Doing it his way
By Dan Wetzel, Yahoo Sports
December 21, 2006
As sleet and freezing rain slam the South Plains here on Christmas week, Knight is huddled deep inside United Spirit Arena, one thought on how to get career victory No. 879, and one thought on the media that has been hounding him for nearly all of the previous 878 – most recently when he clipped player Michael Prince on the chin last month.
It is that thought that makes him hit pause and fire off a glare.
"That is why I have such a bad (expletive) feeling about all of you (expletive)," he says.
Knight still wonders how things could get so mixed up with the media, with some of the public. Actually, he doesn't wonder.
While he is not inclined to discuss that a victory Saturday over Bucknell can tie him with Dean Smith as the winningest coach in Division I history, human nature suggests that deep down the record brings additional validation to his methods, to his success.
Bob Knight, no matter what they say, will be on top, without peer, without apology.
Knight, 66, hasnt changed a bit and isn't planning on it. He still is the unapologetically demanding coach. He still is a profound stickler for NCAA rules – no matter how disdainful he can find them. He still is the industry leader in demanding academic success and ultimate graduation of his players. And without question his competitive desire to win has not waned one bit.
He was that way at Army in 1965, where he started his head coaching career at age 24. And he will be that way when he eventually retires on top of his profession. He has no regrets, no remorse – no matter what the media says.
"I've done it my way and I think we've been pretty successful the way I've done it," he said.
One of Knight's prized possessions is a letter from Walter Byers, the pioneering former NCAA executive director who from 1951 to 1988 built the Association into the billion-dollar powerhouse it is today. Byers was a no-nonsense guy who ruled the NCAA with an iron will and an uncompromising vision. It is little surprise he and Knight were friends.
The letter arrived when Knight came here to Tech, when there was still so much fallout from his dismissal at Indiana, still so much negativity. One line in particular is Knights favorite:
"Every game has its rules," wrote Byers, "and over time you've played the game on the important points as cleanly and openly as anyone I've known."
"I don't think," said Knight, "there is anything I have received I appreciated more than that."
To Knight it isn't so much the ultimate vindication as much as it is the proof that someone smart, someone with principle and someone who clearly knows what goes on in college athletics was paying attention and recognized the big stuff.
In terms of the purpose of college sports, Knight's view (which most would agree with) falls into three main categories.
1. Assure an education (both academically and in life skills) for student-athletes.
2. Follow the NCAA rules.
After that, it's all small stuff. After that, what really matters? If you happened to be the coach who has a near 100 percent graduation rate, who has hundreds of former players who swear your teaching drove them to success – and if you happened to do all this while following NCAA rules as well as anyone and you won more games than anyone, would you want to hear about flipped chins, thrown chairs and press conference meltdowns?
But the media coverage of Knight is about the sensational, about the controversial, in part because Knight keeps providing new material. There is little question he is held to a double-standard, but much of that is his own creation.
While almost every news account mentions his successes, it inevitably ends with but … And Knight can't quite figure out why there is the need for the but …
Like Byers, he has been in college athletics a long, long time and he knows as well as anyone that the coaches who don't cheat and who do care are significantly fewer than the public believes. The NCAA's system of selective enforcement inadvertently convinces the public the cheaters are few and far between – that there are white hats and black hats out there.
Reality is just the opposite. Just about everyone wears grey.
"I would say the majority of major college basketball programs break the rules," said Sonny Vaccaro, the long-time shoe company czar who by operating summer basketball camps, tournaments and all-star games since the 1960s has been privy to about every under-the-table dealing that ever went down.
"Because of my role and because I've been, I guess, a sounding board for these things, I know these things. I've heard it all. I've been there for these things. And with Bob Knight I've never heard a single thing, not first hand, second hand, third hand. Nothing. Not ever."
What Vaccaro knows is that rampant rule breaking takes place not just among the usual suspects, but also within programs run by the game's Mount Rushmore figures, the ones with the most pristine reputations, the guys fans just don't want to believe could be corrupt. He is forever laughing at the disparity between reputation and reality with some of these guys, the ones who employ sugar daddy boosters or whose recruits' parents magically move near campus or offer big money "graduation" gifts for players. But that stuff, he says, has powered some of the dynasties in this sport.
