END OF AN ERA – Bob Knight Fired After 29-Year Run
By Pete DiPrimio
September 18, 2000
What do you do when you are Indiana freshman guard A.J. Moye and you can’t believe what is happening? When you stand in a conference room on the IUPU- Indianapolis campus filled with cameras and microphones and journalists and somber men in somber suits bearing words that cannot be said, not in Indiana, not now, not when everything is falling into place.close window
What do you do when the man you left your Georgia home to play basketball for, the man who had become like a father to you after a high school friend died of a heart attack, the man you had promised to win another national championship for, the man who was a legend to you and so many others, is gone before he ever gets to coach you?
And so you can’t look, covering you head in a dark t-shirt bearing the words “I Want To Be A Millionaire,” turning your back on the proceedings, scowling as if facial expressions alone could prevent the inevitable, finally slumping to the carpet and rubbing eyes gone moist and a furrowed brow turned sweaty.
And then when it is done and the legendary coach is coach no more, when the Robert Montgomery Knight era is over after 29 years of unprecedented success and controversy, you say the words you never wanted to say, never believed you’d have to say, not like this, nothing like this.
“Me and Coach Knight had something special,” you say. “We had something more than basketball. I would have gone anywhere to play for him. The college could have been in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, on a 10-foot square court, out in the middle of nowhere and I’d have played for Coach Knight.
“He’s the last of the dying breed. After Coach Knight, that’s it. The Dean Smiths and the Bob Knights are not around anymore. They’re gone.”
And then a deep breath.
“That’s a heck of a way to go. It’s very, very sad.”
What do you do when you are President Myles Brand and are about to make the decision that will rock the Hoosier world? When you have to fire a man you have put yourself on the line for, a man you have shared dinner and conversation with, a man you have endured fierce criticism for, a man you have gone out of your way to be fair to, to reach, to understand, to modify.
What do you do when you have reached the end of your patience, indeed the end of five men’s patience, when intolerable behavior continues, when warnings are ignored, orders disobeyed and confrontations continued until you have to act, if you are to have any credibility, if you are to do your job, if you are to be true to yourself and your university, recognizing the backlash that is certain to follow.
And so you list the transgressions that have occurred in the 17 weeks since the zero tolerance policy was established, when perhaps the greatest coach in college basketball history, after giving his word he would comply, does not, doing so in a manner no one could ignore:
“No one incident may singularly rise to the level of removal of Coach Knight. But this persistent and troubling pattern of behavior has led me to only one conclusion.
“In an early morning telephone conversation with Bob Knight today (Sept. 10), I gave him the option of resigning as head basketball coach. He declined and I notified him he was being removed as coach, effective immediately. This is an option the university can exercise under paragraph nine of Coach Knight’s contract.”
You add that to be fair and avoid possible litigation, the university will honor that contract until it expires on June 30, 2002, costing the university about $310,000. In addition, the university will pay $1.3 million (actually $4.5 million with interest) over 10 years in deferred compensation.
“I have been in higher education for more than 30 years, as president of two major universities (IU and Oregon) and an administrator and faculty member at several other leading institutions (Pittsburgh, Arizona, and Ohio State),” you say. “This is the most difficult decision I have ever had to make.
“Bob Knight is a legendary coach at a school with a legendary reputation. He has been a national coaching example not only in wins and losses, in Big Ten and national championships, but also in fielding teams for three decades comprised of outstanding, fine young men. His program has been devoid of major NCAA violations and his graduation rates are among the highest in the country...
“My decision which came after much consultation and deep thought, is in the best long term interest of Indiana University.”
What do you do when you are Hoosier players Dane Fife and Kirk Haston, Jared Odle and Kyle Hornsby, Jared Jeffries and Andre Owens, Tom Geyer and Tom Coverdale, Jeff Newton and George Leach, Mike Roberts and Moye and your coach is taken away from you and all you can do is wonder and wait?
And so you are Jeffries, a multi-talented freshman forward struggling to understand.
“It’s tough for me. I came to Indiana to play for Coach Knight and for that reason only. To see one of the greatest coaches not leave on his terms, to leave under the terms of the university guidelines, is tough to see. You want to see all the great men go out on top. Coach Knight wasn’t given a fair chance.”
And so you are Haston, who a year and a half ago endured the terrible tragedy of your mother’s death in a violent storm, who was helped through the pain by Bob Knight and his wife Karen, feeling a strong sense of loss.
