Throwing In The Chair: What’s Up With Bob Knight?
Nearly two decades after Indiana University fired the iconic former coach, two years since his unceremonious departure from ESPN, and just months removed from Knight’s full-throated political endorsement of Donald Trump, Sports Illustrated senior writer Jon Wertheim (a Bloomington native and noted Hoosier basketball fan) takes a long look at The General’s increasingly bizarre—and sad—legacy.
If you can’t recall the final game of the 2015 NIT Championship, you’re forgiven. It pitted Stanford against Miami on the neutral court of Madison Square Garden. The last game of the consolation-prize tournament, it played out in front of a small TV audience and smaller crowd, some fans paying as little as $10 to get in. That week, the collective gaze of college basketball was instead fixed on Indianapolis, where Kentucky was trying (unsuccessfully, it would turn out) to become the first college team to go undefeated in a season since—all together now—the Indiana Hoosiers in 1976.
That 2015 NIT finale was thoroughly forgettable except for this: Before tip-off, ESPN quietly leaked word that the game would mark Bob Knight’s final on-air appearance with the network. Knight had begun his ESPN gig in 2008, an odd career move for a man who once described basketball media work as “one or two steps above prostitution.” In his seven seasons at ESPN, Knight was known more for gaffes than basketball insight. He may or may not have fallen asleep on the set. He briefly boycotted the word “Kentucky,” stubbornly calling the Wildcats “that team from the SEC”—fallout, presumably, from his feud with coach John Calipari. In 2015, during the course of play and on live air, Knight barked at a fan in front of him to sit down.
For his final broadcast, Knight emerged wearing a brown—not red; determinedly, not red—sweater. He made a few remarks with little inflection or enthusiasm. As the camera panned to the courtside table for the pregame “live shot,” Knight took a swig of coffee from a Styrofoam cup, a television no-no on the order of saving the ball under the opponent’s basket.
Stanford won 66–64; those with a thing for symbolism might note that the game came down to man-to-man defense and free throws. Then it was curtains for Bob Knight. Oh, we would see him again sporadically, when he showed up for the odd appearance—“odd” being the operative word—including a fish fry at Purdue (more on this later) and campaign rallies for Donald Trump (where, curiously, Knight did don a red sweater, at least in Indiana). He has two speaking engagements booked in Indiana later this month, at Bloomington High School North on March 30, and with his old Purdue nemesis Gene Keady in Carmel on March 31.
But that largely forgotten NIT final? It marked an era’s end: Knight’s final public appearance and paid gig in conjunction with college basketball. The man who had once ruled the sport? Who had notched three NCAA titles by his mid-40s and logged more than 900 career wins? Had coached the United States to Olympic gold? Been positioned as an heir to John Wooden? He tiptoed away from college basketball almost imperceptibly that night in New York, a dispiritingly quiet exit.
Or maybe not so quiet. “Actually, I do remember that he was swearing after we went off air,” recalls one of the broadcast crew (who prefers to remain nameless). “Something or other was always pissing him off.”
In December 1980, Frank Deford, then a senior writer for Sports Illustrated, traveled to Southern Indiana to profile the complicated local basketball coach. Deford likens that trip to Bloomington, my hometown, to going to Tuscaloosa in the present day for a piece on University of Alabama football coach Nick Saban. “Knight was controversial everywhere,” Deford says, “so the hometown angle didn’t seem to apply.”
The resulting work, “The Rabbit Hunter,” is, simply, a sportswriting classic, a clinic in personality profiling. Full disclosure: Deford, now in his late 70s, is a colleague and friend of mine, but I was in fourth grade at Bloomington’s Rogers Elementary when SI printed the piece. My desk was directly adjacent to that of Pat Knight, the coach’s younger son. And while I no doubt missed the subtler points, I remember that Deford’s profile was required reading for everyone in town. A penetrating—and prescient—portrait, it tells of a basketball genius, an ascending star in the profession, an unmatched motivator and natural-born leader.
It also tells of a man distracted by annoyances—the rabbits in the story’s title—to an unhealthy degree. As the subhead reads, Knight “often stalks the insignificant.” The piece quotes Knight’s mentor, basketball coach Pete Newell: “There are times Bobby comes so close to self-destructing.” Edwin Cady, a former IU professor who helped get Knight hired in 1971, added: “He’s in a race now between overcoming immaturity and disaster.”
