Good Knight? Good Luck!

In this exclusive excerpt from their unauthorized biography of Bob Knight, Steve Delsohn and Mark Heisler argue that the volatile basketball guru who landed in Lubbock nearly five years ago hasn’t lost his brilliant coaching ability. Or, for that matter, his incomparable temper.

February 2006By Comments

IN MARCH 2001, just before the start of the NCAA basketball tournament, Bob Knight received a call from an old friend, Texas Tech University athletic director Gerald Myers. It was hard to know who was more excited: the recently fired Knight, who had just endured his first winter in 38 years without a basketball team to coach, or Myers, who had just fired his coach and was giddy at the thought of having a chance to hire such a giant.

A few days later, Myers met Knight in Florida (where Knight was watching spring training), bringing Texas Tech president David Schmidly with him. Schmidly and Knight, both avid fishermen, hit it right off. Knight and his wife, Karen, soon arrived in Lubbock for a three-day visit, amid fanfare worthy of a movie star. The Knights were as thrilled with Lubbock as Lubbock was with them. Knight later said that he had been sitting down with officials from another school when Karen, who was standing behind them, began shaking her head no. He said his wife, a native Oklahoman, told him, “No place in America will better understand you than West Texas.”

It was as if it were meant to be. The arena was on Indiana Avenue. The school colors were scarlet and black, so Knight could still wear his trademark red sweaters. Knight, who had been a Red Rider at Orrville High, in Ohio, would now be a Red Raider. An editorial cartoon in the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal showed the heavens parting and angels ushering him into the spotlight. Knight assured Schmidly that his time away from coaching had given him a new perspective. Schmidly didn’t ask for any behavior clauses in Knight’s contract and airily dismissed press concerns, insisting he knew of nothing Knight had done at Indiana University that would have gotten him fired at Texas Tech. He claimed to have interviewed a hundred people who knew Knight but was only vaguely familiar with the tape showing Knight grabbing the throat of former Indiana player Neil Reed, and saw no need to watch it. When sixty members of the faculty signed a petition protesting the hiring, Schmidly placated them in a meeting, promising he would be personally responsible for Knight’s behavior.

On March 23 Myers announced Knight’s hiring at a rally in Tech’s United Spirit Arena, attended by a raucous crowd of 7,500. Knight delighted them, making the Texas Tech “guns up” salute with both hands. When Myers presented him with a red sweater-vest, Knight said, “This is without a doubt the most comfortable red sweater I’ve had in six years.” A press conference followed, but with reporters in from around the nation, Knight invited the crowd to stay, encouraging his new fans to let the press know what they thought of its questions. When a reporter tried to ask a follow-up question, Knight declined to answer. When the reporter persisted, Knight asked the crowd, “How many of you want to hear a follow-up from this guy?” The crowd booed.

Be it ever so humble, or unfamiliar, there was no place like home.

“IT’s KIND OF, WELL, not Mayberry, but the people are kind of like that,” said Knight’s son Pat, after arriving in Lubbock to work alongside his father as an assistant coach. “No one bothers you. They’ll come up and talk to you about the game, but they don’t want to know why you didn’t go into the post or why this and why that. … We’re kind of out in the middle of nowhere. We only have one newspaper. You don’t hear much about Dad. He kind of likes that.”

Nevertheless, Lubbock wasn’t the windblown truck stop the press would make it out to be as it dramatized Knight’s fall from grace. With a population of 200,000, it was more than three times the size of Bloomington, the home of IU. Nor was Knight bringing the cowpokes a game they had never heard of. Texas Tech had a new 15,000-seat arena and had been in the NCAA’s Sweet 16 in 1996, more recently than Knight had. That season, the Raiders went 30-2, and teammates Darvin Ham and Tony Battie would go on to play in the NBA.

Unfortunately, with big-time athletes came trouble. An NCAA investigation subsequently unearthed an array of athletic department violations, including “free bail bonding and legal services” provided to student athletes. Texas Tech forfeited its 1996 tournament wins, had its scholarships limited, and had recently endured four losing seasons in a row, spiraling down to 2000’s 9-19 record. By that year, attendance at Red Raiders games in the two-year-old United Spirit Arena was running below that of the Lady Raiders’, who were still the local stars after winning the 1993 NCAA title with Sheryl Swoopes. In celebration, the Avalanche-Journal had put out its first extra edition since Pearl Harbor. As a local bumper sticker put it, “Texas Tech—Where Men Are Men and Women Are Champions.”

