Monday, February 04, 2008

Good Knight

I know this is an ND blog. But when an icon like Texas Tech coach Robert Montgomery Knight retires, it behooves all college hoops fans to reflect. And on this his retirement day, I'm both glad I was able to see someone achieve what he did on the court without sacrificing his principles, while sad at what could have been for college basketball's winningest coach.

My first exposure to Coach Knight was my father receiving the book A Season on the Brink for Christmas. He was (and, I believe, remains) a big fan of Coach Knight. When he finished it, I asked if I could give it a read. I guess I wanted to see what all the hoopla was about.

I know Coach Knight isn't fond of the book and believes it paints him in a negative light. I didn't find that to be the case. I was fascinated by what I saw as a portrayal of a complete human being rather than a two-dimensional cutout you sometimes see in tomes like this. John Feinstein, his opinions regarding Notre Dame notwithstanding, is an outstanding writer, and he captured the essence of Coach Knight in prose I couldn't put down.

The day I finished that book, in my room in Cavanaugh Hall, I became a fan, and I sent Coach Knight a letter telling him so. He responded with a very nice letter thanking me for my kind words, which I appreciated also.

I didn't get to watch too much success by Notre Dame teams against his Hoosiers, but I remained a fan. I watched him as his IU career wound down and he was reborn, guns up, in Lubbock.

When the time came for me to realize my dream of writing a book, I contacted Coach Knight again, asking him if he'd be willing to provide the foreword (Al McGuire being unavailable and all). Once again, a gracious note in reply, explaining he had an exclusive literary contract which prohibited him from participating, but wishing me luck in the project and expressing an interest in the result. His was one of the first copies I mailed when I received the box of hardbounds. I never got a review from him, but maybe he's just waiting for retirement to give it a read.

As a Notre Dame grad, Coach Knight's priorities resonate with me. His players' graduation rate staggers the imagination in the current atmosphere of one-and-dones. His consistent handling of players who crossed the line and refusal to let the short-term-win tail wag the life-lesson dog is refreshing in our participation-trophy culture. His was a belief if you took care of the little things, the big things would take care of themselves, and his career certainly stands as an example of making that work.

At the same time, however, his retirement leaves me sad. Not sad for what college basketball is losing (although that's certainly a shame), but moreso what Coach Knight could have had over the years.

Coach Knight's teams won over 900 games and saw graduated over 90 percent of their players because he demanded of them a level of concentration, maturity, discipline and excellence both on and off the court. Coach Knight's problems bubbled up (and over) because he didn't always demand those levels from himself.

It takes discipline to make the extra pass when the shot seems to be there. It also takes discipline not to respond to a question you think is foolish by harassing the questioner for five minutes.

It takes maturity to pass up a night of partying to get your studying in, knowing you'll miss class time during the road games next week. It also takes maturity not to manhandle a wise-ass teenager.

Excellence is taking teams without stars to amazing heights. Excellence is also treating the people who work with and for you with respect.

Coach Knight has a forceful personality, and some have said I have issues with people with forceful personalities. Perhaps I do, and that may be a failing on my part. And maybe the pressure Coach Knight brought to bear on folks in his orbit helped them collectively achieve the accolade-worthy accomplishments that permeate Coach Knight's career.

But I believe soliciting trouble and confrontation is a waste of energy and resources, and I get frustrated thinking of the quality of resources Coach Knight wasted on people who probably weren't worth the time. It's not right to kowtow to idiots, but Max Ehrmann's Desiderata tells us to stay on good terms with people outside of surrender. There was plenty of space between surrender and Hell, and I wish Coach Knight would have explored some of it.

I doubt a career in broadcasting awaits Coach Knight, given his disdain for the profession, but I hope his voice is not gone from this arena. As I noted, his priorities fly in the face of some of the more negative things about the sport these days, and a bully pulpit for him in retirement would do the game a lot of good.

I hope he's willing to talk and others are willing to listen. As long as the speaking is soft.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

El K,

Great read on Coach Knight. You've pretty much summed up exactly how I've thought of him over all these years. I read 'Season on the Brink' when I was playing ball in High School. I to thought it was a great book portraying an accurate picture of the man and coach. Thanks for the read.

2/04/2008 08:53:00 PM  
Anonymous Ted said...

What Bob Knight stood for is well documented, and your comments about him represent what Coach Knight was about. Earlier this evening I read for the first time of his graduation rate. With 902 victories that is outstanding, but a 98% graduation rate is beyone comprehension. Geetar, thank you for what you said.

2/04/2008 09:51:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

He demands loyalty and just quit... enough said. That is what is sad..

2/05/2008 07:52:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Boy, that's a great article.

I'm an IU grad, and have always struggled with my feelings for Bobby Knight. You've summed up many of the positives, without even mentioning numerous Big 10 and three NCAA championships (plus some near misses. The level of excellence he demanded of those he coached in the game he loved forced team play at the highest level.

That demand for excellence also broke many people. The 98% figure doesn't include drop-outs and transfers, which were quite numerous. Coach Knight mistreated many people, and embarrassed himself and IU alums many, many times. It gets old when you are meeting new people from around the country and mention you went to IU, only to spend the next two minutes defending/distancing from Knight. It's also bad news when you wince at many of the comments and antics of your team's coach who is also one of your heroes.

I love IU, I love IU basketball, I love so much of what Bobby Knight accomplished, and at the same time, I hate so many of the things he's done and said. It is really not easy to reconcile that. I wish him happiness and peace, and I thank you for sharing your insights.

- SBDomer

2/05/2008 09:47:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The biggest problem I have with Bob Knight is that he was/is a bully. Because he is successful, there are many coaches who emulate him. While he doesn't ask to be emulated, he's out there doing what he does, and too many people who have the opportunity to interact with kids - most younger than college-aged athletes that Knight deals with, look at his success and feel that it's just fine to apply his methods; and many, many kids have been hurt by that. Is that his fault? He bears at least some responsibility, and I don't know how to reconcile that with his supposed "Greatness"...D_Mitch

2/06/2008 01:43:00 PM  

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