Bob Knight, Indiana’s combustible coaching giant, dies at age 83
FILE - Indiana coach Bob Knight gestures while instructing players, including Rick Calloway (20) and Daryl Thomas (24), during a win over UNLV in an NCAA men's college basketball tournament semifinal March 30, 1987, in New Orleans. Knight, the brilliant and combustible coach who won three NCAA titles at Indiana and for years was the scowling face of college basketball, has died. He was 83. Knight's family made the announcement on social media on Wednesday night, Nov. 1, 2023, saying he was surrounded by family members at his home in Bloomington, Ind. (AP Photo/Bob Jordan, File)
Bob Knight, the brilliant and combustible coach who won three NCAA titles at Indiana and for years was the scowling face of college basketball, has died. He was 83.
Knight's family made the announcement on social media on Wednesday night. He was hospitalized with an illness in April and had been in poor health for several years.
“It is with heavy hearts that we share that Coach Bob Knight passed away at his home in Bloomington surrounded by his family,” the statement said. “We are grateful for all the thoughts and prayers, and appreciate the continued respect for our privacy as Coach requested a private family gathering, which is being honored."
Knight was among the winningest and most controversial coaches in the sport, finishing his career with 902 victories in 42 seasons at Army, Indiana and Texas Tech while mentoring some of America's best coaches.. He also coached the U.S. Olympic team to a gold medal in 1984.
FILE - Texas Tech coach Bob Knight yells from the sideline during the first half of the team's NCAA college basketball game against Houston on Dec. 14, 2001, in Houston. Knight, the brilliant and combustible coach who won three NCAA titles at Indiana and for years was the scowling face of college basketball, has died. He was 83. Knight's family made the announcement on social media on Wednesday night, Nov. 1, 2023, saying he was surrounded by family members at his home in Bloomington, Ind. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan, File)
The Hall of Famer cared little what others thought of him, choosing Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” to celebrate his 880th win in 2007, then the record for a Division I men’s coach.
He was nicknamed “The General” and his trademark temper also cost him his job at Indiana in 2000. He once hit a police officer in Puerto Rico, threw a chair across the court and was accused of wrapping his hands around a player’s neck.
Critics fumed relentlessly about his conduct, but his defenders were legion. There was this side of Knight as well: He took pride in his players’ high graduation rates, and during a rule-breaking era he never was accused of a major NCAA violation.
At Indiana, he insisted his base salary not exceed that of other professors. At Texas Tech, he sometimes gave back his salary because he didn’t think he earned it.
Knight expected players to exceed expectations on the court and in the classroom. He abided by NCAA rules even when he disagreed with them, never backed down from a dust-up and promised to take his old-school principles to the grave.
While he was beloved by many of his players, his disposition and theatrics sometimes overshadowed his formidable record, tactical genius, innovation and dedication to and the game, leaving behind a singular resume..
“He changed basketball in this state, the way you compete, the way you win,” Steve Alford, the leader of Knight’s last national championship team in 1987, once said. “It started in Indiana, but he really changed college basketball. You look at the motion offense and people everywhere used it.”
Long esteemed for his strategy and often questioned for his methods, Knight reveled in constructing his best teams with overachievers. As a hard-to-please motivator, he clung to iron principles, and at 6-foot-5 was an intimidating presence for anyone who dared cross him.
When Knight retired in 2008, he left with four national championships (one as a player at Ohio State) and as the Division I men’s record-holder in wins. He coached everyone from Mike Krzyzewski to Isiah Thomas to Michael Jordan. His coaching tree included Krzyzewski, who broke Knight’s wins record; Alford; Lawrence Frank, Keith Smart, Randy Wittman and Mike Woodson, Indiana’s current coach, among others.
“We lost one of the greatest coaches in the history of basketball today,” Krzyzewski said. “Clearly, he was one of a kind. He recruited me, coached me, mentored me and had a profound impact on my career and in my life. This is a tremendous loss for our sport and our family is deeply saddened.”
Robert Montgomery Knight was born Oct. 25, 1940, in Massillon, Ohio. His mother, whom Knight credited as his strongest childhood influence, was a schoolteacher and his father worked for the railroad.
Hazel Knight seemed to understand her son’s temperament. Once, when Indiana was set to play Kentucky on television, two of Knight’s high school classmates ran into her at a grocery store and asked if she was excited about the game, according to his biography, “Knight: My Story.”
