December 22, 2006

THE LAST KNIGHT:

Doing it his way (Dan Wetzel, 12/22/06, Yahoo! Sports)

Knight, 66, hasn't 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.

3. Win.

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."


MORE:
One: The Eight Greatest Words: Sample text for Knight : my story (Bob Knight with Bob Hammel)

[T]his late-summer day in 1991 when I was pleasantly into my "only in America" reverie, I was wading in a river, fishing. The river was the Umba, in northern Russia. What I was thinking was that only in America could a guy like me, through a game like basketball, be standing there, having such a great experience.

Because fishing that same day in that same river, just around a bend, was my friend, Ted Williams. Ted was as close to a lifelong hero as I had, outside my family. As a boy I sat in the stands at Lakefront Stadium in Cleveland and marveled at his swing. I was all for the Indians, but when I saw that classic Ted Williams swing send a baseball screaming into the stands and watched that head-down Williams lope around the bases, I felt privileged.

The more I learned about him, the more I revered him--not only as a great baseball player but also as a genuine hero of two American wars; as a master fisherman; as one of the rare national figures who absolutely God-damned refused to knuckle under to a hostile press.

Here I was, a kid from a small Ohio town, a town not far from Cleveland where my parents had taken me on a few special Sundays to watch the Boston Red Sox and the great Ted Williams play against the Indians. All these years later, I clearly remember the chill I felt when he just stepped into the batter's box, and when he swung, and the unbelievably special times when I was there and that swing and a loud crack sent the ball out of the park. . . .

And here I was, fishing with him . . . because of basketball. I'm not too sure I've had another moment in my life when I felt more keenly, sharply aware of how much that game I loved had meant in my life.

I met Ted Williams because basketball introduced me to some people who could make it happen--me, the son of two small-town Americans: an Ohio railroad man and a schoolteacher.

I learned to fly-fish, my second-greatest sports passion, because of basketball. I was picked to make the trip, because of basketball. And I could afford to do it, because of basketball.

I've spent most of my life trying to give things back to the sport, because so many people in it have given so much of it to me. That day, on that river, in that special company, I knew as I always had that I owed the game more than I could ever give back.

But I was damned sure trying.

Jerry McKinnis of ESPN's Fishin' Hole show lined up the Russian trip. I had fished several times in the United States for shows Jerry did. I enjoyed them all, because Jerry is a hell of a guy and the best fisherman (Ted would take exception) I've ever met.

But he outdid himself by drawing up this trip. Jerry knew it, too. He's a big fan of both baseball and college basketball, a lifelong Cardinals fan who played the game well enough himself that he signed a professional contract coming out of high school. He knew from our previous travels and talks just where Ted Williams stood with me, and Ted had been Jerry's idol, too.

I couldn't say yes fast enough when Jerry suggested the trip. And I couldn't have been happier when I called Ted and he said, yeah, he could do that--he'd be glad to. Ted and I had already met. I had mentioned to Minneapolis sports columnist Sid Hartman how much I thought of Ted Williams, and Sid got him to call me. The first time I met him face to face, Jimmy Russo set it up. Jimmy, an Indiana native who was the "superscout" for the Orioles during their great years in the '60s and '70s, was as strong an Indiana University basketball fan as I ever met. He lived in St. Louis and always got over to Bloomington at least once during the season, and I looked forward to those visits because we had some great baseball talks each time. Jimmy was still with the Orioles when I went to spring training after we had won the NCAA championship in 1981. Ted happened to be at a game both Jimmy and I attended, and Jimmy took me over and introduced me to him. We had maintained some contact over the years, so his agreement to go to Russia with me had some background.

So did the trip itself. The summer of '91, baseball's All-Star Game was played in Toronto. President George Bush brought Ted and Joe DiMaggio to the White House for a ceremony, then the three of them got on a plane and went to the game. On the way, the president asked Ted about his summer plans. Ted told him about the fishing trip he and I were taking to Russia. "You and Knight?" the president said. "Jeez-us." History will record that we hadn't been out of the Soviet Union for a week before the government fell. We'd both like to take credit for that, but . . .

Ted and I met in New York for the flight over. We were sitting together on the airplane, not too far into the flight, when he said:

"Okay, who do you think were the five most important Americans, in your lifetime?"

The first thing that strikes you about him is how smart he is. You are not dealing with a guy with ordinary intelligence. He is well-read, extremely opinionated, and he backs up his opinions with reasons. A mutual friend, broadcaster Curt Gowdy, had told me to be ready to argue with him, because there was nothing Ted liked better than that. It wasn't the worst news I'd ever heard; I don't mind a little debate myself, now and then.

