General's last stand

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His closest friends always cringed when the latest flare-up would occur – a thrown chair, a flipped chin, a fight at a salad bar (of all places) serving as red meat to the media and allowing Bob Knight's most incredible accomplishment to be lost in the clouds of controversy.

It's easy to show Knight's drama, of course. It's hard to admit the truth. But before retiring Monday after 42 seasons, 902 victories and three NCAA titles, Knight managed to prove the impossible somehow possible:

The coach who cheated the least won the most.

If you want to be honest about Bob Knight then you have to be honest about college basketball, which means admitting it has been corrupt to the core for decades, a sport where the sinners exponentially outnumber the saints, where no matter how pretty the pig gets painted each March, it's still a pig.

At the elite level, you cheat, you might win. You don't cheat, you'll probably get fired.

That's about it. It really is. Plenty of your coaching "geniuses" are nothing more than smart recruiters eviscerating the NCAA rule book. But don't take my word for it.

"At the national level, the elite level, how many coaches really did it honestly through the years?" said Sonny Vaccaro on Monday. "That's a good question."

Vaccaro spent 43 years virtually inventing and then running grassroots basketball. He staged all-star games and shoe company camps, signed endorsement deals with Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant and was, at the very least, a sounding board for just about every dirty recruiting deed ever done.

He's not called college basketball's "Godfather" for nothing.

"Because of my role, I know these things," Vaccaro said. "I've heard it all. I've been there for these things."

So how many of the big-time, great ones are or were really, truly clean? Vaccaro spent some time thinking about it, running down national championships won, Final Fours made and coaching careers lionized.

"I guess three coaches, maybe four, I'm not 100 percent sure about one guy," Vaccaro said. "And even among that group, Knight stands alone, stands above. I've never heard a single thing about him, never heard anything. Nothing. He's the cleanest one."

Vaccaro, never a close friend of Knight, paused and was kind of blown away at the idea.

"You know, that's incredible. Really, that's the greatest thing you can say about him."

Through the years that incredible fact got mostly lost, misunderstood or simply unappreciated. It should be the first point concerning Knight, not a footnote. But much of this is Knight's own fault. No one said he had to cause the drama that he did – let alone often embrace and even enjoy it.

He could be a boor. He could be a maniac. He could be difficult. Truth be told, he was mostly great entertainment, unless you were on the other side of an unnecessary outburst.

But there are no pure storybook heroes. Not in college hoops. The other coaches might smile nice for the camera, say politically correct things and play right into the great college fallacy that they are angels in Armanis, life-teachers for the downtrodden.

In truth they are just guys trying to win within a system where the rule book was written to be broken. Some of them try harder than others to be ethical, most do try to help kids, but none at the elite level tried (and succeeded) like Knight.

"We don't even read the NCAA manual," Pat Knight, who will succeed his father in Lubbock, said Monday. "We never even come close to anything even in the grey area. No extra phone calls, no extra practice. Nothing."

There was no coach the NCAA would have loved to bust more through the years than Knight, their chief antagonist. In more than four decades, though, they never even got enough to launch an investigation.

The thing was, he actually played by his own higher standards.

When Knight got to Texas Tech in 2001, his assistants found out the school had a group of pretty coeds, the Raider Recruiters, who would give campus tours to recruits. This is NCAA legal and standard at virtually all major schools, some of which encourage it to go beyond the "here's the library" stage.

But Knight had never had such a group at Indiana because NCAA legal or not, he felt it was ridiculous and inappropriate.

Still, the assistants saw a chance to get, at least a little, on even ground with other schools they were recruiting against. They were always suffering in signing players. In 42 seasons Knight coached just one NBA all-star (Isiah Thomas) and now they were way out here on the South Plains.

So they told the chief Raider Recruiter to give the tours but never, ever, under any circumstance, talk to Knight. It worked for about two weeks until she decided to pop into Knight's office anyway to introduce herself.

And that was the end of the Raider Recruiters.

"Our players are our hosts," Knight ruled.

The assistants just shrugged. This was a tough way to run a program; even the legal stuff was illegal. But there was a hidden joy. Knight would never say it publicly, rarely commenting on the duplicity of his peers, but winning the right way brought an added satisfaction, like going four on five or something.

When assistant coach Chris Beard was hired by Knight seven years ago, the two had a meeting.

"Chris, I'm going to tell you this one time, we're going to do it the right way here," Knight said to Beard. "And you'll find that we take our greatest satisfaction in beating those people that we know aren't doing it the right way."

"As I look back on it, he was right," Beard said Monday. "We always did."

What exasperated Knight through the years and, who knows, maybe even encouraged his outbursts, is that in his opinion the purpose of college athletics falls into three main categories:

1. Ensure an education (both academically and in life) for student-athletes.

2. Follow the NCAA rules.

3. Win.

After that, it's all small stuff. After that, he figured, what really mattered?

So, 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, if you happened to do all this while completely following NCAA rules and you won more games than anyone – essentially the best of all-time at Nos. 1, 2 and 3 – would you want to hear about what you consider the other stuff?

If you're the guy who’s loyal to your wife, attentive to your kids and honest at your work but aren't much for keeping the lawn up, do you really want to hear about your neighbor who is quite the landscaper, but also the philanderer, drinker and gambler?

"I don't have a bad feeling about the guys who want to cheat," Knight told me last season. "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.

"Because I yelled at somebody that supersedes everything else?"

It shouldn't, of course. But good video is good video. And after so much good video, so many headlines, so much misunderstanding about the base reality of recruiting – well, for a lot of people, it all gets mixed up.

"'He threw a chair,'" Knight said, mocking the outrage. "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 I'm tired of."

Knight was tired of everything this season. At age 67 with a 12-8 Texas Tech team, he had proven what he wanted to prove at Tech, reaching four NCAA tournaments at a program with minimal tradition.

Now, this year, he was just worn out. The travel was bothering him more than ever, the refs, the hassles.

"He wasn't even enjoying the victories," Pat said. "I felt bad for him."

Most of his confidants thought he'd call it quits at the end of the season. A month ago Bob told Pat he was retiring. Pat talked him out of it. Friday, Knight called his long-time friend, former UTEP coach Don Haskins, and told him he was about to retire.

"He said, 'don't tell anyone,' " Haskins said. "I didn't, but that's only because I didn't believe him."

After a satisfying victory Saturday over Oklahoma State, the Red Raiders had Sunday off. Early Monday, Knight went to the office, asked Pat and his brother Tim, who also works with the program, to come down.

"I thought we were going to talk about the Super Bowl or hunting or something," Pat said. "Instead he just said, 'It's your program. I'm done.' "

Pat couldn't talk him out of it this time, and he really didn't want to. "He was tired, it was tough on him, the poor guy," Pat said. "He was just so tired."

And so that was that. Bob Knight gathered his team at practice that afternoon and told them the news. Pat, 36, took over practice and preparation for a game at Baylor.

Bob left, more than four decades of Army, Indiana and Texas Tech coming to an end, all the history, all the moments, all the players, all the memories, all the scandal and all the truth, just walking out the door to no fanfare, no cheers, no nothing.

Just how he wanted it. Let history sort through the clouds for the stunning reality – the coach who cheated the least won the most.

"He'll be at a fishing hole soon," Pat laughed.

It was a great day for referees, a terrible one for trout.