyone knows that. In eight seasons, his teams, models of aggressive defense and relentless offense, have won 77.5 percent of their games. They were the undefeated national champions in 1976. They won eight of their last nine games last year to win the National Invitation Tournament in a season marked by Knight's kicking three players off the team for smoking marijuana.
The news here is that his friends are worried for Knight.
They are worried that his genius is fatally flawed. At 65, Woody Hayes punched a kid from another team and was fired. Bobby Knight is 38 and growing old in a hurry. The roll call of Knight "incidents" takes longer to read every year. His old Ohio State coach, Fred Taylor, his closest adviser and friend now, said, "Bobby is driven by a force greater than any coach I've every known. Nobody could keep that pace without it reflecting in his face and emotions."
Only three years ago, Knight's hair was black.
Today it is mostly gray.
"Bobby has shown a certain immaturity throughout his entire Indiana career," said Edwin Cady, 62, an author who was the faculty's athletic representative when Indiana hired the Wunderkind from West Point. "He is in a race now between immaturity and disaster."
"The only hope I have," said Robert Byrnes, a Knight devotee and an Indiana professor of Eastern European history for 22 years, "is that someone, perhaps a Fred Taylor, can tell Bobby, 'You can be intense and demanding, and you can do it without the vile, unspeakable language and without the rude and barbarous behavior.' I just hope it can be done before some- body, or something, drives Bobby out of the job.
"Bobby is the greatest teacher I have ever seen," said Byrnes. From time to time, for his own instruction, Byrnes watches Knight's practices. "If he were a history professor, he'd put us all to shame. He has this intensity, along with a really first-rate mind that just happens to have turned to basketball. I come away from his practices -- I'm almost embarrassed to use this word -- Come away inspired."
"If intercollegiate athletics can't keep Bobby Knight in it, for his integrity of purpose, it probably doesn't have much future," said Cady. "It is terribly important for all who care about intercollegiate athletics to save the Bobby Knights of the world. Let the crooks go. "I can tolerate Bobby's extracurricular shenanigans much easier than I can tolerate cheating."
In Knight's eight years at Indiana, only one of 20 players has used up his eligibility without graduating -- and that one needs only three hours of practice teaching to get his degree. Knight has had four Academic All-Americans at IU, which is as many as the other nine Big Ten teams have had all together. Along with seven graduates playing professional basketball today, Knight's program at Indiana has turned out three doctors, three coaches, two accountants and five business executives.
Bobby Knight, then is . . .
A raging martinet.
An inspiring teacher.
A vulgar lout.
A coach who has marked his game forever.
Vince Lombardi in basketball shorts.
"Why doesn't anybody ever compare Knight with Lombardi?" said a Knight assistant coach, Gerry Gimelstob.
"I'm an anachronism," Knight said. "I'm 20 years behind the times. What Lombardi did 20 years ago, people look at it differently today. I'm more demanding than anyone else and I think this is not an era or time of demands. This is a time of acquiescence. I'm out of step with the times.
His father Pat, a railroad freight agent who paid cash for anything he bought, from the best suits to a car, was the most honest man he ever knew, Knight said. "He stood up in Sunday School class during the Koream War and right in the middle of some charitable discussion, he shouted -- he couldn't hear well, so he talked loudly -- 'If you ask me, I think we ought to let MacArthur go in and bomb the hell out of 'em.'"
That is Knight's kind of man. Loud, forthright, honest. Give'em hell, even if it is in Sunday School. The man Knight admires most in sports history is Ted Williams. "His singleness of purose is what I liked," Knight said. "And another thing: he never tipped his cap." Sing your song, Teddy Ballgame, by your soul, learn to live.
Knight worships "honestly," as he calls it. Under the name of honestly, he feels free to do anything at any time.
But say this: Knight suffers at the hand of his own honestly as often as he wounds anyone else. The Pan American Games are an instance, for there Knight, by bowing to the insatiable demands of his war with the world's thousand assaults on his ideas of right and wrong, came out a public relations loser at every turn.
All he had to do was walk away. He couldn't. He was, technically, right in every incident. But he was judged to be wrong because of his manner.
He was ejected from one game when, 35 points ahead, he made what he insists was a mild protest. He then stirred a storm of moralism by chewing out a player, Indiana freshman Isaiah Thomas, at midcourt; Thomas says, "Nobody asked me about Coach. He did right. I deserved it. Right away, everybody just thought here was a coach humiliating his player. Well, with Coach Knight, if you don't deserve it, you don't get it."
No American who was there heard Knight call the Brazilian women's basketball players "whores" and the policeman a "nigger." The Puerto Rico policeman who arrested Knight testified to those charges. No American there saw Knight punch the cop, as charged; to a man, the players say Knight, by reflex when the cop inadvertently poked him in the eye, tried to shove the cop's hand away and pushed him on the chest instead, not all that hard, either.
Knight believes the incident soon became more than a cop-coach case.
"It goes way beyond me getting screwed on the thing," he said. "It goes to the point that now there is an affront being made to the United States with me, the idiotic basketball coach, being used as the vehicle . . . . I will not go back there and pay a $500 bribe. That's what it is, bribery. I pay the $500, they suspend the sentence. I absolutely will not do that to the United States. That is my defiance of this whole thing. They are trying to bribe me to come back down there so they can say, 'We made the big, bad Yankee come to his knees.' I will not go, not of my own free will."
Knight is scheduled to be in Puerto Rico on Monday. He has called a press conference for Sunday night to say no, he ain't going.