Power, control and legacy: Bob Knight's last days at IU

From ESPN - April 11, 2018

Editor's note: "The Last Days of Knight," the latest installment in ESPN's 30 for 30 documentary series will be available on Thursday exclusively on ESPN+.

It looked like a janitor's closet.

The inconspicuous gray door on the court level of Indiana University's Assembly Hall easily concealed the office where the titan of college basketball watched game film and did some of his deepest thinking.

On Sept. 7, 2000, it was Bob Knight's sanctuary. That was the day the legendary Hoosiers men's basketball coach was accused of grabbing freshman student Kent Harvey by the arm and breaking the zero-tolerance policy enacted by university president Myles Brand. Hordes of media were quickly gathering to hear from the embattled coach, but Knight had devised another game plan.

With his career on the brink, the Hall of Fame coach, who had three national championships, 11 Big Ten titles and over 600 wins in his 29 seasons in Bloomington, opened the heavy door and introduced himself to a reporter for the Indiana Daily Student with a firm handshake.

"Do not be afraid, kid," he told me with a smile and a pat on the back, adding, "yet."

At that moment, Knight's longstanding grudge against the student newspaper ended, and my story with him began. Having run out of other options, and harboring a distrust for the national media, Knight struck a deal with a handful of eager student journalists. In exchange for providing a forum on campus to address the students and fans on his terms, Knight would agree to grant the IDS two days of exclusive interviews. They were conversations he thought he could control and manipulate, much in the way he exerted his authority on his basketball program for almost three decades.

Knight told me to get any other reporters from the school paper who should be there and we'd "have a little more [to the story] than anybody else will." He said he picked us to tell his side of the story because "some guy will ask an off-the-wall question" in the news conference upstairs "and that's all that will be written or talked about."

I was joined by two other student reporters in Knight's office -- otherwise known as "the cave" -- to question him about the incident involving Harvey. Knight leaned back in his chair, stretched his legs out, clasped his hands behind his head and downplayed the accusation.

Knight had been walking into Assembly Hall when the 19-year-old Harvey said, "Hey Knight, what's up?" The students who were walking with Harvey said Knight angrily grabbed Harvey by the arm, dragged him aside and said, "Show me some f------ respect. I am older than you."

Three days later, Brand fired Knight. His behavior at the end of his career, including physical and verbal abuse, culminated in a disgraceful exit for an iconic coach. I watched as Knight took an increasingly defiant stance in the final days of his tenure. Almost 20 years later, it's a reminder of how much influence and power college coaches can accumulate if allowed, and the consequences they can face if it's abused. It's also a lesson on knowing when it's time to step aside or move on.

As unique as Knight's polarizing personality was, his stubbornness and arrogance remain among the most common characteristics of successful college coaches past and present -- traits that are simultaneously their biggest strength and, ultimately, their greatest weakness.

Both college football and college basketball have produced coaches who overstay their welcome and punctuate otherwise Hall of Fame careers with disappointing exits. Their power and egos grow alongside their winning percentages and salaries. Failure or conflict brings out the inherent competitive drive to fix problems their way, not walk away from them. There's also the human concern for quitting on everyone involved with the program, and the fear of stepping into a different life or a life without it.

"I think we all leave on different circumstances, but we all fight that battle. When? Now? No? Yes?" said 75-year-old former UConn coach Jim Calhoun, who missed the sport enough after retiring to return as head coach at Division III St. Joseph's. "It's not just a job. We do not do it, we live it."

And they become it.

Nick Saban, Urban Meyer, Jim Harbaugh, Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Boeheim, Roy Williams -- they all own their programs and their towns, their identities indistinguishable from the campuses where they work. They, along with past coaches such as Woody Hayes, Bobby Bowden and Joe Paterno, are more recognizable than their own university presidents, more popular than their state officials. That fame and pride in what they built elicits a sense of entitlement that This Is Mine.

"I think we all leave on different circumstances, but we all fight that battle. When? Now? No? Yes? It's not just a job. We do not do it, we live it."

Jim Calhoun

And when it's yours, you fight to keep it as long as you can.

"I have never been, from day one; I am not the coach for this administration," Knight told the Indiana Daily Student in 2000. "But I am the coach for our program and what we tried to do. The academic record we have established, the record for success after graduation we established, and I think my pride in that carried away my better instincts relative to whether I should stay here or look for employment somewhere else."

Knight refused to resign -- and has since refused to return to campus, telling Dan Patrick in 2017, "I have no interest in ever going back to that university." Knight, who declined comment for this story through his agency, did not even show up for the 40-year anniversary celebration of his own 1976 undefeated national championship team. Current IU athletic director Fred Glass, who was hired in 2009, has sent Knight handwritten letters asking him to return but to no avail.

While there are still former players and fans who remain steadfast in their loyalty to Knight, his legacy was determined by the tumultuous final years of his Indiana career. IU's administration was at its wit's end with his bullying behavior. Hurling a chair across the court paled in comparison to the disgusting ways in which he denigrated some of his players. Allegations had turned into evidence -- caught on camera and heard on tape -- including an incident in 1997 in which Knight choked player Neil Reed in practice.

The man who demanded discipline at every turn was unable to reel in his own emotions. That perception might have changed had he trusted his instincts and walked away from Indiana on his own.

But that's easier said than done.

"They always say you will know when it's time to get out, and I do not think you do," said former Texas football coach Mack Brown, who won a national championship and played for another, but did not step down until he struggled through four seasons with at least four losses. "You do not ever want to get out if you love it."

Nobody is immune to circumstance or losing, and stature can only protect even the most powerful coaches for so long. Eventually, coaches like Krzyzewski, Boeheim and Saban will face this reality, if they have not already.

Bob Knight


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