Bob Hammel: The Bob Knight you probably didn't know. 'Like no one I ever observed'

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — In a state known for its passion for basketball, in a self-declared "nation" proud of its traditions and identifying banners, his tenure, his era, was the best of the best.

Bob Knight's death at 83 on Wednesday called back memories of the 30-year-old Ohio native who was almost unknown in Indiana but already had a six-year head coaching career at Army behind him, and a three-season opposing player's familiarity with uniquely Hoosier hysteria in 1971 when he was introduced as the surprise choice to come in and resurrect Indiana basketball style, what Poe wrote of: "The glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome."

Surely his Hoosier teams over the next 29 years outdid the most optimistic of expectations, and hopes, even dreams: Indiana's and maybe even his own.

More: Legendary Indiana basketball coach Bob Knight passes away at 83

But that gets into areas everyone knows, a world of numbers. The Bob Knight I want to talk about had a trait rarely, maybe never mentioned on pages like this. This man, who was a major college head basketball coach at 24, revered his elders, in coaching and in life, like no one I ever observed.

The sport evolves, each decade different from the one before. That tends to make successful coaches of one generation disinclined to listen to graybeards from generations before because "they played a different game." That was never Bob Knight.

At 24, and in the six years that followed when he was cutting his coaching teeth at Army, he capitalized on geography. Only a few miles upstate was Clair Bee, who didn't invent basketball but came darned close to inventing basketball coaching. His Long Island University teams dominated college play in the 1920s and '30s, before there was a national championship tournament. The East had all of college basketball's respect then; Madison Square Garden was the game's mecca. Clair Bee's LIU Blackhawks owned the East, and the Garden, and that era's game.

Bob Knight yells at a referee during the 1979 season.
Bob Knight yells at a referee during the 1979 season.

The New York-based college basketball gambling scandals of the early 1950s included some of his LIU players and broke his heart. He left the sport and retreated to a country home where the new kid at nearby Army sought him out, asked tons of questions, time and again drove him into the city for occasional gatherings with coaches of Bee's own day.

That near father-son relationship broadened Knight's field for questioning and listening to include Joe Lapchick of St. John's and Nat Holman of CCNY — City College of New York, the only team ever to win both the NCAA and NIT in the same season (1950) and the focal point of the gambling scandal.

The Knight-Lapchick relationship became so close that on Lapchick's death, his wife passed along to Knight a scrapbook Lapchick had put together and regularly showed his St. John's teams, a scrapbook of newspaper stories that told what gambling had done to New York college basketball, seeping out to stain other college giants of the day as well, Kentucky most of all.

More: Bob Knight timeline at Indiana basketball on way to becoming all-time winningest coach

Into his later years, Knight could cite the Yonkers street address of the Lapchick home where he often went to ask coaching questions. He would relish repeating counsel Lapchick gave him on one of those visits: "People are going to be coming after you to speak at banquets and things. Don't ever do one of those for less than $25." And the young coach who grew up in 5,000-population Orrville, Ohio, would think while driving home: "Who would ever pay me $25 to talk?"

More substantial things grew out of those conversations. For his coaching life, he adopted Lapchick's ideas on training rules ("none at all — except: if you do anything in any way that I think is detrimental to this basketball team, the school, or you yourself, I'll handle it as I see fit").

In the same conversation, Lapchick asked, "How important is it to you that people like you?" Knight's answer, delivered after some thoughtful consideration, "I'd like to be respected as a coach, but I'm not concerned about being liked." Lapchick laid down another thing Knight adopted as a precept: "Good. If you worry about whether people like you, you can never make tough decisions correctly."

■ ■ ■

In his six years at Army, Knight's teams went 102-50 and 6-0 in the rivalry of all rivalries against Navy, a contrary bubble in a series dominated by the Middies. His teams became Madison Square Garden darlings, representatives of an institution admired for its rectitude and — 6-6 height limit and all — scrappy indomitability.

