When I stepped out of the calm of the Lubbock airport and into the second day of a West Texas dust storm, the first person I met was Raegan Sisemore. Sisemore, who was shuttling travelers to their rental cars, took no time to give me the scoop on Texas Tech’s newest coach. “Bobby Knight has turned this town upside down,” he said, his words slow and deliberate. “I went ahead and got my season tickets now so that I wouldn’t be left out.” When I asked him if that was unusual, he looked at me and said flatly, “No one in Lubbock has ever had to buy basketball tickets in March.”If I had forgotten that Tech had landed the biggest sports story in the nation when it hired Knight, Sisemore was a good reminder. So were the billboards that had sprung up all over the city, as numerous as pump jacks, proclaiming “It’s Knight Time in Lubbock.” Each one is sponsored by a local company like Scott’s Complete Car Care, and they were all part of the welcome Knight had received. On the day that he was hired, an editorial cartoon ran in the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal that presented the coach with a choir on one side and admiring fans on the other. The heavens had parted, and angels had descended to usher him into the spotlight. The caption read “And Bob came unto The Plains, To Saveth Men’s Roundball. And it was Good. Amen.” The metaphor was apt. The town couldn’t have been whipped up into a bigger frenzy than if Christ himself had chosen Lubbock to kick off the Second Coming.
Of course, not everyone sang hosannas after Tech announced its intention to hire the coach known as much for losing his temper as for achieving success on the court. His critics complained that by hiring Knight, the university had sunk to a new low in its pursuit of a winning team. They missed the point. Bobby Knight wasn’t hired to win basketball games. The truth is far simpler. Bobby Knight was hired to make money for Texas Tech.
Though Knight’s last seven seasons at Indiana were, by his standards, lackluster—during that time the Hoosiers never won a conference title or made it past the second round of the NCAA tournament—he is still a certifiable genius at getting people to sign checks. In his 29 seasons at Indiana University, Knight was more than just a coach. He was a cash cow—a prodigious generator of everything from season-ticket sales to alumni giving that resulted not only in bulging athletic coffers but also funds for a campus library and an endowment for two faculty positions. For many Hoosiers, he was the main reason they donated money to the school.
That’s a talent that has not been lost on Tech, which has embarked on a huge spending spree on athletic facilities, including $62 million for the new United Spirit Arena (USA) basketball complex and $90 million to renovate the football stadium. Knight’s skills are even more important since Tech ranked dead last in the Big 12 in sports fundraising last year, and for the past three years, its athletic program has lost money. That’s partly because Tech athletics have been battered by sanctions. In 1996 the NCAA launched an investigation that revealed that scores of athletes had competed even though they were academically ineligible. Men’s basketball, in particular, collapsed as it dealt with the loss of scholarships, finishing in last place in the Big 12 last season. From a financial standpoint, that decline couldn’t have come at a worse time. With the opening of the USA in 1999, a sparkling 15,050-seat facility, more students could be found at the campus library than at the men’s home games. Last season an average of 8,600 tickets were sold for each game, but in reality closer to 4,000 fans bothered to show up.
Knight is already solving that problem. This year it took less than 48 hours for fans like Sisemore to snap up 12,000 seats. Tech officials are so confident of Knight’s popularity that they are already counting on an additional $1 million in revenue—a 66 percent increase over last year—for men’s basketball alone. Fundraising is also sure to take off. The university is renewing its efforts to reach out to alumni, even in the smallest of ways. When you log on to Tech’s official site for athletics, texastech.fansonly.com, a box pops up soliciting contributions. It features a picture of Knight doing the Red Raider “guns up” with the words, “Join with me now on this new journey.”
When I asked John Montford, the chancellor of the Texas Tech University System, why the school hired Knight, he said, “There were a number of things that were appealing about Bob Knight: the graduation rate of his players, his commitment to academic performance, his spotless record with the NCAA, and his ability as a fundraiser.” I expected Montford to mention the first three reasons; they are well-worn arguments. What I didn’t expect was that he would list fundraising—not winning—as another. But Montford knows that Tech needs the former more than it needs the latter.
