Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer A Lost Knight

By Frank Murtaugh

JUNE 19, 2000:  Buried under the recent public outrage over, first, the misbehavior of Indiana University basketball coach Bob Knight and, later, the perceived wrist-slap Knight received from his employer is a human subtlety that extends well beyond the boundaries of a basketball court or university.

While sportswriters have lampooned Knight as a boorish, dictatorial abuser of common decency and the coach's former players have either come out in staunch defense of his coaching tactics or pointed to yet another incident where Knight went over the edge, observers have, for the most part, failed to identify the cancer that is clearly eating at this complicated man's soul. Anger management is something we must all deal with in our everyday lives at some point granted, some more than others. And just as there are those of us whom depression stalks with a darker shadow than others, there are men and women who lose their battle with anger, often with tragic consequences.

I played high school baseball for a very intense coach, one who did not tolerate mistakes, particularly of the mental variety. Attention to detail was the rule of thumb. A missed sign -- be it at the plate or on the bases -- meant a one-way ticket to the bench. During practice, repeated mistakes were met with repeated drills. A cutoff routine between outfielder and infielder can grow a little tedious when performed for the 12th consecutive time.

My coach did not play with words. There was right and there was wrong. When a player followed his instructions, he was right. Creativity on the playing field, at least in terms of decision-making, was dangerous. Players earned a margin for error by displaying the capability to recognize a situation through Coach's eyes. Until then, practices were conducted, and games played, strictly by the book. And by the way, we won a state championship my sophomore year (one of 10 my coach can claim) and were state runners-up my senior season.

Needless to say, my baseball coach never grabbed my neck, as video footage clearly indicates Knight did to former player Neil Reed. To my knowledge, he has never slung a chair or bench onto the playing field. Now, he most certainly intimidated officials, though more through reputation -- very much like Knight and myriad other prominent coaches -- than through specific incidents of confrontation.

Say what you will about Bobby Knight, we are witnessing the unraveling of a very intelligent human being who can apparently see almost everything clearly except himself. (Name the last time you saw a sports figure with a note pad as he or she was being interviewed, as Knight had during his much-hyped live discussion with Roy Firestone and Digger Phelps on ESPN. The man knows how to prepare and how to convey his preparedness.) This is not some buffoon, lashing out, Woody Hayes-like, at some opponent or media-type who happens to be prancing down the sideline of his career. His passion for basketball goes beyond three national championships and an Olympic gold medal. As for Dean Smith's record for career wins (Knight needs 117 more), he shrugs indifferently.

More than likely, the championships and records mean more to the man in the red sweater than he will share publicly. My old baseball coach tends to avoid conversation directed at specific titles or honors. Where he will brighten -- and lose the iron fist within a fluffy, velvet glove -- is at the mention of his players, past and present. It's the kids he has influenced, on the field and off, who leave my baseball coach a meaningful legacy. And this is precisely where Bob Knight is failing himself.

For every Neil Reed or Luke Recker who has a complaint about Knight's treatment, how many 6th-men (or 12th-men?) are there who retain Hoosier red in their hearts, largely because of their coach? Knight would heal countless wounds within Indiana and beyond if he could just find a way to celebrate the individuals who have helped make his program so transcendent.

The human element of college sports is the area where the pros simply have to take a backseat. The formative years during which Knight presides over the young men in his basketball program are about as meaningful a period as one will experience. I would be the first to acknowledge that he has damaged the experience for some and, through his varied tantrums, he has allowed the damage to go public.

When Bobby Knight discovers a way to channel the energy he exerts so angrily during times of frustration toward the countless individuals for whom he must have been a positive resource, well, he may finally realize what emotional bliss can do for a man.


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