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THE BEST OF TGS...SACRED COWS AND THE WHITE KNIGHT
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


Following is a reprinted TGS article ("Sacred Cows and the White Knight") from February 9, 2008, shortly after Bob Knight retired from Texas Tech...

We admit that the pages of THE GOLD SHEET have never exactly been safe haven for Bob Knight. Our founder, Mort Olshan, was no fan of “The General,” and let his readers know about it on more than one occasion. And Mort, no wallflower he, even let Knight know about it during one memorable encounter at the press conference following the conclusion of the 1976 NCAA title game in Philadelphia, one that Knight’s Indiana team had just won over Big Ten rival Michigan, 86-68. Whereas most of the press corps were too intimidated by Knight to ask any questions of substance in the postgame news conference, Mort walked right into the buzzsaw, boldly asking Knight how he could continue to profess control, focus, and discipline to his players when he demonstrated so little of the same himself on the sidelines. And you can only imagine the sort of answer “The General” gave to the native Buffalonian.

Still, as time passed, we began to earn a begrudging respect for Knight, who resigned from his Texas Tech job last Monday. And college basketball isn’t going to be quite the same without him.

In fact, it might have lost one of its best friends.

Mind you, we at TGS are certainly no Knight apologists. We know of all of the stories of Knight’s well-documented bullyism and boorish behavior. We don’t know Knight personally, but have made sure to read all of the Knight biographies available at the book stores, and have been presented with numerous tales of Knight from those who have come across him on various occasions. But as time passed, and as “The General” evolved into something of a caricature of himself in recent years, we began to view Knight in a slightly different light. Considering his hard-to-conceal faults, and hard-to-deny positives, he might have been the most unique and fascinating character we have covered in the 51 seasons we have been publishing TGS.

(We also noted on a recent visit to Barnes & Noble that there were more Bob Knight books on the shelves than there were about Dwight Eisenhower, or most every president outside JFK, for that matter.)

Indeed, we came to regard Knight as a rather refreshing departure from the norm, wherein the media often puts coaches on pedestals, making sacred cows of some and pin cushions for others. You know the drill. So-and-so is a legend; so-and-so is a genius; so-and-so can’t win the big one.

What we eventually began to appreciate about Knight were the things that used to offend us about him. To reporters, he could be rude, perhaps even being obnoxious just for sport, but probably because most sportswriters are like political journalists in Washington, begging to be conned by their interviewees. Pressmen often expect politicians, businessmen, and coaches to patronize them, and Knight was never going to play that game. Especially to a bunch that has too often collectively turned its head at the real stench that surrounds college sports, particularly football and basketball.

Sure, Knight had his warts. But he also defined how it is to play by the rules. When he took over what was a corrupt Indiana program in 1971, then-Hoosier A.D. Bill Orwig gave Knight a list of those “boosters” he suspected as the root of the problem, and was apparently shocked when Knight reported back to him shortly thereafter that those guys would not be an issue any longer. Orwig didn’t realize he had also hired a real-life version of the Sheriff Matt Dillon character that actor James Arness had popularized in the famous Gunsmoke TV series of the day.

We don’t have the time and the space to go over all of the good deeds done by Knight, who, among other things, was also one of the driving forces behind the removal of scholarships for unsatisfactory progress toward a degree. And none other than Sonny Vaccaro, who knows a thing or two about the sordid world of college coaching and recruiting, said recently there were only a couple of coaches he was absolutely sure were clean all of the way, and Knight was one of them. We also greatly appreciate how Knight also never sought publicity for the countless acts of charity and goodwill he’s done for friends and strangers throughout the years.

What continues to grate us most, however, is which coaches continue to receive preferential treatment from the press. John Wooden’s knowledge of West LA “fixer” Sam Gilbert doing all sorts of illegal things for his players (some of which we don’t want to mention on these pages) continues to be mostly glossed over by the press. Nowadays Gilbert is no more than a footnote, if that, in the remarkable success of the Wizard, who has been granted almost saint-like status by the media. Coach K, as Bob Ryan noted in a Boston Globe investigative article, obtained cushy jobs in the Raleigh-Durham Triangle economy for several parents of recruits. Dean Smith took some very marginal college students during his last two decades at Chapel Hill. Rasheed Wallace and a host of others were not exactly equivalent to the guys who all had SAT scores above 1100 on his 1968 Final Four team.

