Sunday, May 02, 1999

Knight's way gallant, but past its time

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        I've always thought Bob Knight wanted one more national championship to shut the critics up. Then he would vanish with hardly a trace into some trout stream or deer-filled woods. Knowing, beyond all doubt, that his way was the right way. It'd be a hell of a thing.

        Knight was fishing when Luke Recker left his program nine days ago, and Knight was leaving to go fishing this weekend, when I called to ask him about it. He has never been good at answering to anyone. Hip-deep in a frigid stream, he doesn't have to.

        If you like Knight, or at least what he stands for, it's time to worry. It's time to wonder if his time is done, and to hope he doesn't flame out the way Woody Hayes did, in one impetuous moment of self-destruction.

        The game hasn't passed him by. The game is the game, always and forever, and no one has taught it better. But it's usually won by the team with the best players. Knight is getting fewer of those, and some of his best don't stay.

        Recker hurt the most. Recker was an Indiana kid. He looks like Indiana, big-eyed and open. Worldly, if the world were bounded by Muncie and Terre Haute. If Knight couldn't sell IU basketball to Luke Recker, to whom can he sell it?

Failed at relationships
        Knight's problem isn't that he yells too much. It's that there's nothing beyond the yelling. It's OK in college basketball, or at least acceptable, to scream at your players as if they're raw recruits at basic training. Bob Huggins does it. Huggins could go decibel-to-decibel with Knight and win.

        But coaches now need to have a relationship with their players beyond the screaming. One prominent coach told me that's where Knight has failed. His players no longer believe he cares much about them.

        In two years, Knight has lost Neil Reed, Jason Collier and Recker. They can't all be wrong. But something else is happening.

        Knight once could sell teamwork; now he finds individualism.

        Knight once could sell education; players are less interested.

        Knight could sell himself. Who knew more about basketball? Who was more honest? Who drove his players harder to be their best? Players are not buying Knight's program now. That says more about the players than it does about Knight.

        Players now are so concerned with the “next level,” they forget why they're at their current level. Hint: It's not to get to the NBA.

He is what he is
        If it can happen to Knight, it can happen to anyone. Long-time high school coaches are quitting, tired of demanding parents and players with unrealistic expectations. Ask your neighbors how much fun it is now to coach Knothole baseball. If they've been at it awhile, they'll tell you, “Not as much fun as it used to be.”

        Knight's graduation record is nearly spotless, his tolerance for off- court antics is zero. He won't sell out to get better players. Good for him.

        Knight performs the NCAA's mission as well as anyone. Could he maintain his high standards while softening his style? Sure. Will he? No. Unconditionally.

        “I am what I am. I'm not going to be somebody else,” he said to me two winters ago. Knight remains a black-and-white coach in a league of grays. You wish he'd demand of himself what he does of his players, that he would look at himself and wonder how he might improve. Don't hold your breath.

        The rumor is Knight will quit. After 28 years at Indiana, he has had enough of lording over somebody else's kids. It's a full-time job. It's exhausting, especially now, when players are no longer instruments of his will but wedded to their own interests.

        I doubt he'll quit. His son Pat is on his staff. He'll want Pat to have a coaching foothold before he leaves. But Knight won't get that last title doing it his way. He'll sooner catch a shark in a Montana stream.

        Knight's way is good and honorable. It's also out of tune with the times. That's too bad. For everyone.

        Enquirer columnist Paul Daugherty welcomes your comments at 768-8454.

        Enquirer columnist Paul Daugherty welcomes your comments at 768-8454.