And I knew from the way he asked me that question he had his own five. I mentioned Franklin Roosevelt, and he agreed, finally. I knew he was an arch-Republican, but I thought he'd have to come around on Roosevelt.

He came in quickly with Richard Nixon, Joe Louis, and General Douglas MacArthur. I said Harry Truman, and he didn't totally agree. His contention was, "God-dammit, you have The Bomb. Anybody can decide to drop The Bomb." I'm a big Truman man. We argued about that point. Yes, anybody could have made that decision. I don't think just anybody would have.

I picked George Marshall, the World War II general and the post-war secretary of state who came up with the Marshall Plan that revived Europe. Ted didn't disagree with that.

We both talked about Dwight Eisenhower. One guy I mentioned was Will Rogers. Ted was very big on Richard Nixon. He knew and liked Nixon. I wasn't inclined to argue. I think even some of Nixon's political critics feel he will go down as one of the better presidents. The negative was obvious: all the things represented by "I am not a crook."

I mentioned, for personal reasons, William Simon. He knew Simon and thought he was a brilliant guy. We were talking twentieth century, so Henry Ford was another one we both picked. I don't remember if Thomas Edison came up or not, but he surely should have. This went on for a while.

Then he wanted the five most overrated.

I said John Kennedy, and I got out of the hole I had dug with FDR. "You're a hell of a lot smarter than I thought you were from our other discussion," he said.

We both agreed that Robert McNamara and General William Westmoreland were on that list of five--three out of the same era.

And we discussed baseball. He thought the best player ever was Babe Ruth. Period. He didn't think anybody was even close.

He called Joe DiMaggio the best player of his era. I heard him say that many times. However, I wasn't going to accept that one without raising a point.

I told him in 1947 when DiMaggio edged him out for MVP because one Boston writer didn't even put Ted in his top ten, DiMaggio shouldn't have accepted the award. He didn't say anything, just went to talking about something else, which was all I needed to feel that was exactly the way he would have handled the '47 situation.

That was the quality that stood out for me during that whole conversation and has in every one I've had with him: how genuinely unfailingly gracious he is to players of his era who were supposed to be his rivals. Stan Musial, for example-"a great hitter and a great person," Ted called him.

Williams quit playing after the 1960 season--after he homered in his last time at bat and gave John Updike the material for what may be the greatest sports story I've ever read. Updike was a graduate student at Harvard when he attended that game, sitting not in a press box but in the stands, as a fan. In an article entitled "Kid Bids Hub Fans Adieu" that he wrote for The New Yorker, Updike described Williams's eighth-inning home run, on a one-and-one pitch, off the Orioles' Jack Fisher, and his run around the bases: "He ran as he always ran out home runs--hurriedly, unsmiling, head down, as if our praise were a storm of rain to get out of." Updike was part of the crowd roar that ran for minutes in an attempt to get Williams to step out from the dugout and tip his cap. "The papers said that the other players, and even the umpires on the field, begged him to come out and acknowledge us in some way," Updike wrote, "but he never did and did not now."

"Gods do not answer letters."

What a perfect line.

Updike also said Williams, by declining to go with the team to New York for a meaningless three-game series closing out the season, "knew how to do even that, the hardest thing. Quit."

But that almost wasn't Ted's last at-bat. In Russia he told me the Yankees tried to get him to play the next year, as a pinch-hitter and part-time outfielder--for the same salary he made with the Red Sox. Imagine what that would have been. "The next year" was 1961, the year Roger Maris hit sixty-one homers, and Mickey Mantle hit fifty-four. Now factor in Ted Williams, playing eighty-one games in the perfect stadium for a left-handed power hitter.

I thought about all that and had to ask him, "How could you not play a year in Yankee Stadium?" He just decided he had played enough.

"It was really tempting," he said. "But I'd had my day."

I had met Maris and become good friends with him. I think it's a shame that he died without ever being admitted to the Baseball Hall of Fame. I still think he will be, some day. Ted liked Maris, thought he was a great player, and worked hard to get him elected to the Hall of Fame.

He's proud that he has the highest on-base percentage in baseball history--"so I got on base all the time, but I hit 500 home runs." That's why he liked Musial and DiMaggio, because they hit for average but hit with good power, too. Lou Gehrig also. Ted played against Gehrig, and he saw Ruth in batting practice a few years after Ruth's playing career ended in 1935.

His teammate when he first came to the majors, Jimmy Foxx, was "a hell of a powerful hitter," Ted said. "There was a different sound to it when Foxx hit a baseball--like a cannon going off. Mantle was almost like that. He was a great player."