The story was published on January 26, 1981. A few weeks later, IU won the NCAA title, Knight’s second national championship in five years. He was 40 at the time. The future was pregnant with promise.
Those damn rabbits, though. Knight was routinely undone by what should’ve been minor grievances. Puerto Rican cops. Purdue fans. Teenage players who, seeking a less intense environment, decided to transfer. John Feinstein. Connie Chung. The media. And, of course, officiating.
Knight was The General. We were his foot soldiers. And we didn’t much question his orders. Neither did the men who were, at least nominally, Knight’s superiors.
In 1985, Knight, unhinged by what he considered substandard refereeing, whipped that red plastic chair across the Assembly Hall floor. It would become his signature act. I was in eighth grade at the time, and I had lucked into some tickets to sit in the stands that afternoon. What I remember most was the roaring approval of the crowd. None of us were horrified by Knight’s outburst. No, we were mad at those three blind mice. It must really have been a horseshit call if Coach got that pissed! Knight got tossed from the game, and as he departed, the cheers reached a crescendo. Dan Dakich later told me that IU players weren’t fazed, either, since they had seen Knight throw those chairs countless times at practice.
Knight was The General. We were his foot soldiers. And we didn’t much question his orders. Neither did the men who were, at least nominally, Knight’s superiors. Indiana University did not punish Knight for the chair-throwing incident, leaving it instead to the Big Ten Conference to issue what, by definitional courtesy, we’ll call “discipline”: a one-game suspension.
Still, it was enough of an antisocial act to alarm Knight’s friends, who began to call him. Digger Phelps, then Notre Dame’s coach, proposed driving down from South Bend and meeting Knight in Indianapolis. Here’s how Phelps put it to Feinstein in Season on the Brink: “I worry he’s going to go out like MacArthur did. One day, the president is going to say, ‘General, enough. Come home. You are relieved of your command.’”
Knight, though, stayed in command. Barely two years after hurling furniture, he won his third national title. Like most of my classmates, including Pat Knight, I played hooky from Bloomington High School North on the afternoon the team returned, triumphant, from New Orleans. The running joke was that Knight could have run for Indiana governor and won. But really, it was no joke. Who was more popular? Mellencamp, maybe. But no one in sports. The Pacers were a second-rate NBA franchise. The Colts were a decade away from drafting that quarterback from Tennessee.
While I admit to ferocious hometown bias, it’s hard to exaggerate Knight’s prominence at the time even beyond our state’s borders. In the mid-’80s, Bloomington felt like the red-hot (crimson-hot?) center of the basketball universe. The Hoosiers were an It program, contending for titles annually. Hell, we—it was always the collective; it felt communal—won three in 11 years, and, as we were quick to remind everyone, it should have been four, but All-American Scott May broke his arm against Purdue (ugh) before the then-undefeated Hoosiers lost to Kentucky (double ugh) in the 1975 Elite Eight.
Even when the Hoosiers were rebuilding, they were good: An overachieving Indiana squad ended Michael Jordan’s college career in 1984. Not just was Knight named coach of the 1984 Olympic men’s team, but the players—Jordan, Ewing, Barkley, Karl Malone (the latter two of whom were cut)—came to Bloomington to audition for Knight on his turf. That’s how much he mattered. And by extension, that’s how much we mattered.
With Knight, the ironies and contradictions always wreathed around each other. The same man who demanded discipline from his players, showing so little impulse control himself. The figure who demanded unwavering loyalty from those around him, quick to excommunicate friends from his inner circle and turn on allies (read: Mike Krzyzewski, among many others). The coach who sometimes spoke in the most profane terms imaginable, prudishly forbidding the Assembly Hall crowd from chanting BULL-SHIT. The teacher who stressed attention to detail, going about his own business with active disdain for nuance.
But this always struck me as the biggest irony of all: Knight was enthralled by history. He read history. He studied history. He planned vacations around trips to battlefields and historic sites. Yet when he began to assume a starring role in that most classic of historical narratives—the centuries-old, cautionary tale of hubris and absolute power corrupting absolutely—he was either blind or helpless to stop it. From King Lear to Ozymandias to Caesar, the arc and choreography of power’s demise is familiar, almost to the point of cliché. Then came the Indiana version of the theme.
