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Nashville Scene The General

Bobby Knight--he's our problem, too

By Randy Horick

MAY 15, 2000:  Former Vanderbilt basketball coach C.M. Newton likes to tell a favorite Bobby Knight story. When he served as Knight's assistant for the 1984 U.S. Olympic basketball team, the General asked C.M. one afternoon to accompany him to an Indiana booster club dinner that evening.

Knowing from his own experience why coaches often approach such events with the eagerness of root canal patients, Newton politely demurred. Trust me, said Knight, this one will be different. It will be brief. He guaranteed it.

Newton, still skeptical, begged off again, but Knight refused to take no for an answer, and the Vandy coach found himself that night eating rubbery chicken with a room full of Hoosiers. After dinner, when Knight rose to address the gathering, he explained that he had no prepared remarks. But he would be happy to answer questions. Just one rule: no dumb questions.

For a moment, the room was quiet as the boosters were suddenly seized by the same fear of asking an unworthy question. Finally, one man raised his hand. "Um, coach," he asked, "what are our prospects for next year?"

Knight eyed the fan momentarily. "You know," he replied, "that's a really dumb question."

After that, no one else could summon the courage to speak. "Well," said Knight, "if there are no more questions, thanks for coming."

"See," he told Newton on the drive back, "I told you it would be short."

The tale--and almost everyone who knows Bobby has a similar one--is quintessentially Knight. He was bullying and overbearing, and he stiffed all those who had come to hear him speak, but Hoosier fans seldom seem to mind. "Aw, that's just Bobby."

"Just Bobby," of course, encompasses a range of qualities.

There's the honest Bobby Knight whose basketball program is cleaner than a German lavatory.

There's the concerned Bobby Knight who makes sure that his players not only attend class but put themselves on track to graduate.

There's the fatherly Knight who accompanied one of his current players, Kirk Haston, back home to Tennessee after Haston's mother was killed in a tornado.

Then, of course, there's the Knight you know too well. The one who waves used toilet paper in the faces of his players. The one who, infuriated by their poor play in a road loss at Illinois, ordered two of his players to find their own transportation back to Indiana.

There's the Knight who, while representing the United States as a coach in Puerto Rico, referred to a Brazilian women's team as whores, then shoved a police officer who accosted him over the slur. There's the Knight who turns profane and surly in the presence of the assembled media, as if through some Pavlovian response.

And, as the videotape clearly shows, there's the Knight who not only curses his players but, on at least one occasion, has grabbed one by the throat.

For years, Bobby's apologists--and in Indiana they are legion--have suggested that the coach's better angels atone for his devils.

Now, however, for the first time, Knight's job may be in jeopardy. Maybe, folks say, he went too far this time in choking a player--and in engaging in a shoving match with Indiana's athletic director, his boss.

But the disturbing truth is that, in fact, Knight owes his current pickle to the fact that he has not gone far enough--at least not in the NCAA Tournament.

Sure, his recent actions merit firing. On the other hand, his behavior merited firing, if not dope-slapping and a few swift kicks, more times in the past than you could count. Knight, after all, didn't just suddenly begin acting deranged. He has publicly whaled on players before--most notably, his own son--and has even scrapped with an opposing fan.

What's different now is not Bobby's performance but that of his squad.

It has been 13 years since Indiana won a national championship. The Hoosiers are no longer a Top 10 program. Lately in the big tournament, they have tended to lose early, often, and (Yo, Pepperdine!) embarrassingly. You don't have to label yourself as a cynic to suggest that the quality of Knight's character has become more worrisome to Indianans as the quality of his teams has declined. That he was not fired when he assaulted a cop, or when he abandoned two players away from home, and that he is in serious trouble only now, reveals a much more disturbing truth about us than him.

I say "us" lest you sanctimoniously wonder why Indianans tolerate such a bully as a representative of their state. You may find that, although most other coaches don't use soiled toilet paper as motivational tools, many of the rest of us Pharisees aren't much better than our Hoosier brethren when it comes to excusing inexcusable actions in the name of winning.

At Ohio State, Woody Hayes--who was two or three bubbles off plumb on his most lucid days--finally had to go full-bore, slobbering nuts and attack an opposing player before people dared to suggest his retirement. (Go to practically any public building in Columbus even now, and you'll find reverential photographs of Woodrow, spookily reminiscent of the once ubiquitous portraits of Lenin in Moscow.)

It's not coincidence that, in Chicago, Mike Ditka was regarded as a lovable curmudgeon, or maybe an eccentric uncle, when the Bears were advancing toward their Super Bowl crown. It was only after he began coaching losers that people suddenly began to recognize Iron Mike as a violently unstable lout.

At Alabama, after a disappointing season two years ago, fans of the Crimson Tide were ready to brand a scarlet A on coach Mike Dubose for his marital infidelities. Somehow, the condemnations stopped once the team began winning, and it's a distant memory this year, when Alabama will likely possess the best football team in the SEC.

Now, here's the sacrilegious, closer-to-home question. Would we, as Tennesseans, remain as sanguine about Pat Summitt's courtside manner, or lack of manners, if the Lady Vols were not appearing in the Final Four almost every year?

When it comes to heaping public, verbal abuse--and abuse is not too strong a word--Bobby has nothing on Pat. That's appropriate enough if you're preparing young people for war. Despite all the martial imagery with which we surround the game, basketball ain't close.

Were the Lady Vols a mediocre team, people might figure that Pat was prime for Prozac. We might wonder about a person so obsessive about her job that she flew to Pennsylvania on a recruiting trip when she was due any day to give birth (her water broke in the recruit's home).

Ah, we say, that's just Pat. That's just what it takes to win.

As Vol fans, we'd rather condemn the accusing English professor than seriously consider whether UT's athletic department changes Fs to As for athletes, or enrolls them in classes that will keep them eligible to play but won't advance them toward a degree.

And Vandy fans, feeling smugly above it all, recount how many of you would have eagerly 86ed any academic standards that stood between Ron Mercer and a Commodore uniform, or greeted the recruitment of other marginal students with "It's about time!"

Near the end of his life, Vince Lombardi expressed regret over his famous quote, "Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing." The statement that became most associated with his life did not reflect his true feelings, he said.

But, for most of us, there was no need to apologize. Whether or not that quote captured Lombardi's sentiments, it captures our national sensibility just fine.

And as long as it does, Bobby Knight is neither Indiana's problem nor its creation. He's ours.

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