Bobby Knight, Basketball Coach Known for Trophies and Tantrums, Dies at 83

user avatar Author: Editors Desk Source: N.Y Times
November 1, 2023 at 23:37
Knight raised Indiana to the national top tier while upholding academic standards, but he was notorious for the rage he directed at players and referees.
Bobby Knight, a volatile but brilliant college basketball coach, was among American sport’s most polarizing characters.Credit...John Swart/Associated Press
Bobby Knight, a volatile but brilliant college basketball coach, was among American sport’s most polarizing characters.Credit...John Swart/Associated Press

Bobby Knight, one of college basketball’s signature coaches and a singular personality renowned for his tempestuousness and hubris, qualities that helped bring him to the pinnacle of his sport and also tainted his success, died on Wednesday at his home in Bloomington, Ind. He was 83.

His death was announced in a statement on his website. It did not give a cause.

Mercurial and volatile, Knight was among the most polarizing characters in American sports. He was a brilliant coach who sought out intelligent players, deployed a ferocious man-to-man defense, extolled the virtues of precision passing and preached the necessities of boxing out, rebounding and never-ending hustle. Known as a principled perfectionist and a master teacher, he was also a driven competitor for whom losing was agony and a relentless motivator whose chief tool, it often seemed, was the anger-fueled rant.

He began his coaching career at the United States Military Academy and finished it at Texas Tech University. He coached the American Olympic basketball team to a gold medal in 1984.

But he found fame, glory and notoriety at Indiana University, where he was head coach for 29 years. An animated courtside stalker in a Hoosier-red sweater who became a statewide celebrity in a basketball-mad state, he raised the Indiana program to the national top tier while upholding academic standards — most of his players graduated — and avoiding the pay-for-play recruitment scandals that bedeviled many other schools.

Over two consecutive seasons, 1974-75 and 1975-76, his teams won 63 of 64 games. In March 1976, when Indiana won the N.C.A.A. tournament, finishing the season at 32-0, it became the seventh — and last — national champion with a perfect record. From 1971-72, his first season at Indiana, through 1999-2000, Knight’s Hoosier teams averaged almost 23 wins a season, winning 11 Big Ten titles and, in 1981 and 1987, two more national championships, before he was fired by a university administration exasperated by his displays of incorrigibility.

The sportswriter Frank Deford wrote that Knight was “a prodigy in search of proportion.” Bob Costas, the veteran broadcaster, once referred to him as “college basketball’s raging bull,” and, indeed, the Indiana coach made a trademark of iconoclasm and defiance of decorum, deriding officials at top volume and hounding his players to the brink of abuse. He cooperated with many an interviewer but clashed frequently with members of the news media, scorning especially those beat reporters whose basketball knowledge he found wanting. Though he was a voracious reader, especially of military history, and often encouraged students to focus on “the book” rather than “the ball,” he was not above disparaging the whole print enterprise: “All of us learn to write in the second grade,” he once said. “Most of us go on to greater things.”

His foul mouth was renowned: “In the course of a day, he describes an incredible number of things being done to the derrière: It’s burned, chewed out, kicked, frosted, blistered, chipped at, etc.,” Deford wrote in Sports Illustrated in 1981.

During the 1985-86 season, perhaps to counteract his reputation as media-unfriendly, Knight gave the sportswriter John Feinstein remarkable access for a book, “A Season on the Brink,” that revealed Knight’s detail-oriented preparation for games, the standards he set for his players and the grueling workouts he put them through. It also revealed his popularity throughout Indiana and his charitable deeds. But it became a best seller largely because of the profanity and fury in its pages. (You can get an idea of Knight’s oratory in this undated audio clip of a halftime speech. Sensitive ears, be forewarned.)


A black-and-white photo of Knight in a plaid blazer, screaming at the basketball player Daryl Thomas.
John Feinstein, the author of “A Season on the Brink,” wrote about a locker-room scene in which Knight, seen at right in 1984, ranted and cursed at Daryl Thomas.Credit...Dean Rutz/Associated Press

In an introduction to a 25th-anniversary edition, Feinstein wrote, referring to one of Knight’s star players: “When Knight read Chapter 1, in which I described the locker-room scene in which he completely went off on Daryl Thomas, he couldn’t believe how much profanity there was in his rant. What he didn’t know was that I had removed about 80 percent of the f——— in the speech and had completely removed his repeated use of a word that rhymes with bunt.

Todd Jadlow, a forward on the 1987 championship team, wrote in a 2016 memoir that, among other things, Knight cracked a clipboard over his head, squeezed his testicles and made players run laps while barking like dogs. But Jadlow stayed in the Indiana program and, after he wrote the book, told ESPN, “I still have a lot of respect for him and look at him as a father figure.”

Still, over the years, Knight’s demands and personality drove more than a few players from Indiana. Sports Illustrated reported in 1976 that one former recruit, Mike Miday, quit the team, telling his student newspaper, “I deserved better than to be treated as an object and demeaned in public,” and adding, “I’m terrified of the guy.” In 1997, Jason Collier left Indiana, telling The Springfield News-Sun in Ohio that he couldn’t adapt to Knight’s style. He explained, “I tried different tactics — blocking out the yelling, like people told me to do — but when people yell at you, you take notice.”