It was in the 1990s that the firmament began to crumble. Knight seemed to grow crankier by the year, and a string of coveted Indiana kids (Glenn Robinson, Zach Randolph, Eric Montross) decided against heading to Bloomington. Depending on where you stood, Knight’s marriage to his dictatorial ways was either costing him recruits, or Knight, alone among his peers, wouldn’t compromise his standards to cosset entitled 18-year-olds. Either way, Big Ten titles—much less national titles—were slow in coming. Those were seasons on the brink.
Most of us closed ranks around our General—for a while. When others dared suggest that Knight had flaws, we knew the script. He’s authentic; what you see is what you get. At least the players graduate. And remind us: How many NCAA championship banners hang in Mackey?
Gradually, though, it became hard to justify playing this version of man-to-man defense. Knight was becoming more isolated, less happy, and less measured with each underachieving season. And then came the rumors that he was mistreating players, more and more of whom seemed to say screw it and transfer out. Knight was also on the wrong side of changes in the broader culture. Call it an evolving sense of empathy or the “wussification of America,” but there was a shift away from what apologists might label “tough love” and the less charitable would regard as bullying. Some of Knight’s antics—pretending to whip black players at a press conference, hanging tampons in the lockers of “soft” players, hurling potted plants at secretaries, head-butting players—made for what we now call bad optics. Some loyalists dropped out, but many of us winced, put up with the discomfort, and held on.
The forces were aligned against us. Knight was not someone to change to accommodate changing times. Digital media blasted out quotes and snippets of Knight’s behavior, allowing pundits all over the country to weigh in. The rumors we had heard for years were leaking out fast. When the Neil Reed video surfaced—which showed Knight grabbing the player’s throat during practice—it was pretty much official: We were defending the indefensible.
Finally, IU administrators asserted some authority, instituting “a zero-tolerance policy” toward Knight, the equivalent of double-secret probation. Even then, he couldn’t resist stalking one last rabbit. “Hey, what’s up, Knight?” asked 19-year-old freshman Kent Harvey, as he passed the coach in Assembly Hall in the fall of 2000. Knight grabbed the kid by the arm, dragged him aside, and reportedly said: “Show me some fucking respect. I’m older than you.” Knight later said he’d only lightly touched Harvey on the arm, never used profanity, and was only trying to teach a lesson in “manners and civility,” which was almost too rich.
Given the choice of resigning or getting fired, Knight, defiant to the end, took the second option. A resignation would have been a tacit admission of at least some wrongdoing. So university president Myles Brand terminated Knight after 29 unruly years in Bloomington. General, enough … You are relieved of your command.
Wearing a blue shirt—an unmistakable statement that he was now part of another tribe—Knight gave a sober, but gracious, farewell address in Dunn Meadow on the IU campus. Players transferred. Recruiting went to hell. Fans cancelled tickets. Protesters hung effigies of school administrators around campus. Some issued death threats.
And then everything took a dark turn.
As divorces go, this was the ugly variety. Though dwindling in number, the True Believers insisted Knight got a raw deal—campus politics and political correctness out of control. Knight’s detractors wondered what took IU so long. As if to stress the new era, the school hired a replacement, Mike Davis, who was everything Knight wasn’t: young, black, inexperienced, mild-mannered. Not that it was the wrong call, but it had the effect of inflaming the culture war even more.
Knight—and really only Knight—had the power to mend the tattered fabric of Hoosier Nation. But (again with the history) that’s not how deposed dictators act. He declared a self-imposed exile from Bloomington. He bad-mouthed his successor, Davis, a former assistant and thoroughly decent man who, despite the unfortunate circumstances, had been given the opportunity of a lifetime. Knight made it clear that you were either with him or against him. As Jerry Yeagley, IU’s former soccer coach, told the Associated Press at the time, “There was no middle ground; you were on one side or the other.”
When Knight got back into college basketball with a coaching job at Texas Tech, it was cause for optimism that the bruises—exit wounds, you might call them—could begin to heal. But Knight took his swipes at IU from afar and made it clear to former players, to anyone in his circle of influence, that perceived acts of disloyalty would not be tolerated. Around Bloomington, clothing stores stocked their shelves with Texas Tech apparel.