As far as men’s basketball was concerned, Texas Tech was the runt of the Big 12, and Myers could offer Knight a salary of only $250,000, below the conference average, although he was promised another $500,000 from various sources. Knight wouldn’t have his pick of in-state kids, as he had had at Indiana. The University of Texas at Austin dominated the state in all things, and the Longhorns, along with Kansas, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State, dominated Big 12 basketball. In his darkest days at IU, Knight could still attract top prospects from around the nation when he felt like trying. At Texas Tech, he was limited, no matter how hard he tried. Pat said that when they called out-of-state recruits, they often had to tell them where they were located and what conference they were in.

Nothing showed how far down the food chain Knight had dropped than his attempt to recruit his first blue-chip prospect: six-foot-eight, 250-pound Sean May, of Bloomington North High School, the son of former Indiana and NBA star Scott May, who remained one of Knight’s archloyalists. Scott got his son to take a look at Texas Tech, but it was only a courtesy visit late in the process. Sean had been considered a lock for IU, with his former high school teammate Jared Jeffries there. Sean also played in high school alongside Mike Davis Jr., the son of the new Hoosiers coach, and was over at his house all the time. However, after leaving Lubbock, Sean made the surprise announcement that he’d go to North Carolina, prompting speculation back home in Indiana as to just what Knight had told him.

“Scott said he took Sean down to Lubbock because he owed Coach Knight a chance,” said the Louisville Courier-Journal’s Rick Bozich. “Scott said, ‘Hey, I’ll get him down here. You’ve got to convince him to stay here or come here. That’s on you, Coach. I’ll get him here, and you go from there. I’m going to give everybody the same opportunity.’

“But, in the end, supposedly it was a compromise choice, in that he wasn’t going to go to Texas Tech because that would be probably not the best thing for his basketball career. And he wasn’t going to stay at Indiana because I’m sure that would piss the Knight loyalists off. So, he went to Carolina.” Scott May denies Knight had anything to do with his son’s decision. In any case, Indiana lost out on a can’t-miss recruit, and three seasons later, with Sean May leading the way, Carolina won the national championship.

KNIGHT’S FIRST MEETING with his new players that spring was at seven on a Saturday morning. He immediately laid out the new dress and hair codes. Freshman Andre Emmett, who had braids with beads in them, said his introduction to Knight was “short, straight, and matter-of-fact. I drove home to Dallas, went to a barbershop, and cut it all off.”

Eight days after Knight took the job, a short press release announced that three returning players, including starting point guard Jamal Brown, had been kicked off the team. According to one of the players, they had been late several times, but no more details were forthcoming. “We’re not going to say anything beyond what’s been said,” said Tech athletic director Myers. “They’re not going to be on the team next year.” That left only four scholarship players from the previous season’s 9-19 team, who would be joined by one scholarship freshman, two junior-college players, two freshman walk-ons, and two seniors who were given scholarships. That fall, when practice began with Midnight Madness, Knight said only, “We have a chance to be competitive.”

Knight was never better than when he had something to prove, and he had never had more to prove in his life. As he said before his Texas Tech debut, a victory at home over William and Mary, “I feel like the Earps, going to Tombstone.” Tombstone shaped right up. The Red Raiders won sixteen of their first twenty games, beating conference powers Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. Attendance jumped to 13,500 a game. Students billing themselves “the General’s troops” wore World War II helmets. Fund-raising zoomed as Knight appeared at rallies throughout Texas—and even at some with loyalists in Indiana.

The Raiders finished the regular season 21-7, tied for third in the Big 12, but fell in the first round of the NCAA tournament to Southern Illinois. Their opponent was coached by Bruce Weber, a former assistant to Purdue coach—and longtime Big Ten rival—Gene Keady. “Don’t let that SOB beat you,” Weber said his old boss had told him.

