Skip to main content
Original Issue


All things are relative, even in the Big Ten, and Indiana's Bobby Knight is now so calm he has been thrown out only once this season

On that seemingly dark day in 1971 when Bobby Knight, recently of West Point, took command of Indiana's basketball forces, a great many people—none of them Bobby Knight—were apprehensive. Knight—ugh—played defense. The word was spat forth as though it consisted of four letters. In Indiana everyone knew how the game should be played: run and shoot, run and shoot. For many of the Hoosiers, Knight's coming was as welcome as broiled boar at a rabbinical clambake. They wanted General Patton and what they got was a guy who specialized in tank traps. It helped none when the newly arrived Knight took one look at a sign that read HURRYING HOOSIERS and said, grinning, "The guy that wrote that must be the world's greatest optimist."

And so several weeks ago a newcomer to Bloomington was stunned when during a game against Northwestern a leather-lunged fan leaped to his feet and screamed, "Dee-fensc. For God's sake, Bobby, tell them to play dee-fense." The game was just two minutes old. Soon, the same appeal for Knight's tank traps was coming from all points of Indiana's new $13.9 million basketball palace. "Oh, that's nothing," said Tom Miller, the Indiana sports information director. "When we went into a late-game stall to protect a lead against Minnesota, the fans responded with a standing ovation. A few years ago they'd have been screaming for 100 points."

A few years ago there was always the possibility that Indiana might score 100 points—and lose. In fact, in 1963 Indiana scored 101 against Illinois and lost by three. And the next year the team scored 103 against Michigan State and lost by four. All those biffs don't mean a thing if in the end you get bammed.

"It's funny, but now when I see people taking shots just to get the ball in the air I think, wow, that's awful," says Dr. Jim Howard, an Indiana alumnus and an admitted basketball freak. "But before, well, it was the kind of basketball we grew up with. We weren't happy unless the ball was in the air. Now we've come to really appreciate defense."

Defense has been Knight's game ever since he was a substitute on Fred Taylor's celebrated Ohio State teams of the early '60s. Slow afoot and with people like John Havlicek, Larry Siegfried and Jerry Lucas as teammates, Knight, in spite of a keen shooting eye, did not play much, but he soaked up everything Taylor taught.

"It's strange," says Havlicek. "Bobby was the worst defensive player on the team, yet his teams now are so defense-oriented. But then Bobby was quite a split personality. I can imagine why he is such a great recruiter. You have to love him after the first meeting. But until they adjust, the kids he recruits must wonder how they got there when he gets them on a basketball court. He's positively savage."

"I think a better word would be intense," says John Ritter, the Indiana senior who has led the nation in free throws and Knight's Kiddie Korps into Big Ten battle—where the Hoosiers, still tied for first place last week despite losses to Ohio State and Purdue, have surprised everybody. "He works us hard and he demands that we get 100% from the talent we have. He has me doing things I used to believe were impossible. He makes us better basketball players, but first of all, better men. Is that bad? Out in life, well, it's tough. What he teaches applies a lot further than just to basketball."

When he left Ohio State, Knight was thinking of a career in law but gave himself a year to decide. He took a job as assistant coach at Cuyahoga Falls (Ohio) High School. The following year he wound up serving at West Point as an assistant to Tates Locke, another strong advocate of defense. And there his temper, apparently his single flaw, bloomed.

"Bobby was a better player than many people think he was," says Locke, now the head coach at Clemson. "But I believe a lot of his success as a coach has come from not being as good a player as he wanted to be. I think he has calmed down some now. Then he was fiery. It was my first head coaching job and Bobby's first in college, and the two of us on the bench must have looked like a Chinese fire drill. But he never allowed a game to get out of hand."

Well, almost never. One year against Washington State Locke and Knight found themselves and the officials to be of different minds. By halftime each coach had drawn two technicals. When they went to the locker room, Locke discovered Knight was missing. Shortly, head on his chest, Knight walked in. "Come on, Bobby," said Locke. ''We have to work out how we're going to handle the second-half tip."

"Don't worry about it," Knight said sadly. "We're going to start with them shooting a foul. I just got another technical."

When Locke left Army to coach at Miami of Ohio, Knight was given the head job, and the Cadets quickly discovered that what they were learning on the court was not much different from what they were learning in the classrooms. Knight decided that a lack of height among his troops did not have to be all that much of a disadvantage (because of West Point regulations his tallest player was 6'6"). Like any good commander, he would use discipline. After all, hadn't the much-admired Colonel Red Blaik? Knight had read Colonel Blaik's You Have to Pay the Price when he first went to West Point. He reread it when he became head coach and he would read it a third time when he went to Indiana. He had also drawn heavily from Vince Lombardi and General George S. Patton, and from the good basketball minds: the late Joe Lap-chick, Clair Bee, Pete Newell and, of course, Fred Taylor.