And what of Paul “Bear” Bryant, who despite brutal treatment of his Texas A&M players, romanticized in a sense by the book and subsequent movie, The Junction Boys, remains such a sacred cow, while Knight is mostly regarded as a demon? The mainstream press continues to fawn over the Bryant legacy; we can only assume most never read Allen Barra's excellent biography (The Last Coach) of the Bear, because if they had, they’d be a bit more troubled by his legacy, especially if ethics and innovation are included in the equation. Although Bryant’s players at Kentucky weren’t involved in shaving points as were Adolph Rupp’s hoopsters such as as Ralph Beard, Dale Barnstable, Bill Spivey, and Alex Groza, his paying of players at Lexington was well-documented. And we encourage everyone to read the opus by Paul Kirby, then a law professor at the University of Tennessee, who wrote a 1986 book entitled "Fumble" about former Georgia coach Wally Butts' libel trial against the Saturday Evening Post. Kirby observed the trial for the SEC, and concluded, as does Bryant's biographer Barra, that Bryant perjured himself at the trial to protect himself and Butts from the correct charge that they were really conspiring to help Bama win big against the Dawgs in that early ‘60s game. Kirby also concludes they both were trying to help a third party bet big on the game.

We will give the Bear well-deserved props for looking after some of his players after their careers ended, but we’re pretty sure Bryant never lost much sleep over running more than a few guys off their scholarships, either. As for the Bear’s legacy? Over 90,000 attended last year’s spring football game at the ever-expanding Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa. Yet Alabama’s library apparently contains fewer than 500,000 books; football coach Nick Saban's annual salary could purchase 200,000 books a year at $20 a volume.

We could go on and on with other examples of misplaced adulation. Yet Knight is the one that continues to be vilified.

Almost every chapter of Knight’s life is a fascinating tale, from growing up in Orrville, Ohio; to his days at Ohio State, playing a reserve role on the great Buckeye teams featuring Jerry Lucas and John Havlicek; to his early days coaching at West Point, and the absolute viciousness of his Army teams of that era; to the unforgettable tenure at Indiana; the 1984 Olympic gold medal hoops team; and his final (apparent) coaching stop at Texas Tech. We always thought Knight might have suffered a bit from too much success early in his career; he set the bar pretty high with his 1976 Indiana champs, the last undefeated team in college hoop annals, and some oldtime Hoosier fans, and Knight himself, still believe the previous year’s team might have been even better. Knight won two more titles at Indiana before that situation eventually unraveled, admittedly from his own doing. The ugly manner of his crucifixion at Indiana, as well as the chance to give son Pat a running start at taking over the Texas Tech program, probably had as much to do with the timing of his departure from the Red Raiders as anything else. For Knight’s final exit, he apparently wanted it to be on his terms, not anyone else’s.

In a coaching sense, Knight’s contacts practically spanned the history of the game. A best friend of his is one of the elder statesmen of the game, Pete Newell. He befriended the likes of Clair Bee and Joe Lapchick, and coached against Adolph Rupp, all born near the turn of the century, and ended his career coaching against the likes of Oklahoma’s Jeff Capel, who was born more than 70 years after those legends of the game. And Knight knew them all. It’s been quite a colorful ride, to be sure.

In conclusion, we have to agree with those who say that Knight got the most important things right, but had his problems with the little things. For all of his flaws, we grew to like and appreciate the General. We think it might be a real hoot to hang out with him. But let our last words about Knight be the same ones on the final page of the excellent Knight biography, Same Knight, Different Channel, written by one of his early Army players, Jack Isenhour, who basically concluded his book with this admonition to Knight.

“Hey Coach, on court or off, now and forever, no matter how much somebody deserves it, don’t be an a**hole!”



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