Knight so loved the Garden and the National Invitational Tournament, its March showpiece, that he once turned down an NCAA tournament bid so the corps of cadets could follow their team to the Garden and Army could try for an NIT championship. A couple of his teams came close, never quite making it to the final game, but in 1979, he brought a Mike Woodson-led Indiana team there and won.

The man who won three NCAA championships and an Olympic gold medal never reacted to those as he did that night, throwing things into the air and leaping around the Garden court shouting, "We won! We won! We won the NIT!" Mrs. Lapchick was his guest at the game and on court for the celebration. The watch he wore through his final years was from that NIT championship.

Not till after a few of his early sessions with Clair Bee did he realize this genius of a coach, the only one in the Hall of Fame with a winning average over .800, was also an author of the Chip Hilton book series that young Bob Knight had devoured back in Orrville. His teacher-mentor steered him well into a lifetime of almost always having a book in his hand, something to read on every team flight, in every idle moment.

In elementary school years, he once said, "The library had a 'reading tree' that had the names of the 10 kids who read the most books — always, nine girls and me." He particularly loved biographies, and Chip Hilton books.

Bob Knight talks to guard Frank Wilson while assistant Dave Bliss works with others in one of Knight's first IU practices in October 1971.
Bob Knight talks to guard Frank Wilson while assistant Dave Bliss works with others in one of Knight's first IU practices in October 1971.

His father, a Wheeling & Lake Erie Railroad agent, had his own influence, introducing Pat and Hazel Knight's only child to fishing, hunting (birds only, never ground animals) and golf. They became lifetime passions.

And then there was the third adult who lived in his home through his growing-up years: Robert Montgomery Knight's maternal grandmother, Sarah Montgomery. She taught him to drive. She showed him how to bargain with farmers to get the best buys on the freshest fruits and vegetables. She had his lifelong devotion and she, surely, clearly, was why he had such extraordinary respect for his elders.

Clair Bee was the archetype of that. He spoke regularly to Knight's Army teams, often to his Indiana teams, before passing away at 87 in 1983. He wrote a cherished letter that pulled Knight out of deep doldrums when the team of his life stormed unbeaten through the full 1975 Big Ten season, but lost its All-American leader Scott May to a broken arm and — in the most depressing defeat of the Knight era — fell in the Elite Eight to a Kentucky team it had routed in May.

Days after that loss came an elegantly handwritten letter, just over 100 words:

Take a deep breath.

■ ■ ■

The next year was the last perfect season a major college men's basketball team has had, a stretch that has now reached 47 years. Knight, whose second son is named Patrick Clair, flew Bee, near blind and 80, to Baton Rouge to watch that 1975-76 team win its way to the Final Four, had him speak to the team just before it went on-court to meet once-beaten, No. 2 ranked Marquette in the regional finals. Bee couldn't make it to the Final Four in Philadelphia the next week, but Knight counted him there. Included in his post-game comments was:

"Somewhere in upstate New York, there's a happy man tonight."

Indiana coach Bob Knight talks to his team in their locker room during the 1976 NCAA Final Four in Baton Rouge, LA.
Indiana coach Bob Knight talks to his team in their locker room during the 1976 NCAA Final Four in Baton Rouge, LA.

And there were others. His seeking out older coaches for both revering and learning purposes didn't stop at West Point. His fellow IU banner winner, Branch McCracken, had passed away before Knight arrived at IU. However, McCracken's own coach, Everett Dean, was one he made contact with early and from there on counted on for counsel.

In the summer of 1985, when Knight took his IU team on a 37-day, round-the-world summer basketball trip, he took along Dean at 87 and three-time Olympic coach Henry Iba (81) in advisory roles. Each — along with another who made the trip, IU athletic director Ralph Floyd — had lost his wife in the previous months and Knight, without saying so, denied them that first summer of feeling alone.

Bob Knight asks for a jump ball during the "chair-toss" game in 1985.
Bob Knight asks for a jump ball during the "chair-toss" game in 1985.