After Knight’s firing from Indiana, plenty of detractors had questioned his ability to coach. A Time magazine essay titled “How College Basketball Left Bobby Knight Behind” had gone so far as to assert: “Truth is, Knight was never a great coach. He was a good coach of often overrated players.” The truth was, as his first season at Tech had demonstrated, Knight was still capable of things that awed his peers. “I can’t say this enough,” said retired University of Texas—El Paso coach Don Haskins of that first season in Lubbock. “His team didn’t overachieve. It over overachieved.” Ironically, that was the spring IU came back too, as the unheralded Mike Davis led the unheralded Hoosiers to the NCAA finals. After a 6-5 start, with Davis looking overmatched in his second season, the Hoosiers warmed up in conference play and caught fire as a number five seed in the tournament, stunning Mike Krzyzewski’s number-one-seeded Duke Blue Devils in the South regional, then beating Kent State to advance to the Final Four, in Atlanta.  

It was the season that Indiana needed in order to move beyond Knight. For Knight, however, there was no moving beyond Indiana. His bitterness was like a black hole, sucking everyone around him into it. He’d had no contact with Davis since the night he’d offered to pay his former assistant’s $95,000 salary out of his own pocket if he’d leave with him. Instead, Davis had taken Knight’s job when it was offered to him, and the relationship deteriorated from there. When Davis was deposed for a former player’s lawsuit against Knight in 2002, he was asked if his old boss was a bully and replied, “Yes.” Asked if Knight’s coaching style was always appropriate, Davis answered, “No … I mean, if we were sitting here now, and you said something he didn’t like, he would go off and scream and yell and curse at you.”

In the Final Four, the Hoosiers faced highly favored Oklahoma. Before the game, Pat Knight called Davis “a backstabber” and said he would root for Oklahoma. It turned into a firestorm in Indiana. Todd Leary, Pat’s former Indiana teammate and close friend (Pat had been in his wedding) and now the color commentator on IU broadcasts, told the Indianapolis Star’s Terry Hutchens, “If Bob Knight would just send a telegram to Indiana University and congratulate all those kids for what they’ve accomplished, he would be loved by ninety-nine percent of the people in the state of Indiana. But we all know that will never happen. I don’t know why I keep thinking Coach Knight will take the high road, because he never does.”

Knight had never been litigious or motivated by money at IU, giving his six-figure Adidas stipend to the university every year, calling it “pimp money.” After being fired, however, he spent years pursuing redress against IU in the Indiana courts. Despite a deferred compensation package of more than $400,000 a year for ten years, he contended that he was owed more for the income he had lost. When a Monroe County judge ruled in favor of IU, Knight appealed, though he eventually dropped it. Then he filed a second suit against the university, seeking to have IU pay his legal fees in another dispute.

IF KNIGHT’S OLD LIFE WAS GONE, his latest one had its own challenges. Texas Tech went to a new level, winning at least twenty games in each of his first three seasons. That was wonderful for the Red Raiders but only standard for Knight, who was used to competing for conference titles as a warm-up before competing for national titles. In Knight’s second season, the Red Raiders went 22-13 but didn’t get an NCAA bid and had to settle for a third-place finish in the NIT. It was so disappointing that Knight announced that he would give back his $250,000 salary.

Life in Lubbock had some of the old turbulence too. Before the February 17 game at Texas, in 2003, one of the most important of the season for Red Raiders fans, Knight benched Andre Emmett, the team’s star, and reserve Nick Valdez for oversleeping and missing a walk-through. It was reminiscent of Indiana’s 1985 game at Illinois, where Knight benched four starters against the favored Illini. The Red Raiders were 4-7 in the Big 12, and the Longhorns were number three in the nation. Texas Tech lost, 77—65, but Knight praised his players at the post-game press conference. “We didn’t have somebody we had to make up for on defense every time down the floor,” he said. “From my standpoint, it was a team I enjoyed watching.” Knight said his players had voted unanimously to bench Emmett and Valdez. Asked to elaborate, Knight exploded. “I said all that’s going to be said about it,” he yelled. “It’s none of your f—ing business beyond what I’ve said, period.”

Shortly afterward, Knight circulated a two-page document outlining Valdez’s confidential disciplinary history in a meeting with twenty local business leaders. Knight said they were “people who needed to know.” Some of the information had nothing to do with Valdez’s basketball career and, as the Avalanche-Journal reported, constituted a possible violation of a federal privacy law, although no charges were ever filed.

