Bobby Knight is a dick. I know this, you know this, my Grandmother knows this (This is in no way intended to be overstatement; remember Knight started coaching almost a decade before Brian Jones died.) To which my response remains, “so fucking what?” Last week I was almost fired by a woman wearing a sweatshirt that read “Cats are like chips, no one can have just one.”
But Knight remains doomed and damned by the better angels of our nature, a victim (and it is acknowledged that this may be the first time anyone has ever referred to Bobby Knight as a victim) of the culture he helped create. College Basketball is the culture of the coach, more so than any other single sport. In fact College Basketball really is the only sport culture in which the coach supersedes all other celebrity. Individual athletes can make a name for themselves in the tournament, but for whatever reason basketball has never been as forgiving of collegiate talent that didn’t translate in the pros as football has; look no further than the varying careers of Bo Kimble and Andre Ware. Additionally no sport is as dependent on good coaching as College Basketball. Proof? Watch CBS Sunday and see who’s on the sidelines opposite Belichick for that afternoon’s AFC Championship Game.
What does this have to do with Knight? Everything, nothing, something. Knight is the consummate coach. He represents everything we as fans and former athletes love and loathe about sports and their strange duality of aggression and compassion. Knight won 900 games over the course of half a century. His accomplishing this at Texas Tech is problematic, but if Woody Hayes was still coaching at Baylor would we fault him? Yes, if Hayes was coaching at Baylor because of the throat punch.
And consequently we find the Knight caveat. It isn’t that his success at Texas Tech isn’t impressive, it’s that if Knight had even a modicum of self control he’d be competing yearly for Final Fours despite his age. That Knight seemingly has no haunted conscience about this makes it all the more frustrating. But it is Knight’s torment that makes him so compelling. To call him colorful would be demeaning. He is an artist, the closest we come in the coaching world to Van Gogh‘s absent ear and Hemingway’s suicide. Think of the way Knight has infiltrated our sports sub-conscious – he was the blueprint for Norman Dale in Hoosiers and Pete Bell in Blue Chips, his dismissal at Indiana is the reason that a Philosophy Professor is currently in charge of the NCAA, and he is singularly responsible for two of the most hated (for distinctly different reasons) figures in sports in Mike Krzyzewski and Isaiah Thomas (who also serve as the dual foils for Knight’s mercurial personality).
It would be comforting for some to look at Knight as a relic, an antique of an era of intimidation long since rendered irrelevant thanks in large part to Knight’s aforementioned protege (not Isaiah in this instance). But he keeps upsetting the Gonzagas and Texas A&Ms of the world, keeps bringing his grandkids to press conferences, keeps winning games in places like Lubbock, keeps daring you to forget him, and you wonder if Knight, for all his fundamental flaws, really is the teacher he so desperately wants credit for being. I have always thought of Knight as the teacher, but he never punched me during practice, and I do understand our reluctance to forgive him being so inextricably hinged on our love for him. Whether we like it or not Bobby Knight is College Basketball, but, even to those who live and die by College Basketball, is that enough?