Then there are those numbers.

He won more games, at a higher percentage, leading to more outright conference championships and national championships and Final Four trips than any coach in Big Ten history. He reached more milestone levels, 300, 400, 500, at a younger age than anyone. He was the the first ever to reach 900.

He did it all while graduating his "kids" at an almost unmatched level, while doing old-fashioned things like supporting the university library. One of the presidents during his IU years, Thomas Ehrlich, estimated Knight was responsible for more than $5 million in gifts to the library over his coaching tenure.

He wore no halos. He had a ferocious temper, a sailor's profanity, and a roughness in talking to and physically handling players that modern society rejects.

Those things he never hid, never tried to hide. Some things he did hide, particularly a willingness to — in return for secrecy — oblige what amounted to hundreds of written or telephoned requests over the years in the general area of “My dad is your biggest fan, and he’s in the hospital dying. Is there any chance you could …”

Of course variations of it were voiced for moms, too, often for children ... for people in senior nursing centers and hospice houses. Somehow, in an almost unimaginable number of cases, time would be found, probably after hours so no one else noticed, and there would be a signed basketball or IU gear or something — including a smile and a shake of the hand, often a hug — showing that fondness and genuine appreciation went both ways.

Letters by the thousands were answered, pictures signed. It amounted to the bulk of the work for secretaries Linda Stines and Mary Ann Davis, then in his retirement wife Karen kept that going as long as she could.

Bob Knight hugs a coaching buddy, Michigan State's Jud Heathcote during the 1994 Big Ten coaches pre-season meeting.
Bob Knight hugs a coaching buddy, Michigan State's Jud Heathcote during the 1994 Big Ten coaches pre-season meeting.

Among the people most upset by his abrupt dismissal from IU in September 2000 were the least in visible stature: Assembly Hall custodians and maintenance people, background folks who had their own relationships that asked no favors, sought no souvenirs, understood genuine respect. Those were the ones who, on my own Assembly Hall visits to watch a practice, would interrupt their work to ask: “How’s Coach?”

That was a complex package, that coach who drew up the game plans that — you look up the lineups and figure out how it could possibly happen — somehow beat No. 1-ranked North Carolina and Michael Jordan in the 1984 NCAA tournament, that outran a vastly superior UNLV team in the 1987 semifinals when all the world felt the only chance Indiana had was to slow the game and live or die on Steve Alford shots. The score that day was 97-93.

Those games weren’t all that atypical. Maybe you didn’t know that Jordan tops a 10-man list of great players — college All-Americans and future NBA stars — whose last college loss was to Knight and IU. Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal (LSU, 1992), always two of the top-ranked NBA players ever, top that list.

■ ■ ■

Numbers …

Of course everything starts with the championships:

  • 3 national, the three banners (1976, 1981, 1987) that hang in Assembly Hall alongside the ones Branch McCracken’s teams won in 1940 and ’53 and, together, match the total won by all other Big Ten teams.

  • 11 Big Ten, an overall total matched by early-era Purdue coach Ward “Piggy” Lambert, but Knight’s eight outright championships top Piggy by two.

  • All sorts of others: Olympic and Pan-American golds, NIT, even the short-lived Conference Commissioners Association tournament, major league runners-up in the era when the NCAA took only one team from major conferences.

Indiana coach Bob Knight ponders a question during a news conference at the Orlando Arena in Orlando, Florida, in this undated photo.
Indiana coach Bob Knight ponders a question during a news conference at the Orlando Arena in Orlando, Florida, in this undated photo.

The 2023 NCAA national championship game was the 46th since Knight’s 1975-76 team became major college men’s basketball’s last unbeaten champion. Every champion since has lost at least two games.

That team capped a period when Indiana swept through two straight Big Ten seasons undefeated — an unprecedented, never matched 18-0 in each, victories over every other league team at home and on the road. Their 37-game conference winning streak is 10 beyond the next-best: 27, by the Ohio State teams on which he was a three-season sixth man, which played in the national-championship game all three years.