Meanwhile, notwithstanding an unexpected 2002 Final Four run, the Indiana program stalled, cycling through athletic directors and coaches. When Kelvin Sampson’s—ahem—carelessness resulted in NCAA sanctions, observers rightly pointed out that, whatever Knight’s flaws, such shady business would never have happened on The General’s watch. Through the years, IU people risked carpal tunnel syndrome, so ritually did they extend an olive branch to Knight. Over and over, Tom Crean, the fifth Hoosier coach in eight years, has made clear that Knight would be welcomed back into the fold. Fred Glass, the current IU athletic director—and the fourth since Knight’s departure—met with Knight privately and said all the right things publicly.
Meanwhile, some of Knight’s stalwart allies were breaking ranks. “My mission is to try and get Bob Knight to understand that as much as he did for Indiana, Indiana University did for him,” said broadcaster Don Fischer in a 2013 interview on IU’s student radio station. Could Fischer see Coach Knight reconciling with the university? “I don’t, because I think he is as stubborn as any person I’ve ever been around.”
In 2014, when A.J. Guyton, a star player at the end of the Knight era, was set for induction into the IU Athletic Hall of Fame, he took to Facebook to invite his old coach to the ceremony in an almost achingly poignant (and widely publicized) open letter. “Time’s ticking and we all deserve a homecoming,” wrote Guyton. “I’m asking you Coach Bob Knight, you said you’d do anything for me once I graduated, can you please attend my induction ceremony, which is coming back home to Indiana University?”
Guyton embodies what fans profess to be the program’s deepest-held virtues. He was modestly recruited but worked tirelessly, accepted Knight’s teaching and mood swings, improved, played four years, and went to the NBA. And here he was, in his mid-30s, pleading in the most dignified way possible for reconciliation. Knight’s response? Nothing.
Barely a year later, the largeness of Knight’s smallness was thrown into even sharper relief. On January 4, 2016, IU honored the 1976 Hoosiers, one of the towering teams in the history not just of college basketball but all sports. The players, now men in their 60s, converged on Assembly Hall, some coming from great distances. Knight, from his Montana bunker, sent notice through his remaining loyalists that he would not be joining the celebration. The man who had recruited this team, managed this team, wrung unremitting greatness from this team, couldn’t be troubled to show up for the tribute. In fact, he couldn’t be troubled even to tape a video message. Naturally, this became a national story.
Let’s pause here and unpack the pettiness. The central figures from Knight’s 2000 firing? Virtually none remain connected with IU, including all of the school trustees who served during the Knight era. Besides, the ceremony was not an endorsement of IU as an institution or even of the current team. It was simply a celebration, a happy occasion, centered on a dynastic team that recalled Knight at the peak of his powers. It was the perfect opportunity for reconciliation. And Knight’s stubbornness and ego prevented it from happening. His decision was not only petty—“I have never seen in my time a more self-interested, self-involved display,” Dakich said on his radio show, speaking for many—but had the effect of undercutting the achievement of the entire 1976 team. And then a month later, a final middle finger: Knight took part in the Famous Purdue Agriculture Alumni Fish Fry, a $25-a-head fundraiser for the rival school. By now, the True Believers were a small minority. But surely we could all agree: It wasn’t supposed to end this way. It didn’t have to end this way.
Still, you could make the case that the saga ends happily. That night honoring the 1976 team? Even without Knight, it was a warm celebration, not just of that group, but the heritage of Indiana basketball. Players from all generations attended. Fans packed Assembly Hall.
After the ceremony, the current Hoosiers took the floor wearing their iconic candy stripes and went through the lay-up lines as the fight song played. IU won the game, one of 27 victories on the season. True, the days of winning NCAA titles every few years are a distant memory. But even amid this disappointing season, the program remains relevant on the national hoopscape. After last season, IU stepped up the $45 million renovations to Assembly Hall. All of which serves as a reminder that a healthy republic is stronger than any one leader.
Adolph Rupp. Dean Smith. John Wooden. They all had arenas named in their honor. The new Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall bears the name of a donor. “The ball is in Coach Knight’s court,” Glass told me recently. “We’d love to have him back. But it’s kind of up to him.” Left unsaid: If it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen.
Bitter old man might be the phrase in heaviest rotation to describe present-day Knight. But almost half a damn century since Knight first planted his flag in Indiana, it’s clear that he has become something worse. He is now the rabbit, annoying but ultimately insignificant. We can hunt the rabbit. Or, chastened by history, we can pay the rabbit little mind and move ahead, focusing on what really matters.