Even when the school previously celebrated his three national championship teams, he wouldn’t come back to hear the cheers. The man who fired him, Myles Brand, died of cancer in 2009. Knight still refused to go back. Three years ago, when radio host Dan Patrick pointed out to Knight that most of the leadership that was at the school when he was fired was gone, Knight said, “I hope they’re all dead.”
When Patrick said some of them were, Knight said, “I hope the rest of them go.”
That was classic Knight: never wrong about anything, never moving past a fight and always — always — having the last word. Even with someone who had been dead for eight years.
The last time Knight coached an Indiana team at Assembly Hall was Feb. 29, 2000, when the Hoosiers beat the Boilermakers, 79-65, to raise their record to 20-6. That turned out to be the last of Knight’s 662 victories at IU. Indiana lost its regular season finale at Wisconsin, then lost to Illinois in the first round of the Big Ten tournament and went down meekly, 77-57, to Pepperdine in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
As it turned out, that was a humbling end to a glorious 29-year tenure. Five months later, Brand, the school president, fired Knight after a series of incidents that began that March with former player Neil Reed saying Knight had choked him during practice, Knight denying it happened and former assistant coach Ron Felling releasing a tape that showed Knight with his hand on Reed’s neck.
Knight’s firing led to Brand being burned in effigy by Indiana students and outcry from many Indiana fans and alumni. Knight went on to coach at Texas Tech, where he broke Dean Smith’s record of 879 wins as a Division I college coach, finishing with 902. That mark has since been surpassed by former Knight player and assistant coach Mike Krzyzewski and Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim.
Although Knight had success at Texas Tech — four NCAA tournaments and two Sweet 16s in seven seasons — seeing him there made me sad. Even though Texas Tech made the national championship game a year ago under Chris Beard, a protege of Knight’s son Patrick, it is no more a basketball school than Indiana is a football school. When Knight was closing in on Smith’s record, Texas Tech took out newspaper ads practically begging fans to come to the games to see Knight make history.
In Indiana, Knight loved the passion people had for Hoosiers basketball. During the 1985-86 season I spent with him to research what became the book “A Season on the Brink,” Indiana held a preseason scrimmage in Fort Wayne. The building sold out.
“No one else can do this,” Knight said as we walked onto the court that night and the crowd stood and screamed his name. “You think Purdue could do this? Maybe Kentucky, maybe North Carolina. Maybe. That’s the entire list. There’s nothing like the passion for Indiana basketball.”
That’s what made Knight’s self-imposed banishment from IU so sad. He had to keep getting the last word. And so he appeared at Purdue. He did fan forums near the school but not at the school.
Knight is 79 now and hasn’t been in good health in recent years. He and his wife, Karen, moved back to Bloomington this summer, apparently because of the medical care he could receive there and, according to friends, because Knight wanted to be back in the place where he is most revered and cherished.
There’s little doubt that’s the reason he decided to finally return to Assembly Hall, against Indiana’s biggest rival, on a day when many players he pushed, cajoled and frightened into greatness were in the building.
Knight has said and done some terrible things. He could be the worst kind of bully, often picking on people who weren’t in a position to fight back. But I believe he has done a lot more good in his life than bad. In a college basketball world where it is often difficult to know whom to trust, I know Knight never broke NCAA rules. I know it because I have known a lot of his players through the years — some of whom curse his name — but they will always tell you the rules were strictly followed in their recruitment and when they were at IU. I saw it up close during my winter in Bloomington.
That December, when Knight learned that Steve Alford had posed for a charity calendar — unpaid — he knew right away that Alford had broken one of the NCAA’s many petty rules. The Hoosiers were about to go on the road to Kentucky. Knight could have waited to self-report before Indiana played a lesser opponent or hoped no one would find out about such a minor violation.
He had Chuck Crabb, the school’s compliance officer, call the NCAA that day. The ruling was quick: one-game suspension. Indiana almost certainly would have beaten Kentucky with Alford in the lineup. Instead, Alford spent the five-point loss back home in Bloomington.
Later in the season, Knight found out some of the players were being given free gas. Before practice that day, he drove to the gas station and loudly told the owner if he ever heard again that he had given a player so much as a pack of gum, he would run him out of town. Then he told the players if they ever set foot in the place again, they would be off the team.
On the final page of “A Season on the Brink,” I wrote this about Knight: “He will only be 46 years old. A young man with a bright future. If he doesn’t destroy it.”
He was the classic Shakespearean hero: tragically flawed, deserving of all the acclaim and adoration but also deserving of the criticism and, later, the banishment.
Knight’s ending at Indiana was sad. His refusal to go back for 20 years was sadder. His return should have come long ago,but I’m happy it finally happened. Maybe Knight thought the cheers would be his way of getting the last word one more time.
It doesn’t matter. The prodigal son is finally home, better late than never.
The court in Assembly Hall would no doubt have been named for him (along with former coach Branch McCracken) years ago if not for his refusal to let go of his anger. Maybe now, it will be. It would be a happy ending. Despite all his flaws, Knight deserves that.
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.