As IU’s new coach, he came into a league that had averaged 165 points per game in league play in 1971, 171.3 in ’70. By his fourth year, 1975, that was down to 148.1, though his own team that year averaged 87, shot .513 in league play and won its 18 games by a league-record average of 22.8 points per game. That was the year Knight introduced his self-designed “motion” offense, the year his team for the first time was voted No. 1 in the land.

He shared everything his teams ever did at high school and college coaching clinics. In January 1976, a new coach in the league, Lute Olson at Iowa, asked him to speak at a game-day luncheon on the Hoosiers’ visit there, the only intrusion into his tightly booked game-day schedule I can ever remember his granting an opponent.

In introducing Knight, the man who grew to be one of his most bitter rivals called him “one of the true innovators in coaching” and added: “He has had more impact on the way high school players are playing today than any other coach in the country. You can go out and see high school players anywhere in the country using the defensive philosophies of Bobby Knight.” He called Knight’s ’75 Hoosiers “the best college team at both ends of the court I’d ever seen.”

His peers showed their respect in other ways. The motion offense quickly showed up not just across the nation on high school and college teams but in his own league, and how he — its inventor — sought to defense it was noted and copied. His private reaction: “We’ll just have to do it better than they do. And we should.”

That penchant for sharing everything had roots. His sophomore year at Ohio State, a team that started three future Naismith Hall of Famers and two other long-time NBA players entered Big Ten play looser on defense than coach Fred Taylor wanted. He had attended a Pete Newell clinic the previous summer, taken notes and installed Newell’s defensive principles, so he sent assistant Jack Graf with films to California where Newell was coaching his defending NCAA champions.

Newell watched the films and sent Graf back with some instructions that helped the Buckeyes win the Big Ten and the NCAA championship, over Cal and Newell in the finals. That always stuck with Knight. “Pete never even thought about how he helped to beat himself,” Knight often mused. “He was helping The Game.” That was woven into the philosophy he always told his teams: Whether playing a national power or a perceived weakling, “You are not playing an opponent. You’re playing against your potential.”

Newell, who coached the Oscar Robertson-Jerry West 1960 U.S. Olympic team that was the primary challenger to Knight’s Michael Jordan-led 1984 team as the best of the pre-pro Olympic era, became another of Knight’s coaching “fathers,” exceptionally close. California-based, Newell stayed up to the minute on all Knight-IU teams and came to Bloomington every year to be part of practices and go on game trips.

Indiana University basketball coach Bob Knight congratulates Bob Hammel on his retirement as sports editor of the Bloomington Herald-Times during a senior day ceremony in Assembly Hall March 10, 1996. Knight and Hammel became good friends during the coach’s 29-year reign at IU. David Snodgress
Indiana University basketball coach Bob Knight congratulates Bob Hammel on his retirement as sports editor of the Bloomington Herald-Times during a senior day ceremony in Assembly Hall March 10, 1996. Knight and Hammel became good friends during the coach’s 29-year reign at IU. David Snodgress

When the 1974-75 Hoosiers were gelling into a powerhouse, Newell went with them to a Christmas tournament in Hawaii and left behind a 10-minute tape that talked directly to the players. He spared no criticism but also told them, in a voice player after player from that group remembers clearly even now, 48 years later: “You have within your grasp the finest season that Indiana’s ever had.”

The challenge, he cautioned, will be “getting yourself emotionally and mentally ready. Sure, you’ll get yourself up for the Purdues, but when the Iowas are down, you’ve got to make sure you’re up.” It was a tape Knight played to them entirely once and, in particularly applicable parts, through the rest of that remarkably consistent season.

Newell, by then 78, also was part of that geriatric round-the-world coaching group in 1985.