Valdez quit, but Emmett accepted his punishment—five hundred sprints the length of the court and back—and returned to the team. When Emmett complained in the course of completing his work-parole program, Knight doubled his sentence and then tripled it. “I felt like I was running for nothing,” said Emmett. “It was supposed to be five hundred. So I ran the five, and it was five hundred more. So that made a thousand. So he said, ‘Five hundred more.’ I was like, ‘Hold on.’

“Took me three and a half days, and on the fourth or the fifth day we had a game, so I was in the ice tub for a couple days … After my first five hundred, I felt like I was on my way out. I was trying to go home, but my family and my supporting cast, they told me, ‘Stick in there. Don’t let nothing stop you from doing what you do.’ After that, I kept my mouth closed, and I ran the next thousand without saying a word.”

In December of the 2003—2004 season, Knight’s third at Texas Tech, the Red Raiders were to play Iowa in Knight’s first meeting since 2000 with coach Steve Alford, his former Indiana star and now-estranged protégé. It was nationally televised and good exposure, but it meant an obligatory review of their rift. Knight wasn’t having any of it. The day of the game, Knight, sitting with Alford for a joint interview, went off on ESPN’s Fran Fraschilla, the former St. John’s and New Mexico coach, who merely asked if they wanted to put the issue to rest.

“Let me answer that,” said Knight. “You know, this is an absolute crock of bullshit. You know, you f—ing people in the news media, all of you f—ers, dwell on some negative piece of bullshit like that. And I don’t know how Steve feels about it, but it f—ing pisses me off, and you don’t have to bleep one single f—ing word of this. … So all of you media people can go f— yourselves when it comes to something like that. Now, I don’t know if Steve has anything to add to that or not.” Steve did not. The Red Good Knight? Good Luck!

Raiders, who were in the midst of a 16-2 start, won the game 65—59.

Close losses to Texas and Oklahoma State dropped them to 16-4, but they were still ranked nineteenth in the nation on February 2, when Knight and Gerald Myers went to lunch at a fashionable downtown grocery store called Market Street. Knight was at the salad bar when Texas Tech chancellor David Smith came up to him. After that, in a familiar pattern, the stories diverge wildly.

Knight said Smith congratulated him on the way he’d handled himself in the Texas game when he’d ordered Tech students to stop their rude chants at the Longhorns. Knight said he answered, “David, as long as I’ve been here, for the most part … I think I’ve done pretty well.”

“I go around to fix my salad,” Knight told the Avalanche-Journal. “He came at me pretty hard, saying, ‘You’ve got issues. What are they?’ Right then is where I think I was at fault. I should have just shook my head, walked away, and did a lot of other things, and I didn’t. I went on to tell him what one of those issues was, and it went back and forth a little bit. But the one thing there was—I absolutely did not instigate anything.”

Smith said he had been talking to Myers, saying how much he’d appreciated Knight’s approach, when Myers suggested he tell Knight. In an internal university report, Smith wrote that he told Knight, “‘Most of us only hear the negatives, it is important that sometimes someone remembers to express the positives.’ I expressed the same sentiment that I did with Gerald Myers that despite some tough losses, I especially wanted to commend him on how he had handled the last few weeks and in particular the student section at the University of Texas game.

“His demeanor and habitus changed drastically. With a red face, his response was curt and angry as he responded, ‘I always handle things well and have always handled things well. …’ He walked about two or three steps to my left with a very angry look, tried to place more salad in his takeout tray, obviously upset and shaking when I asked, ‘What seems to be the problem? I only wanted to commend you and provide some positive feedback. … ’ He became even more agitated, stating that I was always misinterpreting.”

Smith said he eventually realized that Knight was angry about an incident from the previous season. After the suspension of Andre Emmett and Nick Valdez, with no other university officials available for comment, Smith had announced, “We will look into this event.” Smith said an angry Knight had then abruptly walked away from him in the locker room before a game the following week and that he had discussed Knight’s behavior with Myers. At the salad bar, Smith said Knight alluded to the months-old incident, insisting he had only been preoccupied.

