Another Old General Fades Away

Steve Murray
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Wednesday - February 13, 2008
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There comes a time when every general must dismount and call it a career. For some, it comes with music, bunting and speeches, while others just fade away or are taken out by the enemy.

After 902 wins and three national titles, the most outspoken field boss since Patton has stepped away from his protected outpost in Texas to the cheers and jeers of nearly everyone who has seen a college basketball game in the last four decades.

Bob Knight could have continued. He won 64 percent of his games at Texas Tech and enjoyed steadfast support from the athletic department and within the administration, even if the seats at the United Spirit Arena weren’t always full.

Even his detractors seemed harder to come by, as if they had finally decided the ornery old coach had won and that they had better things to protest.

But continuing his tenure was just not going to happen. He had contemplated it a year ago, but was talked out of it. This time it was for good.

In opposition to his fans, players, coaches and probably even himself, the man who never walked away from a fight while starting most of them, got old. After 67 years of bull-headed behavior, he has had enough. His son Pat, now the Red Raiders’ head coach, said he became concerned about his father’s health after seeing what happened to former Wake Forest head coach Skip Prosser, who last year died of a heart attack in his office at the age of 56. Upon entering his father’s office after their win over then No. 10 Texas A&M, Pat did not see the toughest man to ever roam the sidelines, but a tired and beaten man too exhausted to enjoy the victory.

No matter which side of the fence you sit on, the General’s 42-year reign is not one to be forgotten easily. In every year at every stop he has inspired, frightened, humored, disparaged, cussed out and embraced everyone who came near.

Even the writers - who Knight once famously said were “one or two steps above prostitution” - hung on his every word and returned for more abuse and laughs.

And while Knight will continue to be eulogized by his friends and admirers for his uncompromising standards of education and playing within the rules, others will choose to focus on the temper, the language and the hypocrisy of the man who demanded respect but far too often refused to give it.

Unfortunately, this is the legacy that will follow him into retirement.

Had Knight just exhibited an ounce of the control that he demanded from players and employees, he wouldn’t have been forced to leave the game from the basketball wastelands of college athletics. With all his talent and dedication, he should have left with all the trappings of royalty. Wrapped in Indiana red with a parade in his honor attended by the masses of the basketball crazy state, the coach who led Army to a 102-50 record and the Hoosiers with a .733 winning percentage should have, could have, left the game with the universal adoration reserved for the likes of John Wooden and Dean Smith. But he just wouldn’t allow it.

The man who taught selfless commitment on the court was a bully and a hypocrite who became inflamed at the shortcomings of others while refusing to see any fault within. In a world of constant change, he stubbornly held onto a style of coaching that had long ago vanished.

It is for this reason, among others, that Knight has not been a coach of consequence in a dozen years.

Oh, sure, he could always teach the game. He still can. Even though his neolithic style of coaching has ensured a complete lack of top talent at Tech or in the closing years of his tenure at Indiana, Knight still won.

Brilliantly talented and flawed, to supporters he is an example of all that is right with coaching. To his detractors he is evil incarnate.

Neither is a correct depiction of this complicated man whose history could have been written by Sophocles and not John Feinstein.

In time, Knight will be remembered for his accomplishments rather than his shortcomings. Memory has the tendency to recall the special and ignore the unpleasant, with Ty Cobb being the exception as the only coach or athlete whose reputation has actually grown worse with time.

The best thing that might be said about Knight’s retirement is that it didn’t come in a fit of uncontrolled rage, such as the one that took down former Ohio State coach Woody Hayes.

Not that he wasn’t given ample opportunities to do so.

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