Thursday evening the Texas Tech men’s basketball team plays at home — Lubbock –against the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, UNLV, once a superpower now fallen from grace. If Texas Tech wins, their coach, Robert Montgomery Knight, will become the winningest coach in the history of the sport. And since most of the hunting pack that has pursued Knight throughout his career will recount his many sins, it’s only fair you hear the bright shining side of this knight errant.
#ad#Yes, he’s got a temper. I have never known a winning coach in any sport who did not have a terrible temper. A few years ago I went to the Final Four in Indianapolis and watched Wisconsin lose to Florida. The Wisconsin coach was named Bennett, and everybody loved him. At a certain point one of his players committed a stupid foul and he called timeout, walked onto the court, and let fly at this poor kid with a torrent of abuse that would have made Knight blush (which is saying something). We were sitting two rows down from the Arctic Circle, and we heard every epithet. But there was no mention of it in the press coverage, because the hunting pack had decided the guy was lovable. Knight loses his temper and throws a chair across the court — aimed badly, I suppose, he didn’t hit anyone — and it’s good for an encyclopedia of evil. And that chair’s civil rights have been better protected than mine.
Red Auerbach used to say that Knight is one of a handful of coaches who have created modern basketball, along with the likes of John Wooden and Pete Newell. Other coaches look for role players, they need centers and point guards and forwards and shooting guards. Not Knight. He runs a motion offense in which everyone is supposed to be able to do everything; it all depends on how the other team reacts. When it works as it’s designed, it’s one of the most fascinating and entertaining of all sports spectacles.
In the world of big-time college athletics, overpopulated with fakes and cheats, Knight is the real deal. He recruits according to the rules, and he insists that his players take real courses and pass them, and then graduate. This is not what the boy wonders of hoops want from life, and they rarely go to play for Knight. They want to be coddled and enriched and tutored and given a free ride and then cash in. Not Knight’s players. I once interviewed a member of his first team at Indiana, an all-American who met with Knight shortly after the coach’s arrival in Bloomington. Knight glared at him and said, “I’ve just looked at your transcript. You’re not going to class, you’re not doing your work. If you miss class, you won’t practice. And if you don’t practice, you won’t play. If that’s too tough for you, I’ll help you transfer to some place where they don’t give a damn.”
The all-American called his father in a panic, only to find that his dad was thrilled. “Thank God,” he said, “now you’ve got a chance in life.”
No one has gotten more success out of less talent than Bob Knight. And those guys more often than not go on to success in life.
He’s got some interesting friends: George Will, David Halberstam, Clarence Thomas. They know that Knight’s a very smart man, and a real scholar of military history. I heard him introduce Halberstam to a high-level seminar at Indiana early one morning. Knight spoke for about ten minutes, no notes, no ands or uhs, an elegant overview of Halberstam’s work, a brief expression of gratitude for coming out to Bloomington, and a thoughtful wish for the success of our work. No full professor could have done it better.
Keep these things in mind when he sets the record, whether it’s Thursday or later on. He’s a stormy petrel, to be sure. But he’s a real American, a feisty, outspoken, cantankerous, brilliant guy who has done wonders on and off the court for generations of young men. And when you hear all those stories about his temper and his bluntness, remind yourself that the kids who chose to play for him knew exactly what they were getting into. But they thought it would be worth it, both because they’d learn a lot and because they’d have tested themselves at the highest level of character.
Which is a hell of a lot more than you can say about the hunting pack.