"I never met Colonel Blaik at West Point," says Knight, "but I tried to study everything that had made him a winner in that environment. I talked to his former players; I went over his every move. And then I patterned myself after him. Colonel Blaik was an extremely intelligent individual and he was a great organizer. The ability to prepare to win is just as important as the will to win.

"You have to look at it this way. It is a fallacy to say that Army's players are naturally disciplined. They are up at 10 minutes before six because they have to be. They are required to go to class. They march to lunch; they march to dinner. Chin in. Chest out. Gut in. All day. Well, when four o'clock comes and it's time to practice basketball, the most natural thing for them to do is to expect to relax and have fun."

Knight laughs, but the humor never reaches the hazel eyes once described, probably by a player who made a mistake, as a pair of laser beams. His is a no-nonsense face. The nose is misshapen by various batterings and there is a long scar in his left eyebrow and a smaller one on his left cheek. There are other such battle mementos gathered across 32 years. When their intense owner speaks of discipline it is like hearing the Pope talk of God.

Knight places a hand at chest level. "Say that this is civilian discipline," he says. The hand moves up to his chin. "This is military discipline." Now the hand is lifted above his head. "And this is my discipline."

And so, disciplined, Army's Cadets did something they had never done before: they won a lot of basketball games. In six years under Knight they won 102 and lost but 50; beat Navy all six years; had the most victories for an Army team (22) in a season; played in four National Invitational tournaments; had a team defense that three times led the nation, was second once and third another time. And once Army finished 16th in the final national team standings, the only time Army has been in the top 20.

But as Army rolled to new heights, so did Knight's reputation as the enfant terrible. He drew so many technical fouls they began to call him Bobby T. Once, it is said, he splintered a chair at the scorers' table.

"When I started it was always a battle between me and the officials," says Knight. "But you can't coach like that. It just took me a while to learn. I guess it was because our kids were so small and worked so hard that when some official blew one—and they are human—I went nuts. It's hard to sit still when you see your 6'1" kid beat some 6'9" guy and then get called for something he didn't do."

If Knight sometimes has reacted violently from the bench, he has never permitted his players the same liberties on the floor. They are schooled in tough but clean basketball. He has a passion for following the letter of the law. During his first year at Indiana he was offered an All-America high school center from the South if he would see that the player's girl was given a scholarship, too. Knight said no. "Actually, it would have been legal," he says. "But sometimes things legal aren't ethical." Then there was the prep star who visited Indiana, listened to the legal list of athlete's goodies and asked, "Now what else?" What else was a ticket home.

Knight recruits with total honesty. He never makes a promise he cannot keep. Besides the normal athletic grant, he offers just two things: 1) the pledge that no one will work any harder than he does to see that the player gets an education in the field of his choice, and 2) that no one will work harder to develop the player's abilities to succeed in life. He says: "If a kid comes to Indiana and all we teach him is basketball, then we've really fouled up."

Bruce Parkinson is a freshman at Purdue. Knight talked to him, but when he learned that the highly sought guard had decided on Purdue he backed off quietly. "There was never any pressure," Parkinson says. "And he never promised anything he couldn't deliver. He never said I'd play. He said he'd give me a scholarship and an opportunity, nothing more. That's probably the main thing I remember: the fact that he said you'd have to work for everything you got."

And so that day in 1971 when Knight arrived in Bloomington with his pretty wife Nancy and their two young sons, Timothy and Patrick, he brought with him a reputation for winning, for outstanding defensive teams and for a hair-trigger temper. At a place that was just the least squeamish about his hiring, he started with a bang—one that went straight through the alumni. At the first practice a large allotment of grads gathered as they always had in years past, and Knight ordered them out. They went away howling. Knight ordered all practices closed because he wants nothing to distract his players. "If you are at a practice, you're supposed to be totally quiet," says Bob Hammel, sports editor of the Bloomington Herald-Telephone. "He has upbraided people for talking. That's his classroom and you don't talk in the classroom; you listen."

From the beginning Knight showed that the chain of command of basketball at Indiana would be one general and a lot of privates. "He's extremely military-minded," says Dr. Donald Boop, a dentist who was Knight's next-door neighbor and something of a surrogate father in Orrville, Ohio. "He never fought in a war, but he could sit there and talk battles with the generals for hours."

Among Knight's first orders was one for preseason conditioning drills. His new troops thought he was kidding. "We found out in a hurry," says Steve Downing, the Hoosiers' 6'8" senior center. "Our freshmen couldn't believe it. Neither could I. When we began last year I almost went into shock."

"We run a lot of 25-, 50-, and 75-yard dashes," says Ritter. "A whole lot of them. Then we finish by running to the top of the seats."

"Yeah, 109 steps," says Downing. "I count every one on the way up. After that, we figured practice would be easier. Ha! I'm always mad at the coach. 'Course I never tell him."

When practice began officially, Knight ended the conditioning drills. In their place was the football fumble drill. Two players line up on each side of the foul line and Knight rolls a ball between them. When it reaches a certain spot, the players dive for it.