“It’s emotional for me because of the things I’ve been through since I’ve been here. I’ve grown close to Coach and his wife. They’ve been there for me. To have them taken out of your life is like a loss in the family. They were there everyday for the last three years and all of a sudden they’re not. It’s like losing a father figure.
“To the day I die, I’ll never support the decision to fire Coach.”
And so you are Odle, a team leader seeking resolution.
“Coach Knight was put under speculation for the things he did and the things he was accused of. I feel a lot of remorse for Coach Knight. I’m very upset about it. All the players are upset about it. It will take some time to see what happens and how things unfold.”
And so you are Hornsby, whose work ethic typifies the Hoosiers’ renewed commitment, remembering Knight for all the right reasons.
“I remember watching Coach Knight when I was little. I love so many of the things he does for the kids even though he does go about it in a different way than most coaches do nowadays. Some of those were things that I’ve been apart of, and I’m sure glad he said that to let me know how things were. He was never dishonest with me. He was honest at all times. It’s a shame this happened. I 100 percent disagree with this decision.
“Coach Knight has created Indiana basketball. There has always been an appreciation for basketball in Indiana and the one guy who is synonymous with Indiana basketball is Coach Knight.”
And so you are Fife trying to make sense of your coach’s belligerence that led to termination.
“I think Coach Knight felt betrayed by the media and other people. Nobody wants to be nice to somebody who wasn’t nice to them. I think that’s all Coach Knight’s problem was. You’ve got people constantly ripping on him, constantly putting him under scrutiny. He couldn’t let it go when somebody was constantly ripping him. Is he supposed to just take it? Not many people can take being ripped.”
And so you are Coverdale relaying how you learned your coach was fired.
“I was in training room getting some treatment. There were three or four of us in there. (Trainer) Tim Garl got a call and told us. Nobody talked for a little bit. I think we were all in shock.
“Coach Knight is the reason I came to this school. He is Indiana basketball. “I remember growing up watching Indiana games. I always wanted to play for him. To be here and play for him only one year is really disappointing. I feel a dream has been taken away.
“It’s a shock that he’s not going to be around.”
What do you do when you are Athletic Director Clarence Doninger and have known Bob Knight for decades, when a once friendly relationship turns nasty, when you take the high road while addressing the end of a remarkable era?
“The feeling I have is sadness,” you say. “Somebody asked me if this was a gleeful time for me. Absolutely not. Coach Knight and I have had a long relationship and a good relationship. I fully expected that would be reinstated as went forward this year. It takes some time and we were giving him some space. In recent months we’d been working through intermediaries. I’d hoped we’d get back together again. But people who have dealt with Coach sometimes go through periods like this.
“The positives have been great. We will dwell and I hope history will dwell on those positives -- the championships, the quality players, the graduation rate.”
And what about the frustration of trying to establish an appropriate chain of command against resistance at every turn?
“This has been a problem over a period of time, over the past year,” you say. “Myles has indicated the appropriate chain of command had to be reinstated. I wanted to get it done. It wasn’t getting gone. Attempts to have a dialogue with the coach were unsuccessful.”
What do you do when you are charged, along with IU Vice President Terry Clapacs, to find an interim coach for this season and then initiate a process to find a permanent coach?
How do you respond to the players’ adamant wishes that assistant coaches Mike Davis and John Treloar be retained, with Davis as the top choice to replace Knight, and hear this from A.J. Moye:
“We’re trying to stay together, but everyone is fielding calls from different schools. It doesn’t matter to me who coaches. If Coach Davis and Coach Treloar are not here, I’m not here. A lot of people feel that way. It would be a mass exodus.”
Or this from Fife:
“We don’t want to be here if we get a whole new coaching staff. If they (Davis and Treloar) don’t stay, people are leaving. It’s guaranteed.”
Or this from Haston:
“We want Coach Davis and Coach Treloar to be the leaders of this team. We want that because that’s who Coach (Knight) has there and they have the same philosophy and system. That’s the best situation for us to be in to have a successful team.”
Or this from Odle:
“When we spoke with Myles Brand and Clarence Doninger, we told them we don’t want to change the whole program. We’ve got things set up and we don’t want to switch all of a sudden.”
Or this from Jeffries:
“I’ve come this far and worked this hard. I do want to play basketball this year. But if Coach Davis and Coach Treloar aren’t back next year, I don’t know what I’m going to do as far as my basketball career at IU.
“I’ve talked to Coach Davis about this, about how I wanted him to push for this job. He’s the coach I wanted to play. He’s the one who mainly recruited me.”
