Jon Wertheim On Bob Knight And Dean Smith’s “Bromance”

Bob Knight and Dean Smith illustration made for Jon Wertheim story
Photo courtesy UNC Athletic Communications (Smith)/AP Photo (Knight)

IT’S BEEN OVER two decades since the Bob Knight era in Bloomington abruptly came to an end, and while many Hoosier fans are understandably fatigued by the chair-throwing clips and apathetic toward the cobweb-filled remembrances of The Good Old Days of Indiana Basketball, there is still a section of the fanbase that worships at Knight’s altar. While those two groups may contrast in how they view Knight as the program’s figurehead, what they share is a longing for IU to be a true national power again—a level of success it hasn’t come close to reaching for nearly 30 years.

Through Indiana’s mediocrity, Knight’s legacy may be hanging on, but with the upcoming retirement of his protege, Mike Krzyzewski, his era of the dominant, deity-type head coach roaming the college basketball sidelines may be exiting forever. We talked with Sports Illustrated executive editor and senior writer Jon Wertheim, a Bloomington native, about the potential end of the larger-than-life college basketball head coach, his recent piece highlighting the friendship between two of those former giants in Knight and North Carolina legend Dean Smith, and why Indiana can’t seem to fully emerge from The General’s shadow.

Did you have previous knowledge of the Dean Smith-Bob Knight relationship and go looking to dive deeper into that, or was it something that you stumbled upon when going through the Coach Smith archives?

It was an utter fluke! I did a book last year on the summer of 1984. It was centered around Michael Jordan coming to Bloomington to play for Bob Knight and the Olympic team before being drafted. I was looking for Michael Jordan material at Carolina and someone in their library told me about Dean Smith’s incredible collection—it’s all of his donated files and correspondences. I was poking around in it and kept seeing “Bob Knight,” “Bob Knight,” “Bob Knight,” and I was like, Why the hell does Dean Smith have file after file of Bob Knight? It was just wild.

I knew that Indiana beat North Carolina to win the national title when I was in fourth grade [1981]. I knew there were a lot of Indiana kids that went to North Carolina. So, on some level, I knew that Knight and Dean Smith were friendly, but I had no idea they were writing each other handwritten letters each week.

In the piece, you mentioned that Dean Smith was a vocal supporter of progressive causes throughout his coaching career. For example, he was against the Vietnam War and capital punishment. Meanwhile, I don’t think it’s any secret that Bob Knight leaned the other way when it came to his political views. Given today’s political climate and the way that plays out over social media, would this type of friendship between Smith and Knight, two enormous public figures and icons of their sport, be able to exist in 2022 like it did in 1982?

The political chasm was not as wide as it is today. It felt like a much less polarized time. But when you sit down to write a letter and really think about your words, I think it’s different than the usual conversation that you get today firing off an informal email, DM, or text. I wonder if Bob Knight, of all people, sitting down and having to take a deep breath to compose his thoughts, came off a lot better than his trademark hothead reaction. It turns out he was a very nice writer! Politically, these guys may have been a spectrum apart, but I think the letter-writing aspect of their relationship is really significant.

It sounds cheesy, and a little simplistic, but was the bond between the two created from sort of this “code” that they had? Like, think whatever you want, vote for whomever you want, but if you don’t cheat and do care about your players, while addressing me with respect, you’re good in my book?

One hundred percent. I heard this from multiple people—they had a common person they didn’t think fondly of in the past in Adolph Rupp [legendary and controversial Kentucky head coach, 1930–1972] and they both saw themselves as the bulwark of “doing things the right way.” With the Dale Browns [LSU] and Jerry Tarkanians [UNLV] of the college basketball world, I think Smith and Knight felt like they were keeping the respect and dignity of the profession while other guys were cutting corners.

Dean Smith has passed on. Knight is 81 and there have been questions about his health for years. Coach K just graced the Cameron Indoor sidelines for the final time. Jim Boeheim will be 78 this fall. Do you think we’re evolving away from the era of the Deity Head Coach? Is that a good thing?

I do and it’s because of a combination of things. You can’t really have these super coaches anymore because A) the players have way more power, B) the money is such that guys can always get seduced elsewhere from anywhere, and C) the fanbases have gotten so impatient. I mean, look at Coach K’s first three years at Duke—he was probably one more poor season from getting run out and likely would’ve never even lasted that long nowadays. In the past, you’d have seasons where there was barely any turnover in college basketball coaching. You either had to do something really bad and get fired or have a much better job lined up, because if not, why would you ever leave? I just think the days of coaches coming to a campus and parking there for the next 30 years are mostly gone. That my story was published during the weekend of Coach K’s last game at Cameron Indoor is total coincidence, but it’s definitely interesting that he may be one of the last of a dwindling breed.

As far as if it’s a good thing, if the reason you don’t have these “institution coaches” is because they get seduced by bigger jobs or get run out of town because you can’t ever go 6-6 at Texas [football], I think that’s bad. For instance, I definitely think it’s shitty when guys like Brian Kelly leave Notre Dame for LSU because they pay a couple of shekels more. However, if it’s more that coaches aren’t lasting as long because players are getting more power and not having to deal with an authoritarian coach, that’s good.

As a Bloomington native, I think you can offer a perspective that few national media figures can because you fully understood how large Knight’s shadow was at his apex. That apex was more than 30 years ago now and I believe a large portion of the fanbase has fully moved on with their lives. However, as Indiana misses the NCAA Tournament annually and fades further out of national relevancy, do you believe at least a portion of his shadow will remain because Bob Knight still marks the last time the Indiana program consistently mattered beyond the borders of its own state?

It’s funny because I cover tennis and fans always say, ‘Why do we talk about John McEnroe so much? He hasn’t played since the ’80s!’ And a lot of the reason he’s still discussed is because there hasn’t been much American men’s tennis success since. If Indiana were going to Final Fours and winning championships, Knight would probably be discussed less, but instead we remember three titles in barely a decade, which feels implausible for where the program is today. To compare it to another blue-blood program, I don’t think Kentucky fans are saying, ‘Oh, we miss the Joe B. Hall years!’ because they’ve stayed contending and relevant. If Indiana had more success since his departure, it would’ve weirdly diminished Bob Knight in a way. But, with where IU basketball is today, I can totally understand Hoosier fans pining for that—contending for titles and making Final Fours—when they’re barely sniffing the NCAA Tournament.

I also think he was such a larger-than-life figure in his era. Today, I’m not sure Bob Knight could exist. He would’ve probably been canceled the first day of practice. His era becomes sort of a reference point for how far we’ve come socially and culturally—it becomes this benchmark: ‘Could you imagine a coach today doing X, Y, and Z?’ Regardless, I think Bob Knight will always represent something significant to a lot of people, pro and con.