“I responded,” Smith wrote in his account, “that Gerald Myers (still to my right) was also in the locker room and that he had a similar impression and was so upset by Knight’s action towards me that he immediately followed me to my suite to apologize in front of several witnesses. Knight’s response (in a very loud voice) was in essence, ‘He did not!’ He stated almost in a scream, I always misinterpret comments and that I called him a ‘liar,’ apparently because I had contradicted his version of the locker room encounter. He repeated yelling, ‘I am not a liar!’ I chose to walk away out of the store. Just steps past the checkout counter, I turned around to see Bob Knight charging up behind me furious with fists clenched and confronted me before I could leave the store.”

Smith said Knight and Myers drove away, with Knight at the wheel of his tan Lincoln, but that Myers then got out of the car “and appeared to be yelling at Coach Knight.” According to Smith, Knight then got out and ran after Myers, abandoning the car, with the driver’s side door open, before getting back in and driving off in pursuit of Myers, trying to persuade him to get back in the car.

The next day, Texas Tech officials went into high-level talks to decide Knight’s fate. Later, before that night’s game, the coach got a standing ovation from a crowd of 9,835. At the press conference held after the Red Raiders won, he gave his version of events. Myers didn’t say a word in Knight’s defense, and the available evidence supported Smith’s version. Unnamed witnesses told the Avalanche-Journal that Knight and Smith had been talking quietly before Knight began yelling, “Are you calling me a liar?” and said that Knight followed Smith after he walked away. They also corroborated Smith’s description of Myers’s jumping out of Knight’s car and Knight’s jumping out to pursue him, leaving his car in the street.

After the Avalanche-Journal filed an open-records request, the university released a copy of a letter Myers wrote to Knight, officially reprimanding him. “Bob, from this day forward you must avoid these kind of incidents. Any further behavior of this type either public or private is unacceptable and will result in severe actions.” However, no apology was offered or demanded. As the IU administration had once done, Texas Tech officials negotiated Knight’s sentence with him. Having decided on a reprimand rather than a suspension, which would have incurred Knight’s displeasure and perhaps even his resignation, university officials tried to put the incident behind them as fast as possible. Smith declined to discuss it; his written account surfaced only after the Avalanche-Journal’s open-records request. Myers said the whole thing had been a “misunderstanding.” Once again, there was a question of who was bigger, Knight or the school. Only the school had changed.

By the close of Knight’s third season, which ended in a 70—65 loss to top-ranked St. Joseph’s in the NCAA tournament, an uncertain future loomed before Knight’s Red Raiders. Knight was still the darling of the business community, which lavished its support on him, and he had a well-heeled personal following in town, but the excitement around his program had died down. Knight, who had predicted that the IU administration would deck Assembly Hall in advertisements after he left (incorrectly, it turned out), was now a walking advertisement himself. With Adidas logos on his shirt lapels and two more from O’Reilly Auto Parts and Texas Tech on his sweater, he looked like a NASCAR driver.

However, attendance had dropped back below 10,000 a game, 2,000 below that of the Lady Raiders’. Before the 2004—2005 season, the indefatigable Pat Knight spoke at fraternities and dorms all over campus, encouraging students to turn out, something no IU assistant would ever have imagined doing. Knight had been negotiating a contract extension with Texas Tech, but he signed it only after his alma mater, Ohio State, where influential alumni had started a movement to get him hired, called him to say it would go in another direction to fill its coaching vacancy. Expectations were minimal going into the season. The preseason consensus had the Red Raiders in the bottom half of the conference, so it was another of Knight’s surprises when he went to a three-guard lineup, finished the regular season ranked number sixteen in the nation at 18-9, and reached the finals of the Big 12 tournament. Senior guard Ronald Ross, a one-time walk-on, led them in scoring, but they were a model of balance, with four players in double figures.

Seeded number six in the NCAA tournament, they put away UCLA, moving into a second-round matchup with the number three seed, perennial power Gonzaga. The Zags went up by 13 points in the second half, but the Red Raiders came back to win 71—69, going ahead to stay on Ross’s three-pointer with 1:06 left.

Knight, who had barely celebrated any of his three NCAA titles, was visibly moved by this win. When the game ended, he told Pat to go up into the stands and bring Karen down. She was already crying when she reached the floor and continued to weep as she hugged her husband while he did a TV interview. In the most tender gesture he had ever made on national television, Knight cradled Karen’s head on his shoulder.

