Knight Fall: Does Bobby Knight Matter Anymore?

    
December 3rd, 2006
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After the horn blew on November 13th, a 20-year old Texas Tech basketball player sulked across the floor and towards his seat on the bench. But as his coach launched into a verbal assault, the sophomore forward wasn’t making ideal eye contact. And, in return, Bobby Knight turned his player’s face upright with one swift pop on the chin.

I’m guessing you’ve heard this one before…

But this story isn’t about whether or not it’s acceptable for a coach to put his hand on the face of his player. This isn’t a story about how many times the incident has been viewed on YouTube.com. And this isn’t even about Michael Prince (otherwise known as the kid who had his chin – in the words of Texas Tech Athletic Director Gerald Myers – “quickly lifted up” by Knight).

During the days following the latest “Did you see what Knight did?” moment, analyst after analyst managed to defend the 66-year old head coach. Every single media member seemed not only to agree on how much the whole situation was blown out of proportion, but also that Knight deserved a pass because of how impressive his resume is.

Which brings us back to the point at hand. You see, the question that’s always been asked about Bobby Knight is “Would you send your kid to play for him?” But, again, that’s not what this story is about. That’s because this story is about answering a question we’ve been ignoring for far too long…

Is Bobby Knight even relevant anymore?

When Knight became the head coach at Army in 1965, he was – at the tender age of 24 – just four years older than Prince is now, which made him the youngest man ever to coach the varsity at a major college. He’s a four-time National Coach of the Year. He’s won three National Championships. And his 1976 team was perfect.

Regardless of what you thought of Knight’s most recent motivational maneuver (or what you thought of what was made of it), you can’t deny his place in history. Literally. Knight is on the verge of surpassing the win total of every coach in college basketball history. He’ll bump Dean Smith down to second and Adolph Rupp to third. Smith and Rupp both played for Phog Allen. Allen’s coach was the inventor of the game himself, Dr. James Naismith. How’s that for historical perspective?

Just thinking about Knight’s numbers could make you nauseous. He is a stone’s throw away from surpassing the 900 win milestone. He could legitimately end his career with over a thousand wins.

But before he permanently trades in his signature sweater for a hunting cap, let’s get back to that original question. Does the greatest coach of my lifetime no longer matter nationally?

Knight has always been a scowling contradiction. He’s thrown one chair, but he’s thrown hundreds of educationally based fundraisers. For every Neil Reed story laced with disgrace, there’s a Landon Turner story bursting with munificence.

That coaching career of his has been similarly paradoxical.

It’s been well over a decade since one of his teams achieved anything close to greatness. You have to go back 13 years to find a Knight-coached team that climbed to No. 1 in the polls. And wasn’t he supposed to turn Texas Tech into a juggernaut? The General’s Red Raiders haven’t finished better than third in the Big 12. Who would’ve thought that one of the most legendary figures in the history of the coaching profession would be jealous of the success at Gonzaga? Or, for that matter, Wichita State?

His players haven’t fared any better.

While Knight is endlessly praised for his unmatched ability to teach, his lessons may no longer be getting through. What worked for Mike Kryzewski, Scott May, Kent Benson, Quinn Buckner, and Steve Alford, seems now only to work for reality television executives.

Isiah Thomas is the last of Knight’s players to make an NBA All-Star team and he retired from the league in 1994. In fact, it’s been so long since Thomas played professionally that Zeke’s already owned the CBA, coached two teams, and bypassed George Steinbrenner as the most controversial sports executive in New York. And, by the way, Isiah only played two seasons under Knight.

In the quarter century since Thomas left Knight’s tutelage, the best pro players he coached were Calbert Cheaney and Alan Henderson. By comparison, Jim Calhoun’s UConn team from a season ago sent five players to the NBA. Two of them – Rudy Gay and Marcus Williams – will likely make a bigger impact by next season than Cheaney or Henderson ever did.

It would be foolish to point solely to the black hole of players who have realized individual success at the professional level when judging a coach’s recent relevance. But when combined with his team’s relative unimportance of late on the national scene, it is certainly worth noting.

Bob Knight once said, “You don’t play against opponents, you play against the game of basketball.”

How ironic then, that on the eve of his historic achievement, the game might just be winning.