"You learn in a hurry that the ball is golden," says Steve Green, a 6'7" sophomore who was on his way to either Kentucky or Vanderbilt—until he met Knight and became the first to sign with the new coach. "He sat down with me and told me what he was going to do and I believed him. And up to now he's done it. But, oh, that first day. It was a new experience. But I agree with his methods. Everybody agrees—when the season is over. During it we grumble."

Green adds, "When I saw that fumble drill just coming out of high school, I thought, 'Oh, God.' Now in a game you just dive for a ball without thinking. Later you think, gee, that hurt. After games we check each other for blood. We're kind of proud of how tough we are. We give an award. I won one once. 'Course I had some scabs left over from practice and I kind of picked them when no one was looking."

Another drill finds three men under a basket. A manager tosses a ball against the backboard and the trio goes up for the rebound. The one who grabs the ball has to go back up for a shot.

"It's an old Ohio State drill," Knight explains. "A lot of hacking and fouling. Havlicek put seven stitches in my eyebrow during one of those things. They sewed me up on the training table and I finished the practice. You didn't get a lot of sympathy there either. Pain is a state of mind." A grin breaks out. "My wife is always telling me she's tired of hearing that." (When Bobby takes sick, Nancy consoles him with, "Pain is just a state of mind. Get up." It leaves him less than happy.)

The first year the optimists hoped for a 12-12 season. Knight gave them 17-8, including nine of 10 victories in Indiana's last Big Ten games, and a third-place finish in the conference. Whatever howls there had been from the alumni had long since dissipated. And Knight had drawn hardly a technical and had yet to smash his first chair. There were a few grumbles, but mostly from Bill Musselman, the Minnesota coach, who was upset because Knight beat him and then refused to shake his hand. "I was thirsty," says Knight, "so I left the game 10 seconds early." Knight has always maintained close ties with Fred Taylor, and it is doubtful that he will ever forgive Musselman or Minnesota for what the Gophers did to Ohio State's Luke Witte last season. But he says there is no feud and that he wants no part of one. What he does want is another victory over the Gophers when the two teams meet this Saturday.

At season's end last spring, Knight went recruiting and returned with an outstanding group of youngsters, including Quinn Buckner, the football-basketball All-America from Phoenix, Ill. This past fall the 6'2", 198-pound Buckner was Indiana's starting safety. The season ended on Saturday; on Monday Buckner was hard at work for Knight.

"That's the beautiful thing here," says Green. "Quinn was a high school All-America, a real star, but he is treated no differently than a guy who was just a state all-star, like me. Nobody is better than anyone else."

"Yeah, right," says Downing. "Coach screams at everybody."

Because Buckner was a day late reporting for practice, Knight put him on the second team. He did not stay there long—four days to be exact. He was tearing up the starters and Knight decided Buckner, or maybe the rest of them, had been punished enough. The freshman moved up to the first team. Indiana opened its season with five seniors, five sophomores and seven freshmen, and won 13 of its first 15 games before the loss—by a point—to Ohio State. Knight took the first two losses—to South Carolina and Texas at El Paso—with the grace of a man who has just learned that his bride has been going out with the French army. His expressions of displeasure were volcanic. In the UTEP game, he drew three technicals in almost as many seconds and automatically was ejected. He left peaceably enough—and under escort of a Pinkerton guard.

"What are you going to do?" Knight asked his assistant coach, Dave Bliss, on his way out.

"I don't know," said Bliss. "But they are going to shoot about 100 technical foul shots and that will give me 20 minutes to think of something."

What Bliss did not do was draw a technical. "Can you believe what would happen to me?" he asks. "I almost got one once. I threw a towel on the floor and the official came over and warned if I did it again I'd get a T. Bobby looked up sweetly and said, 'He was just killing bugs. You can't believe how many are walking in front of our bench.' Nowadays I get rid of all rolled-up programs and towels before the game starts."

"That's a good idea," says Knight. "The biggest mistake is having something near that you can throw."

Both losses were away from home. By the time the team returned, the stories of Knight's rages had taken on a new dimension. After the South Carolina affair, it was said that he had kicked out a window at the Indianapolis airport. Apparently no one checked. What he had done, with his hands full of luggage, was to put out his foot to stop a swinging glass door and it had shattered. "It was already cracked," says Bliss. "Most of the players avoided it but I guess Bobby didn't notice." During the UTEP game, it was said, he had thrown a chair into the crowd. What he had done was slap a hand down hard against a light plastic chair and it had skidded backward. And he immediately turned and apologized to the crowd. He was, it was said, taken from the court, this time by the police.

Most of the stories were printed as true in one of Bloomington's two afternoon papers, but other than straightening out the reporter who wrote them, Knight did nothing. "I guess I came to Indiana without the greatest reputation for sitting quietly," he says. "I doubt if I'll live it down. Whatever I do is magnified. I could become the mildest coach in the world and nobody would believe it." He pauses. "Not even me."