"You'd be disgusted with the number of coaches in the Hall of Fame who got there by cheating," he said. "The American public wouldn't believe it."
Which is why Vaccaro, who has never been close with Knight and whose summer basketball world has been the brunt of many a Knight diatribe, says you can't just dismiss the big stuff because doing it is so, so rare.
"What the fans should realize is that if this is about the student-athlete, about education and following the rules, if that is what matters, then I am saying Bob Knight is the greatest of all-time. And there is no one even close. And there never will be."
Yet as ESPN previews the upcoming Tech games that will propel Knight to the record, the videos that flash across that big screen TV are him getting into it with officials, players and reporters. Following the rules doesn't make for a great highlight. Nor do graduation ceremonies.
"You get tired (of the press)," said Knight. "You get tired of all that. Because I yelled at somebody that supersedes everything else?"
Knight says "I am not my brother's keeper." He says, "I'm not a policeman." He says that while he decided early on to place more value on academics and compliance, it doesn't bother him that so many others in college athletics didn't. Even if it has affected him many times in recruiting.
Knight has been able to recruit and coach some very good players during his career, particularly during his run at Indiana. But the truly great players often eluded him. In his entire career he coached just one NBA All-Star (Isiah Thomas from 1979-81). By comparison, Dean Smith coached 12 who appeared in a collective 61 All-Star games.
For the most part he targeted the guys he thought he could get and went from there. He didn't bother with the ones that wanted more than tuition, room and board; the ones that didn't want any part of actually attending class.
At IU he was literally surrounded by scoundrels – Illinois, Louisville (twice), Kentucky (three times), Cincinnati (three times), Ohio State, Michigan and Purdue – a perfect circle around Bloomington – who all were hammered with major infractions during his time with the Hoosiers. During his five seasons so far in the Big 12, three of the regular season champions (Kansas and Oklahoma) are already on NCAA probation for major rule violations.
"How many people cheat today?" Knight said. "I don't know. I've had one concern as long as I've been coaching and that is how we do things, period. If they put me in charge of it, and that was my job, then I'd bust up a lot of things.
"It's everybody's choice. My choice is there are rules there so we'll try to follow the rules. And that is the way I was taught and that's the way my parents taught me – that there is a right way and a wrong way.
"The kid that goes (to a school that cheats), that's the chance he takes, that (he goes where) it is just about playing four years of basketball or whatever.
"If I broke rules to win games I wouldn't get anything out of them. You know, what games we've won, we've won totally within the rules."
Yet for years he watched as cheaters succeeded, watched them receive glowing praise in the press. For years he received phone calls and letters from players, who after playing for coaches with better reputations, were asking him for help, advice, and guidance.
"Over the years I have had a lot of kids at other schools call me to help them get jobs," Knight said. "So when kids from other schools, kids we played against or I have met somewhere along the way, are calling me to help them, I think that is an indication that their schools don't much give a damn about the kids. And there are a lot of those.
"To me, that's academic fraud."
He sighed and went back to the Bucknell tape for a minute, watching an inbound play closely for some flaw his 9-3 team can exploit. He sat up for a second to get a closer look and then leaned back in the chair.
"I don't have a bad feeling about the guys who want to cheat," he said. "I have a bad feeling for people in your profession who don't recognize what's important and what isn't – and fail to recognize what has been good and what hasn't. That is why I have such a total lack of regard for most people in your profession.
"He threw a chair. What difference does it make if you threw a chair? How (expletive) many guys have thrown things? Bats out on the field, balls, picked up bases, water coolers, thrown coats? How many guys have kicked something over?
"I'm tired of that. That's what Im tired of."
Dating all the way back to his playing days at Ohio State, where he was John Havlicek's teammate on the 1960 NCAA championship team, Knight has questioned the decision making of the NCAA. He's watched the game get bigger, grander, more professionalized and more competitive. Often for the good, he notes, but sometimes for the bad.