He called Bob Feller the best pitcher he faced. I couldn't resist saying: "Yeah, sure--I listened to those Indians/Red Sox games and you must have hit .500 against him." He just glared.

Feller, Virgil Trucks of Detroit, and Bob Lemon of Cleveland were his top three. The Yankees' Allie Reynolds and Vic Raschi, he said, were good pitchers but they played on a great team. He thought the Indians' Herb Score had a chance to be a great pitcher, until a line drive hit him in the face and he never was as good again.

I just listened most of the time, fascinated. But occasionally I'd make a comment. And sometimes he would say, "God-dammit, you're not dumb. You aren't dumb."

I told him of a conversation I had with Bill Dickey, the Hall of Fame catcher for the Yankees. I asked Dickey who was the fastest pitcher he faced. Before I could say the name, Ted cut right in: "He told you Lefty Grove was." He was right.

And I was right in crediting basketball for providing me with this opportunity with Ted, one of the richest experiences of my life.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 22, 2006 5:48 PM
Comments

A sad, pathetic bully who wins, follows the rules, and likes to talk baseball is still just a sad, pathetic bully.

Posted by: b at December 22, 2006 6:33 PM

1. Great basketball coach

2. Followed the rules

3. Made sure his players graduated

4. Punk

Posted by: andrew at December 22, 2006 6:41 PM

And great teacher is just a great teacher, if strict.

Posted by: oj at December 22, 2006 6:54 PM

Like any drill sergeant worth his salt, Bobby Knight gets results. Sometimes, though, there has to be at least a little more than results.

The careers of Pat Knight and Damon Bailey, to name at least two IU stars, tend to show that results aren't everything.

Posted by: Brad S at December 22, 2006 7:20 PM

Not just a great coach, a great teacher, who, by all accounts, made his players into excellent men.

If there's any justice in the universe IU will never have a top basketball program ever again.

(I don't get Brad's point about Pat Knight and Damon Bailey)

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at December 22, 2006 7:49 PM

They're excellent examples of the effect he has--both are coaches now.

Posted by: oj at December 22, 2006 8:32 PM

Ah. So "results" referred to wins on the basketball court.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at December 22, 2006 9:34 PM

Jim and OJ,

Both Pat Knight and Damon Bailey have bounced around from job to job in the coaching business. If Bobby is into teaching "life skills," he apparently does not teach his players enough to know how to stay grounded in one place.

Isiah Thomas is another example of this, as Knicks fans are painfully finding out.

Posted by: Brad S at December 22, 2006 10:58 PM

Bobby Knight is to be respected for his graduation rate, for his wins and for the way he got them. Respected tremedously, in fact. But Knight, like everyone else - including Ted Williams - has his conspicuous personality flaws, and maybe both figures might have gleaned a slight speck of genuine insight, and provided their fans with a great deal more joy, had they spent even a moment to consider one thing: that the press and others wouldn't be quite so hostile to them if only Bobby Knight and Ted Williams weren't such asses.

Posted by: M. at December 23, 2006 12:42 AM

No self-respecting man would accept the press coddling him. If you do anything worthwhile the press will hate you.

Posted by: oj at December 23, 2006 8:17 AM

Almost all coaches move around now because programs only care about winning,

Posted by: oj at December 23, 2006 8:19 AM

Isaiah left in his sophomore year, not having had a chance to learn life skills different than those of a Chicago ghetto.

Posted by: ed at December 23, 2006 10:54 AM

Isiah's been fairly successful. He did had a brilliant career as a player, then was ok at Indiana, and might yet turn it around at NY.

Pat and Damon are young coaches. Of course they've moved around. Pat will succeed his father at Tech, and there's no shame in coaching your high school alma mater as Bailey does, it seems.

And oj's dead on. The press hates Knight for the combination of his success, the fact that he won't disguise his contempt for them, and b/c he doesn't come from the school of "everyone's a winner and ought to get a giant trophy and pat on the back just for particupating" -- which is what the press values.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at December 23, 2006 2:09 PM

Those could very well be the reasons the press dislikes Knight. The rest of us dislike him, despite his more admirable attributes, because he's an ass.

For an example of a coach who exemplifies all of Knight's exemplary qualities without the accompanying personality disorders, try Joe Paterno.

Isiah Thomas doesn't deserve to be mentioned in the same breath with either of them. He's simply incompetent _and_ a classless jerk.

Posted by: M. at December 23, 2006 2:39 PM

Paterno is a far worse bully than Knight ever was. He forced many unwillingly schools into I-AA for his own petty personal reasons.

Posted by: oj at December 23, 2006 5:58 PM
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