He was brilliant. He was a bully. He coached some of the most perfectly disciplined basketball ever played, and then acted undisciplined in his own life.
He was an American original and a cultural touchstone with oversized impact, in ways good and, yes, sometimes less so.
You could say Bob Knight was a product of his time, but even half a century ago he pushed the edges of proper conduct; attempting, say, to beat down the door to the referee’s dressing room was frowned upon back in the 1970 NIT as well.
Complicated? They don't get much more complicated than Robert Montgomery Knight, one of the greatest coaches of all time. He combined a demanding will and a legendary temper to become as famous for his authoritarian outbursts as decades of dominance highlighted by three national college basketball titles.
Knight died on Wednesday at his home in Bloomington, Indiana after a lengthy illness, his family announced. The Naismith Basketball Hall of Famer was 83.
You can’t write the history of basketball, perhaps even the history of this country, without mentioning Knight. It’s not merely for his accomplishments, but the way his teams embodied (and then inspired in others) the ideal that teamwork can produce a whole better than its parts.
Knight won 902 games at Army (1965-1971), Indiana (1971-2000) and Texas Tech (2001-08). It was with the Hoosiers that he won those three NCAA men's championships, including coaching the sport’s most recent undefeated team in 1976.
He was among the last of a certain breed, a terrifying tyrant seemingly incapable of interacting with the outside world yet also a skilled, masterful teacher and loyal supporter for all who managed to survive playing for him.
He was nicknamed the General for how he carried himself and his coaching roots at West Point. In truth he was more an unforgiving drill sergeant.
Knight was a volcano always ready to erupt, part of what made him a-larger-than-life, must-watch sideline star during some of college hoops' most glorious eras. He was a colorful storyteller with a caustic wit and, if he wished, an abundance of charm. He was, if nothing else, incredibly entertaining.
There was the right way to do things (namely his way). The game would be played with discipline, fundamentals, toughness, smarts, preparation, respect and always featuring man-to-man defense. Everything else was just a distraction, or someone getting in the way. He cared little for criticism.
“When my time on Earth is gone, and my activities here are passed,” he once said over the Assembly Hall public address system, “I want them to bury me upside down, and my critics can kiss my ass.”
That was Knight. Clever, crude and in your face.
He won. And won. And won.
He also choked a player. He threw a chair.
He once stuffed a heckling LSU fan into a garbage can.
He coveted the chance to do the same to most referees and reporters because if there was one thing that the generally certain Knight was never truly settled on, it’s which profession was more incompetent.
“All of us learn to write in the second grade,” he said of the media. “Most of us go on to greater things.”
At the 1979 Pan American Games in Puerto Rico he was charged with striking a police officer, but when extradition efforts failed, the charges were dropped. You’d think that might disqualify him from international coaching, but USA Basketball so coveted his talent, it made him the 1984 Olympic head coach. He went on to lead the last all-college team to gold.
He was equal parts ability and outrage, to the point where it all seemed to blend together. It could be anything.
He once put a Purdue hat on a donkey — or an ass — and led it onto the set of his television program to mock the school’s athletic director. When Kentucky head coach Joe B. Hall took understandable exception to Knight slapping him on the back of his head during a sideline skirmish, an annoyed Knight noted “if it was meant to be malicious, I’d have blasted the mother****** into the seats.”
If it wasn’t one thing, it was the next. Knight wound up playing into his reputation, appearing in movies and commercials, maybe most perfectly in 2003’s “Anger Management.” He later wrote an inspirational book titled “The Power of Negative Thinking.”
That controversies would flare up became the expectation, not the exception. One time he got into a fight at a Lubbock salad bar and some of his old friends were actually heartened that he was at least eating healthy.
His antics shouldn’t overshadow his accomplishments. He was, for a stretch, the winningest coach in NCAA history, yet through his lengthy career he had just a single player who would go on to be an NBA All-Star — Isiah Thomas, who played two seasons for Knight at IU. Nothing defines his greatness better.
With Knight, winning was a byproduct of a team exceeding its individual talent, a collection of good to very good players giving up individual glory for group success. His guys, he proudly said, played for the name on the front of the jersey. Not that he would allow individual ones to be stitched into the back, of course.
This is what instilled pride in fans and loyalty from players who could make it through the years of being broken down and then built back up.
Everything was built on being smarter, more efficient and less mistake prone than the opponent. He made practice harder than the games. He didn’t mind his players hating him because it often bonded them.
He believed in teaching kids and teams how to play, not just which play to run. During games he often sat simply on the bench, observing, rather than pointing and screaming at everyone over every last screen or cut. He micromanaged, yet he didn’t.
“You don't play against opponents,” he often preached. “You play against the game of basketball.”
He was famous for treating everyone the same, from the star to the bench warmer. This was not just true in discipline or expectations of the best player, but as a way to lift up the last man so everyone was of importance.
Even student managers would be employed during practice — often to miss shots for rebounding drills. It’s no coincidence that even Knight's managers became coaches in their own right, including Lawrence Frank in the NBA and Dusty May, who just took Florida Atlantic to the Final Four. They join an astounding coaching tree that includes Mike Krzyzewski, Chris Beard and current IU head coach Mike Woodson.
He often had an open-door policy for high school coaches to come watch practice. It wasn’t uncommon for dozens, from across the country, to sit quietly in the bleachers and take notes. He held a clinic in San Antonio once and 2,000 coaches showed up.
There was value to what Knight was trying to accomplish. For all the controversies, there was a core principle to the pursuit that mattered.
Trust the system. Work the process. Stick together.
This is what nearly every organization aspires to achieve and why Knight, at his peak, was one of the country’s most in-demand corporate speakers.
His outside income was one reason he didn’t annually hold up IU for raises and extensions even though he was paid below market rate. One time at Texas Tech, unsatisfied with a 16-11 season, he returned his entire $250,000 salary. Through the years he donated hundreds of thousands to libraries.
His program’s graduation rate was often 100 percent. He could be harsh and cruel with his players, but many who made it through swear by him with unmatched admiration. He was aggressive in his support, famous for calling, say, some stunned hiring manager if one of his guys was up for a job.
Wait, this is the real Bob Knight?
And while he openly mocked the NCAA, he held its rule book sacred. You could say a lot of things about Bob Knight, but never that he cheated. He considered those who did to be weak and fraudulent. If anything he took it to anticompetitive levels — at Tech, for example, he dismantled a (NCAA legal) hostess system where female students gave recruits campus tours because he didn’t like what it suggested.
He often told his assistants that the fun of the job wasn’t in cheating to get recruits, it was beating the teams that cheated to get recruits.
He was the most overly serious coach in the game, yet he preferred casual sweaters to suits, wasn’t adverse to going grouse hunting on gamedays and missed stretches of the recruiting season fishing in Montana. He was obsessed with winning until he wasn’t. Again, it’s complicated.
Mostly it was about building a team, building a culture, building players into something more than they ever dreamed possible. He wasn’t for everyone. He wasn’t for many, actually. He never tried to be. He was just himself, a singular force, a true one of one.
In the end he was an uncompromising legend who blew through college basketball and American society, offering lessons on what to do and what not, winning games, changing lives and creating mayhem in college athletics like no one before or since or most likely ever will again.