That coach whom Newell had helped to the 1960 national championship, Fred Taylor — in his final, physically difficult days, none of his former players reached out to help him and his family as much as the non-starter living four hours away in Bloomington … the man whose 1976 IU coaching staff prominently included Harold Andreas, the head coach at Cuyahoga Falls High when Bob Knight was his learning, attentive, appreciative jayvee coach.

■ ■ ■

Never at all faded was his love for his small hometown, Orrville, where they play their basketball now in Bob Knight Gymnasium. He loved to recite his favorite commercial line (about Orrville’s other most noted product: “With a name like Smucker’s you’ve gotta be good”), and he helped his high school football coach and lifelong friend, Bill Shunkwiler, get a job in retirement as an Indianapolis Colts scout.

His special generation-older respect, admiration and warmth extended into non-coaching areas: to IU administrators John Ryan, Bill Orwig, Ralph Floyd (and Anita Aldrich, Marianne Mitchell), faculty friends topped by Bob Byrnes and Harry Pratter, equipment manager, and fishing buddy Red Grow.

He had nicknames for many of his insiders, including two who ignored expected IU-Purdue neutrality and openly backed his teams: the generally shared “Doc” for Gov. Otis Bowen, a teasingly personal “Grampa” for state high school Commissioner Phil Eskew. He was awed that baseball all-timer Ted Williams became a late-life fishing friend, that football coaching icons Red Blaik and Bud Wilkinson in retirement each opened a day for him to come visit and soak in experienced thought.

All those voices he listened to — and I’m omitting many who were closer to his age — had their own role in, and felt their own satisfaction in, his accomplishments that included:

  • In nearly 120 years of Big Ten play, only three of IU’s 30 coaches have won an outright championship — besides Knight’s eight: McCracken had three (1953, ’54 and ’58) and Tom Crean had two (2013 and 2016).

  • In almost 80 years of polling, eight IU teams have been ranked No. 1 in the land. Five were Knight teams (’75, ’76, ’80, ’83 and ’93), two McCracken (’53 and ’54) and one Crean (2013). No other Big Ten program will be catching up for a while. Ohio State is second with four, two of those when Knight was a player there.

  • There was no coach-selected Big Ten Coach of the Year before 1973, and Knight was the first recipient, then several times after. When the time came, of course Knight was named the Big Ten’s basketball coach of the 20th century — which, considering the sport’s age, meant ever.

That raises another item: In the first 33 NCAA tournament years (1939-1971), Big Ten teams won four championships. In Knight’s 29 IU seasons (1972-2000), Big Ten teams won six. Since he left the league 22 tournaments ago, the now 14-team Big Ten has won none.

Only Knight and longtime friend-rival Dean Smith played on and coached a national champion. They also are the two most responsible for the surge in worldwide basketball popularity and national-team success, each in the peak years of their careers spending summers in Europe and on other continents conducting clinics and distributing teaching films, then hosting national coaches for in-season looks at how America plays the game.

So, this year, the No. 1 NBA draft pick was from France, foreign players now commonly receive MVP or All-Star NBA honors, and colleges are doing more and more foreign recruiting.

The first major college men’s coach to win 900 games won 662 of them in those 29 IU years. In the 93 others, IU has won 1,250.

And when it ended for him here with the most tumultuous firing in modern, maybe all IU history, the cited breaking point was his reaction — more offended than angry: grabbing and rebuking a young student who had addressed him, nearly 60, as “Knight” rather than “Mr. Knight” or “Coach.”

Maybe, in a head-scratching way, Fate delivered him the uniquely appropriate exit.

Former sports editor Bob Hammel.
Former sports editor Bob Hammel.

Bob Hammel was the H-T sports editor who covered the first 25 Bob Knight coaching years at IU, including the 1976, ’81 and ’87 NCAA championships. He wrote six books on the Knight years and co-authored Knight’s 2002 autobiography.

This article originally appeared on The Herald-Times: Bloomington Herald-Times sports editor Bob Hammel on friend Bob Knight