“I just hope he behaves,” his mother remarked.
He played basketball at Ohio State, where he was a reserve on three Final Four teams (1960-62). He was on the 1960 title team that featured Jerry Lucas and John Havlicek, two future Basketball Hall of Famers.
After a year as a high school assistant, Knight joined the staff of Tates Locke at West Point. In 1965, he took over as head coach at age 24. In six seasons, coaching the likes of Krzyzewski and Mike Silliman, his teams won 102 games and it was off to Indiana in 1971.
Knight quickly restored the Hoosiers’ basketball tradition with a revolutionary offense and an almost exclusively man-to-man defense. Most opponents struggled against his early Indiana teams, with the Hoosiers going 125-20 and winning four Big Ten Conference crowns in his first five seasons.
The run concluded with Indiana’s first national championship in 23 years. That 1975-76 team went 32-0, ending a two-year span when the Hoosiers were 63-1 and captured back-to-back Big Ten championships with 18-0 records. It remains the last time a major college men’s team finished with a perfect record. That team was voted the greatest in college basketball history by the U.S. Basketball Writers Association in 2013.
“One of the things that he said to our 1976 team, which I was fortunate enough to be a part of, was that you may never see another team like this again,” Indiana Board of Trustees chair Quinn Buckner said. “Well, I don’t know that we will ever see another coach like him again.”
Knight won his second title in 1981, beating Dean Smith’s North Carolina team after NCAA officials decided to play the game hours after President Ronald Reagan was shot and wounded earlier in the day. His third title at Indiana came in 1987 when Smart hit a baseline jumper in the closing seconds to beat Syracuse, one of the most famous shots in tournament history.
Knight spent five decades competing against and usually beating some of the game’s most revered names -- Adolph Rupp, Smith and John Wooden in the early years; Krzyzewski, Rick Pitino and Roy Williams in later years.
“He was a guy I idolized when I got here (in 1983) because Bobby Knight was the man," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “He treated me great, and he helped me. I wish people knew what a great heart that he had. He was a different dude, but if you needed some help, he would answer the bell.”
The Olympic team Knight coached in Los Angeles in 1984 was the last amateur U.S. team to win gold in men’s basketball. And, to no surprise, it came with controversy. Knight kept Alford on his team while cutting the likes of future Hall of Famers Charles Barkley and John Stockton.
“I am so blessed that he saw something in me as a basketball player,” Woodson said in a statement. “He influenced my life in ways I could never repay. As he did with all of his players, he always challenged me to get the most out of myself as a player and more importantly, as a person. His record as a basketball coach speaks for itself. He will be remembered as one of the greatest ever.”
But winning and winning big was only part of Knight’s legacy.
Other big-time coaches might follow the gentlemanly, buttoned-up approach, but not Knight. He dressed in plaid sport coats and red sweaters, routinely berated referees and openly challenged decisions by NCAA and Big Ten leaders. His list of transgressions ran long:
— Knight was convicted in absentia of assaulting a Puerto Rican police officer during the 1979 Pan American Games.
— He forfeited an exhibition game to the Soviet Union in 1987 when he pulled his team off the court after being called for a third technical foul.
— He told NBC’s Connie Chung in a 1988 interview, “I think that if rape is inevitable, relax and enjoy it.” Knight was answering a question about how he handled stress and later tried to explain he was talking about something beyond one’s control, not the act of rape.
— He was accused of head-butting one player and kicking his own son, Pat, during a timeout.
— At a 1980 news conference he fired a blank from a starter’s pistol at a reporter. During the 1992 NCAA Tournament, Knight playfully used a bull whip on star player Calbert Cheaney, who is Black.
His most famous outburst came Feb. 23, 1985, when Purdue’s Steve Reid was about to attempt a free throw. A furious Knight picked up a red plastic chair and heaved it across the court, where it landed behind the basket. Fans started throwing pennies on the court, one hitting the wife of Purdue coach Gene Keady. Reid missed three of his next six ensuing free throws.
“There are times I walk into a meeting or a friend calls to say, ‘I saw you on TV last night,’” Reid said on the 20th anniversary of the incident. “I know what they’re talking about.”