The good feelings lasted for several hours, until Knight did an interview with Sporting News Radio’s Chet Coppock, who asked the wrong question. With the Hoosiers coming off a bad season amid speculation that Mike Davis would be fired, Coppock asked about it, and Knight vented his bitterness yet again. “They created that for themselves,” said Knight. “The guy that’s coaching there is a guy that I told Pat we were going to replace at the end of the season.” Knight went on to blast the IU administration again and say that the athletic director “didn’t know his ass from third base.” The next day, as if answering Knight, IU announced that Davis would remain.

Knight and his players were on a cloud for the next five days, before their third-round game against West Virginia, in Albuquerque. It was only 320 miles from Lubbock, and the Pit, on the New Mexico campus, was filled with Red Raiders fans. The Mountaineers didn’t look unbeatable. In a bracket with no great teams, Knight even seemed to have a chance to return to the Final Four for the first time since 1992, when he had also come through Albuquerque.

The run-up to the game was another Bob Knight festival. At a press conference, he told Ross to call him “a latter-day Santa Claus,” and when it was Knight’s turn at the mike, he asked, “Do you want to hear my ho, ho, ho?” After the NCAA forbade him to drink out of his O’Reilly Auto Parts cup at press conferences, Knight, the one-time scourge of NCAA commercialism, brought it anyway, announcing, “First of all, I’m really happy to be here with my O’Reilly Auto Parts cup.” Stories went out, saying Knight had really mellowed this time.

The dream died against West Virginia. The Red Raiders fell behind by ten points, then came back to go ahead in the second half, only to lose in the closing seconds. “I told our players after the game that they’ll look back on this game and they’ll feel like they made mistakes,” said Knight, which was his way of saying it had been their game to win. “But I think if they can look at the total picture and see what all happened from beginning to end, they should feel very proud of themselves for what they were able to accomplish this year.” It was his way of saying he was as surprised and as pleased as anyone else.

In fall 2005 Bob Knight, now a 65-year-old enfant terrible, began practice with his team, as he had every autumn but one since he’d graduated from Ohio State, in 1962. Three starters returned from the Red Raiders’ Sweet 16 team, with Dean Smith’s 879 career victories dead ahead, 25 more than Knight’s 854, within reach in one season if it was great enough.

His life was quieter, if not quiet. Pat, now his associate head coach, was an ideal buffer between Knight and his players, the referees, and the press. There were no reported incidents of head-butts, kicks, or chokes, however inadvertent or instructional. His best players weren’t leaving one after another, as they had at the end at IU. However, Knight was still Knight. When Andre Emmett, by then a member of the Memphis Grizzlies, heard a replay of Knight’s bloodcurdling 1992 diatribe at Indiana, the one that had lasted one minute and fourteen seconds, with fifteen “f—s” and sixteen first-person references, he said it was the same Bob Knight who had coached him.

“I think it’s one of those things you have to live through, to see for yourself,” said Emmett. “I’ve never really met anybody to this date who broke down the game of basketball as well as he did. He’s beyond coaching. He’s a teacher of the game. He was tremendous. And then, how his style works—it was very different for me but it made me a tougher person. …

“From the outside, it may have looked like that [he was mellowing], but from the inside, I mean, he was always intense. He was always the same old Coach Knight. My three years with him, he was pretty much the same. Actually, he picked it up each year.”

Nevertheless, there was no doubt Knight had found a comfort zone. Many of his old retainers, like his IU secretary, Mary Ann Davis, were with him in the Tech athletic department. The Knights’ sons and their wives were near, as was his grandson. Coaching legend Pete Newell, Knight’s mentor of mentors, was in his nineties and living outside San Diego, but he talked to Knight by phone weekly and visited Lubbock when he could. Newell says that when he, Bob, and Karen get to talking about the Red Raiders, it’s often he and Karen on one side, trying to tell Bob that some player he expects more from is really okay.

“He’s more relaxed,” said Newell. “He’s more accessible too. … I do think he’s at peace now much more. He’ll never be totally at peace, and that’s him.” For a man who seemed doomed to drive himself into a bitter retirement, this would be a happy ending. Of course, whether it’s more glory that awaits, another fall, or both, his story isn’t over.

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