Tuesday, September 12, 2000

Indiana still loves Knight

Midwestern grit conquered courts, hearts

By Tom O'Neill
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        MILAN, Ind. — Indiana has a heart for straight-forward talk, a tireless work ethic and fundamentally sound basketball. Old-school stuff. And it embraces any coach who can rattle off the grade-point averages of past players, what they're doing now and what their parents' names are — then visit nursing homes on his day off.

        This, in a Midwestern nutshell, explains the cultural icon formerly known as Indiana University basketball coach Bob Knight, who was fired Sunday by the school president for a “pattern of unacceptable behavior” after 29 years and 661 victories.

        It also explains why some homes in this quintessential Indiana hamlet hung their IU banners at half-staff. Indiana is a tapestry of small towns, many of them rural, where simplicity is appreciated. And Mr. Knight never danced around words.

        “I think that was the secret ingredient,” Milan native and father of four Mike Schmidt said on Monday, as talk of Mr. Knight's firing filled the smoky bar at the Railroad Inn restaurant. “Everybody trusted his character. ... He was considered God. He taught us how to be champions.”

        An Orrville, Ohio, native, Ohio State player and former coach at West Point, Mr. Knight was a complicated leader able to control the basketball-mad emotions of an entire state — but unable to control his own temper.

        It led to his downfall.

        “Everybody's talkin' about it,” Railroad Inn manager Melodie Richardson said.

        Tiny Milan High's improbable run to the 1954 state basketball championship

        inspired the 1986 movie Hoosiers — an event well-documented on the walls at the Railroad Inn. In Indiana, the median household income is $34,368, and only 71 percent of residents live in metropolitan areas, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Both figures are below national averages.

        Long after the town's rusted water tower became obsolete, a suggestion to tear it down would be sacrilege. It symbolizes the kind of small-town life residents staunchly defend.

        “You know what they say,” said Chris Fox, 29, of Milan. “The Lord is my shepherd, but Bobby Knight is my coach.”

Divided front
               But although Milan residents on Monday — including high school basketball coach Randy Combs — expressed respect for Mr. Knight's approach to basketball and life, the state is not united.

        The Indianapolis Star and other newspapers published editorials Monday supporting the IU administration's decision to let Mr. Knight go. The tirades had become counterproductive and, to some, downright embarrassing.

        “It's a sad day for Indiana basketball,” wrote the Johnson County Daily Journal inFranklin, “because Bob Knight — with three NCAA championships under his belt — was one of the greatest coaches in the history of the game. But this is a potent reminder that no one — no matter how successful, influential or intimidating — should be above the rules.”

        Having led IU since 1971, Mr. Knight's firing was prompted by a series of outbursts and confrontations that go back more than two decades. He once wrapped his hand around a player's neck during practice. He threw a chair in front of a Purdue player about to shoot a technical foul shot during a game. He told NBC's Connie Chung during a 1988 interview “I think that if rape is inevitable, lay back and enjoy it.”

        But he also led Hoosiers to three national championships and 11 Big Ten titles. He also is the Big Ten's winningest coach and entered the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1991. And in numbers far greater than most basketball powerhouses, more than 90 percent of his players graduated. That's what appealed to supporters and critics.

        “I've hated Knight all my life,” said Doug McKiddie, a Michigan native and lifelong University of Michigan fan now living in Madison, Ind. “But if I was gonna send my kid anywhere, I'd send him to Knight.”

        Milan High's Coach Combs understands that. He has coached basketball for 16 years, and as a youngster attended Bob Knight camps six straight years.

        “You hear kids say he's a parent to them, and players have an unbridled loyalty because of that,” Coach Combs said as he stood near the trophy case immortalizing the '54 championship team. But he wouldn't encourage every player good enough to play for Knight to do so.

        “You know as a coach who could handle that, and who couldn't,” he said.

        Not far from a calendar featuring the IU hoop team, there's a saying on the wall in Coach Combs' office.

        It reads: “When you make a mistake, there are only three things you should ever do about it: admit it, learn from it, don't repeat it.”

        Wisdom for the coach's players — and anyone else willing to listen.

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