When I went over to see the USA firsthand, I visited the Double T Shoppe, a store that sells all things related to Tech athletics. As I admired a T-shirt that read “Bob Knight & Texas Tech . . . A Perfect Fit,” a clerk told me that everything had been going fast: shirts, hats, you name it. I thought about asking if the store sold miniature folding chairs or maybe a plush doll of Knight with a string in his back. (The idea being that when the string is pulled, the toy would unleash a torrent of expletives that would make a sailor blush.) Wisely, my better judgment prevailed.
I then joined a group of interior design students from Lubbock High who were being led on a tour of the USA by Greta Todd, a bright, well-spoken junior from Lamesa. As we meandered through the various levels of the arena, Todd informed her charges that they should step aside if they saw a player or an assistant coach. And what if they saw Knight? “Don’t go crazy, don’t take his picture, just remain calm,” she told them firmly. I immediately thought of Kent Harvey, the IU student who brought Knight’s tenure to its embarrassing end by blurting out, “Hey, what’s up, Knight?” Knight reacted less than appropriately—though exactly what he did is still debated—and his dismissal followed. It reminded me that, despite all of Tech’s high hopes, the coach is just one encounter away from proving his critics right. Todd, for her part, wasn’t going to let it happen on her watch.
Still, that kind of anxiety surfaced three weeks later when I spoke with another person associated with the university. Though Knight had agreed to my request for an interview, he wouldn’t set a time. Dates were promised, then pushed back, then promised again. When I heard one morning our photographer had been given an hour to take the coach’s picture that afternoon, I caught the next flight to Lubbock. When I showed up unannounced, Knight’s media handler, Chris Cook, told me that Knight didn’t like surprises and that he wanted to let the coach know I was there. No problem, I said, and I went to wait with the photographer. And wait. And wait. Almost an hour later, with only five minutes of our allotted time remaining, Knight appeared, surprisingly big and unmistakably cranky. He shook hands, said little, and sat down.
That’s when Cook asked me to step outside. He informed me that I couldn’t talk to Knight because the coach, who insists on answering all of his mail the same day it arrives, needed to do that. Then, still dangling an interview in front of me, he proceeded to tell me that I wasn’t allowed to ask about Knight’s time at IU or his temper. Almost apologetically he said, “You know, I’m the one who gets in trouble if those questions get through.” Yes, Montford and the Tech execs may be all smiles right now, but one thing is clear: Those folks who have to work under Knight are walking on eggshells. Regardless of why he was hired, he won’t win any popularity contests with them.
So what about winning on the court? It may sound ridiculous to suggest that a coach who has won 763 games, three national championships, and eleven Big Ten championships wasn’t hired to win. Yet his recent performance shows that he is not the coach he once was. During his last season at IU, Knight’s Hoosiers were bounced from the first round of the NCAA tournament by the mighty Waves of Pepperdine University, a team that hadn’t advanced to the second round in 18 years. Even worse, Knight will be 61 years old when the season starts. Of all the teams that finished in the final Associated Press top 25 ranking this year, only one was coached by someone older than Knight: Arizona’s Lute Olson, who will turn 67 in September. That’s not to say that Knight is over the hill. But the hill is in sight.
Yet Knight doesn’t have to win it all. He doesn’t even have to win the Big 12. In fact, he has to win only 117 more games in his coaching career. That’s what it will take for him to become the winningest coach in the history of college basketball. (North Carolina’s Dean Smith, who holds the mark at 879 wins, retired in 1997 at the age of 66.) More than anything else, that possibility will keep the spotlight on Lubbock. It’s a built-in moneymaker.
If everything works out as Montford hopes, Tech makes money and lays claim to the winningest coach in college basketball history. Yet the university has far more to lose than Knight does. Its credibility is at stake, and writers all across the country are just waiting to make Lubbock the punch line in the latest round of Bobby Knight jokes. For its plan to succeed, the university might do well to point its new coach to the northwest entrance of the USA, where an inscription greets all visitors: “The Price of Greatness Is Responsibility.” It’s something I might have asked Knight about, if only I had been given the chance.