The latest trend he can't comprehend is the NCAA's willingness to be used by the NBA as a one-year way station for top pro prospects. NBA Commissioner David Stern instituted a 19-year-old age limit to stop the preps-to-pros trend. It forced the best high school players into college, such as Ohio State's superb center Greg Oden.
But for whatever excitement that brings the fans, such a decision stands in stark contrast to what the NCAA is supposed to be about. Many of the top prospects openly claim they are only going to attend school for one year, no one even pretends that graduating is a goal anymore.
"These rent-a-players, that's the worst thing I've seen happen in college basketball," Knight said. "These guys who can come in for one year and play, that's not college basketball. College basketball is a game for kids that are going to college to graduate not going to college for one year and then move on."
In fact, the one and done student-athlete doesn't have to be much of a student at all under current rules. For a freshman to retain his eligibility into the second semester he needs to earn a meager D in just two classes and flunk the other two. A player could do virtually no academic work in the fall semester and then not attend a single class the spring semester before dropping out the day after the season is over to turn pro.
"So I can come in and (learn nothing) the first semester and then play the second semester without ever going to a class and then quit," said Knight. "Is that what college basketball is all about?"
Knight believes the NCAA is being duped by the NBA because it is so desperate for the talent infusion that they'll compromise all logic.
"(David) Stern doesn't give a damn about college basketball. The NBA saves a hell of a lot of money with these kids coming in early like they do."
Knight's suggestion is to make players who want to attend college sign an agreement that will keep them on campus at a minimum of two years. Or else take a scholarship away from schools that recruit these kinds of players. Anything else is ridiculous and hypocritical.
"It is ludicrous (to allow a) kid who is only going to be there one year have a real effect on the outcome of an entire season of college basketball. And these people talk about academics and graduation rates."
Knight's record of compliance is pristine, yet he hates the NCAA rule book for its arcane and confusing items. He has volunteered to tear it up and turn it into a 10- to 20-page document. He considers the NCAA's new academic requirements that force schools to graduate athletes at a higher rate than the student body or face sanctions to be illogical. He doesn't believe morality can be legislated.
"The rules are not going to keep people from violating them."
Mostly he can't believe how little common sense is being applied.
"I don't think there is anybody in the NCAA hierarchy who has ever coached and very few who have ever played. And it is the same with presidents. How many of them have ever coached? How many of them have ever played? It is amazing.
"The person that through the years the NCAA has gotten furthest away from is the kid," he said. "(They never consider) what's best for the kid."
The three-second clip of Bob Knight flipping Michael Prince on the chin is a snapshot of a full-time, lifetime interaction between coach and player, teacher and student, mentor and protégé. That's how Knight sees it. That's what he believes.
It was just one moment, one interaction. All the other days, the games, the practices, the meetings, the bus trips, the late-night phone calls when the player is long since graduated are missed.
Most people see the footage and see it the other way: Knight once again out of control. But if you can't imagine why he keeps doing these things, why he keeps making it difficult for people that want to support him, want to hold him up as what is good in college sports, then you don't understand Knight. For Knight, the end justifies the means because the end result is so good.
"If I didn't do things like that my kids wouldn't be as successful as they have been," he says.
Knight pauses the Bucknell tape again, turns and makes sure he is getting this message across clearly. This, he believes, is the entire point, the entire missed point when it comes to his career. Never mind the acts that don't seem proper. They are proper because they produce the proper results.
"If I didn't yell, if I didn't demand, if I wasn't tough, if I didn't have the stringent rules, my kids wouldn't be as successful," he said. "You don't graduate players today in college without getting on their ass. You don't make kids better people without getting them out of their comfort zone.
"Why do I have as many kids graduate as anyone? Why are our kids so successful? If I did things the way you'd like me to do them, that are politically acceptable to everybody, then we wouldn't beat anybody, we wouldn't accomplish anything.
"See, that is the thing guys don't grasp."
His mind goes right back onto the game tape, about the next opponent, about the next victory. After four decades, he is about done even trying to explain all this stuff. He knows, at this point, he probably isn't changing any minds. And his is certainly not going to change, an all-time wins record of not.
As always, he wonders why the world just doesn't always think like he does.
Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated on Friday, Dec 22, 2006 1:47 am, EST