Knight apologized the next day, received a one-game suspension and was put on probation for two years by the Big Ten. Intent on preventing such a thing again, Indiana officials chained together the chairs for both benches.
The iconic black-and-white photo of the incident remains a classic for Hoosiers fans and even became fodder for a television commercial with one of his old coaching rivals, former Notre Dame coach Digger Phelps. Knight for years joked he was merely attempting to toss the chair to a woman looking for a seat.
Fifteen years after the chair toss, Knight’s temper led to his downfall in Bloomington. Video surfaced of Knight allegedly putting his hands around the neck of player Neil Reed during a 1997 practice, a charge that prompted Indiana President Myles Brand to put Knight on a zero-tolerance policy following a university investigation.
Then, on Sept. 10, 2000, after winning a school-record 662 games and 11 Big Ten titles in 29 seasons, his time at Indiana came to a shocking end. While passing Knight in an Assembly Hall corridor, Indiana student Kent Harvey said, “Hey, what’s up, Knight?” Knight considered it disrespectful, grabbed Harvey’s arm and lectured him about manners. A few days later, Brand fired Knight.
Students protested by tearing down a goal post at the football stadium, ripping a dolphin statue off a fountain and hanging Brand in effigy outside his home. Knight publicly condemned Brand’s leadership. Brand became NCAA president in 2002 and died in 2009 at 67 while still on the job. Neil Reed died in 2012 after collapsing in his California home. He was 36.
In 2003, Knight lashed out profanely after an ESPN reporter asked about his relationship with Alford, then the Iowa coach. The following year Knight received a reprimand after a verbal dust-up with David Smith, then the Texas Tech chancellor, as the two men stood at a grocery store salad bar.
He still won, too. In his first six years in West Texas, Knight led the Red Raiders to five 20-plus win seasons, a feat never previously achieved at the school. On Jan. 1, 2007, Knight won his 880th career game, breaking Dean Smith’s record with a win over New Mexico. Krzyzewski topped Knight’s mark in 2011, with his mentor broadcasting the game for ESPN.
For nearly two decades, Indiana officials attempted to make peace. Knight refused, even skipping his induction into the school’s athletic Hall of Fame in 2009.
“I hope someday he will be honored at Indiana. That needs to happen. Somebody needs to make that happen,” Scott May, a starter on Knight’s 1976 championship team and an outspoken critic of Knight’s firing, pleaded as Knight stayed away. “I think they should name Assembly Hall after him.”
The ice finally broke in February 2020, a few months after Knight bought a new house in Bloomington. His first public appearance at Assembly Hall since the firing came at halftime of the Hoosiers’ game against rival Purdue.
Billed as a reunion between the coach and many of his former players, the halftime celebration became a sustained roar for The General. May and Buckner, who also played on Knight’s first title team, helped the aging coach — no longer steady on his feet -- walk onto the court.
“When he moved back here, I knew he was in a good place,” said Wittman, who played on the 1981 national champs. “I knew he was happy here, living, and I told him you belong here.”
Knight didn’t speak to the crowd that day. It spoke to him.
“We love you, Bobby,” one fan shouted during a brief pause from the crowd, a scene that brought the steely Knight to tears.
Away from the court, Knight was an avid golfer who loved to read, especially history, and donated generously to school libraries at Indiana and Texas Tech. He would vacation in far-flung places to hunt and fish with family or friends such as baseball great Ted Williams or manager Tony La Russa.
Knight also made a cameo appearance in the 2003 movie “Anger Management” with Adam Sandler. In 2006, he starred in “Knight School,” an ESPN reality show in which 16 Texas Tech students vied for the chance to walk on to his team the following season.
A month after leaving Tech, Knight, who often lashed out at reporters, joined ESPN as a guest studio analyst during the 2008 NCAA Tournament. The next season, he expanded his role as a color commentator. The network parted with Knight in 2015.
He returned to public view in 2016, campaigning for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and kept a mostly low profile until returning to the campus where he became a household name and the state where his presence was so big, his death was announced in retail stores Wednesday night.
"I was standing there, and he was coach Knight,” Wittman said, referring to Knight’s pregame speech in February 2020. “It was like he hadn’t left that locker room. The words he gave to those players before they went out on the floor, it was fabulous.”
Survivors include wife Karen and sons Tim and Pat.