But belligerence and volatility were not Knight’s only defining characteristics. He was a principled recruiter, and among his many demands on players was that they attend class. Players, friends and writers noted that he could be gracious, charming, charitable and playful. He was articulate as well, often in his own defense:

“I don’t think there’s an official in the country who knows as much about basketball as I do,” he said in a Playboy interview in 1984 about his rough treatment of the referees. “Not even close. Or as much as any other coach knows. And when I’ve got a complaint, I want it listened to. I’ve seen an official not watch for traveling. I’ve seen him watch the flight of the ball instead of the shooter’s hand afterward — whether or not he gets hit. I think that basketball officiating is tough, but I don’t think there are very many officials who know how to watch logically from one to two to three to four to five in a given position on the floor. And when I see somebody violate the logical progression of what he should be looking for, then I’m going to let him know about it.”

Many of Knight’s coaching colleagues considered him not just a genius coach but an exemplary human being. His former players include All-Americans and successful pros like Kent Benson, Quinn Buckner, Mike Woodson (a former head coach of the Knicks) and the Hall of Fame guard Isiah Thomas, many of whom have spoken of a love-hate relationship with their coach while they played for him but an enduring admiration afterward.

Knight wearing a red sweater, yelling and pointing at the viewer.
Belligerence and volatility were not Knight’s only defining characteristics. He was a principled recruiter, and among his many demands on players was that they attend class.Credit...Gary Mook/Allsport, via Getty Images

The incident that led to Knight’s dismissal occurred in a practice in 1997 during which Knight grabbed a player, Neil Reed, by the throat and seemed to choke him. A video surfaced in 1999, and the Indiana president, Myles Brand, suspended Knight for three games, fined him $30,000 and put him on a zero-tolerance policy.

Seven months later, a 19-year-old student called out to him in passing, “What’s up, Knight?” The student said Knight grabbed him roughly by the arm and cursed him for not using an honorific, Coach Knight or Mr. Knight. Knight claimed he had touched the student’s arm lightly, did not curse and was merely trying to impress upon him respect for his elders and, apparently without recognizing the irony, the need for “manners and civility.” Even so, that was the tipping point. Offered the opportunity to resign, Knight would not, and Brand fired him.

Robert Montgomery Knight was born in Massillon, in northeast Ohio, on Oct. 25, 1940, and grew up in nearby Orrville. His father, Carroll, whom everyone called Pat, worked for the railroad. His mother, Hazel, was an elementary-school teacher. He was close to his maternal grandmother, Sarah Henthorne, who lived with the family and taught him to drive.

A natural athlete who excelled in all sports, Knight, who was 6-foot-1 in junior high school, started on the Orrville High School team as a freshman and was the star as a senior (by then he was 6-foot-4), leading the team to the state playoffs.

At Ohio State, Knight was a lesser player on a great college squad; the Buckeyes won the national championship when he was a sophomore. The coach, Fred Taylor, became one of Knight’s role models, and, after graduation and a year as a high school assistant, Knight took Taylor’s advice and enlisted in the Army in order to become an assistant coach at West Point. After two years, Knight was promoted, becoming, at 24, the youngest Division I head coach in the country.

A black-and-white photo of three men in suits, with Knight as a young man in the center, each dribbling a basketball toward a trophy on the floor.
At the National Invitational Tournament in 1969, from left, the coaches Bob Cousy of Boston College; Knight, while he was with the United States Military Academy; and Ray Mears of Tennessee.Credit...Bettmann/Getty Images

He was immediately successful, going 102-50 in six seasons at Army, where Mike Krzyzewski played for him as a guard. In 1970, he moved to Indiana, where he took over a program that had been intermittently strong — Indiana won the national championship in 1940 and 1953 — but won only one Big Ten title in the previous decade, shared with Michigan State. Under Knight, Indiana won or shared seven of the next 13. In 1975 and 1976, he was the Associated Press national coach of the year. (He won the award for a third time in 1989.)

When Knight was fired, he claimed he did not deserve it, and his bitterness at Brand, who died in 2009, and the Indiana administration never abated. He belittled his successor, Mike Davis. He did not return to campus, despite many invitations, for 20 years.

By then, Knight had retired, having spent six and a half moderately successful seasons, including three N.C.A.A. tournament appearances, at Texas Tech in Lubbock, where the spotlight rarely found him. He resigned in February 2008, in the middle of the season. Knight finished his career as the coach with the most wins in college basketball, 902 (including three by forfeit); he is now sixth. Krzyzewski, the longtime coach at Duke who played for Knight at West Point, is currently the all-time leader, with 1,202 wins.

For several years after Knight left coaching, he worked as a college basketball analyst for ESPN. But his work was halfhearted, and ESPN declined to renew his contract in 2015. In one of his last ventures into the limelight, he appeared several times on behalf of Donald J. Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign, usually revving up support in characteristically impolite terms: “That son of a bitch can play for me!” he said at one event.

Knight in a green sweater, smiling.
night at a Duke vs. Michigan State game in 2011, after he had retired. Credit...Barton Silverman/The New York Times

Knight married Nancy Falk, whom he grew up with in Orrville, in 1963. They divorced in 1985. He married Karen Vieth Edgar, a former high school basketball coach, in 1988. A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.

In the 25th-anniversary edition of “A Season on the Brink,” John Feinstein wrote: “His good qualities are so good. His bad qualities are so bad. If I had a dollar for every time someone told me a story about encountering Knight and finding him gracious and charming and funny, I would never have to work another day in my life. If I also had a dollar for every time I’ve been told a story about Knight being a bully or being rude and obnoxious, I’d be Bill Gates.”

He added, more succinctly, “There just isn’t anyone like Knight — for better and worse.”

Orlando Mayorquin contributed reporting.

Bruce Weber retired in 2016 after 27 years at The Times. During the last eight he was an obituary writer. He is at work on a biography of the novelist E.L. Doctorow. More about Bruce Weber

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