Sometimes in sports the most difficult goal is not victory but moderation.Every game has a winner, but how many do it well?
Every victory brings its hero, but how many grow through their stardom?
In exactly opposite ways, Indiana University basketball Coach Bobby Knight and Washington Redskin fullback John Riggins have illustrated two of the most dramatic extremes of excess in sport within the last few days.
Knight has shown us the fallacy of too much self-discipline and stiff-necked principle. Riggins has shown us the flaw in hanging loose and pretending there are no standards for proper behavior at all.
Knight has shown that, with the best intentions, you can go too far.
Just because you want to shake up a slumping team, you don't all but ensure losing a game (benching four regulars), then call it an act of honor.
Just because you think your foes cheat and have players who can't read doesn't mean you can be a showboat moralist by kicking a starting player off your own team despite the fact that he meets every NCAA and college rule for academic eligibility.
Riggins shows that, void of intentions, you also can go too far.
Just because you feel like a good time doesn't mean you can fall asleep on the floor at a banquet where the vice president of the United States speaks. Just because you're tough off tackle doesn't mean you can tell a Supreme Court justice, "Loosen up, Sandy, baby." Not even if she has the manners to smile back.
There's a double irony, and a double bond, between the controversial incidents involving Knight and Riggins last week.
Knight has made himself look foolish by trying to keep his players from turning out like Riggins -- swell-headed from special treatment.
Riggins has embarrassed himself by trying (for years) to show that a world of uptight authority figures -- like Knight -- can't rope and rein him in.
Knight has a bunch of the best basic principles. His conscience is in the right place. In 13 words, North Carolina Coach Dean Smith summed up the best that can (and should) be said about Knight when he told John Feinstein of The Washington Post: "His players graduate, he doesn't cheat to get them and he wins games."
What he lacks is a twinkle in the eye, an appreciation of how slippery and ambiguous life can be and how it resists the hard grasp.
It is wonderfully illustrative that, almost simultaneously, Knight and Smith -- probably the two best college basketball coaches -- faced nearly identical problems and solved them in similar, yet enormously different, ways. Knight took the extremist's solution; Smith took the wise man's middle way.
Both Indiana and Carolina were in slumps. Both coaches wanted to shake up their teams. Both wanted to start a hustling freshman as an example to complacent upperclassmen. Smith started one freshman, benched one star, in a game he knew he would win easily and managed to make his point when few would notice. Knight benched four starters and played only one non-frosh during the whole game; he did it against an arch rival (Illinois) whose program he dislikes, he lost the game to underline his point and he did it on national TV.
Smith acted like a great coach who is also a broad-minded man. He avoided needless controversy, didn't call attention to himself, didn't humiliate young men who were, no doubt, trying very hard even in their worst performances.
Smith acted like a man coaching boys.
Knight acted like a great coach who is also a narrow man. He deliberately attracted controversy, he called attention to himself and reiterated soapbox points he'd made countless times over the years so as to divert attention from his own disappointing season. Worst, he humiliated young men who have worked like green Marine Corps recruits in boot camp since the day they got to IU.
Knight acted like a child trying to mold children, pitting his excesses of authority against what he saw as their excesses of indulgence. The chances, incidentally, that Indiana has any players who are laggards is infinitesimal.
More is the pity that the Knights, who give a bad name to hard work and sobriety, contribute to leading bright men like Riggins astray.
Riggins has the twinkle and the laugh, the appreciation of absurdity and the taste for modern antihero style, which Knight just can't fathom. However, Riggins, who has spent a good portion of his football life wasting energy rebelling against strict coaches, could use some of the ego deflation and self-restraint Knight puts in his players. Maybe everybody can learn something from anybody.
It's too bad that we seem to learn more readily from the embarrassment of others, rather than from their example.
To illustrate, Knight would wish that we remember him for the basketball excellence of his Hoosier teams. What he always forgets is that the hoop is small, the world vast. The more he loses his perspective, the more we are forced to put him into a wider perspective; and the smaller he looks.
Long after Knight's won-lost record is forgotten -- and it will never remotely approach that of a moderately crafty man like John Wooden -- Knight will be remembered for scuffling with a cop in Puerto Rico, for stuffing a fan in a trash can at the Final Four and for losing a game to show off his authority.
Knight could use a mischievous spirit like Riggins' to whisper in his ear, "Hey, Bobby, baby. Loosen up. You're too tight."
And Riggins could use a little Knight angel on his shoulder saying, "Nobody gets a star complex here. Respect for others is the beginning of self-respect."
A philosopher once said, "All things in moderation. But all things."
Riggins has forgotten the first half. Knight has never learned the second.