And so you promise to listen while seeking what is in the program’s best interest, not wanting a mass exodus that could ruin the program for years, not willing to buckle to player pressure.
“We’ll put everything together,” you say. “We’ll look at the whole picture and go forward.
“We know this is a jolt to the team. We want to keep it intact. I think they’re going to stay. They want to see what happens. They know they have the potential to be a very good team.”
And then, two days after Knight is fired, you name Davis as coach.
“He’s a very bright person,” you say. “He and John Treloar get along very well and there’s a good chemistry with the players.
“These are people the team feels very comfortable with. I feel comfortable with them. We feel they can lead us as we go through this very difficult transition period.”
What do you do when you are Mike Davis and the opportunity of a lifetime arrives? How do you handle the fierce loyalty from the players, most of whom you recruited, who insist that without you and John Treloar, there will be no team because there will be no players?
Sleepless nights follow before university officials choose you. Before accepting, you discuss it with Bob Knight, who took a chance on you four years ago when you were a little known assistant from Alabama.
“We talked and he supported me staying here,” you say. “I wanted to be a head coach. That’s been my dream, but to have it happen like this is sad.
“We all know that Coach Knight is the reason I’m here. But Indiana basketball is bigger than anyone. Karen Knight, Coach Knight’s wife, is a great lady. I’m sorry because I know what the Knight family is going through now.”
What do you do when you are Kent Harvey, when angry Knight fans blame you for the firing despite the list of transgressions Brand announced that made termination inevitable even if you and the coach had never met?
How, if you are Harvey, an IU freshman student whose confrontation with Knight precipitated the dramatic announcement, do you deal with threatening emails and phone calls, with being burned in effigy and seeing your name on “Wanted: Dead or Alive” posters? Do you return to a school where many consider you a pariah and display signs that suggest, among other things, that you transfer to Purdue?
And so you say you never meant any disrespect, but that you were shocked by Knight’s response, by the way he grabbed you and the way he looked at you. That what Knight did was wrong and all you wanted was an apology.
You listen as your stepfather, longtime Knight critic Mark Shaw, talks about negotiating a Knight apology with a Knight friend, team doctor Larry Rink, when word comes out that the coach was fired and the apology becomes moot.
You wonder if assurances from Indiana officials that everything will be done to protect you and your brothers and friends who witnessed the event will be enough?
“We are committed to ensuring that every IU student has the right to a safe, productive and enlightening educational experience at Indiana University,” Brand says. “This young man is no exception and I hope that we will all respect his privacy and understand that he has been caught up in events well beyond his responsibility.”
And so you leave the state, staying away from a campus that erupts in rage and protest and, as one student puts it, “a night on the town.” Thousands of students march through campus hours after the announcement, carrying signs that read, “Don’t Trash a Legend” and “Give Us Back Our General.” They hang and burn an effigy of Brand near the president’s house, set several small fires near Assembly Hall and tear down a goalpost at Memorial Stadium. Arrests are made and the crowd doesn’t disperse until Knight himself, having just finished an emotional meeting with the team, emerges from Assembly Hall and tells everyone to go home.
And, of course, they do.
What do you do when you are a former player who lived through the Bob Knight experience, who became a better man for it, and learned that his era is over?
And so now you are Isaiah Thomas, the new coach of the Indiana Pacers, and you ask the Knight to mentor you and provide insight as a consultant. You visit his house and talk up his accomplishments to the media.
And so you are Keith Smart, the new assistant coach for the Cleveland Cavaliers, and you say you were certain Knight would be the IU coach until he was ready to retire.
“I can’t believe it,” you say.
And so you are Dan Dakich, the Bowling Green head coach, and you express sadness over the dismissal and appreciation for the coach’s insight and help.
“His positive influence has and will continue to be a tremendous asset in my life,” you say.
And so you are former player Larry Richardson and say that you cried and you are former player Pat Graham and you say that you were shocked as word spreads and reality hits that after nearly a third of a century, Knight no longer rules IU basketball.
“It seems unreal,” you say. “He was hired the year I was born. I hate to see this happen.”
What do you do when you are on the board of trustees and believe the time has come to part with a coach whose numerous accomplishments and contributions can no longer offset the never ending series of controversies and confrontations that hurt the university’s image and reputation, when embarrassing moments escalate to a critical mass responsible leaders cannot ignore?
And so you are Trustee Stephen Backer and you say that “President Brand is correct in that (the firing) was inevitable. Coach Knight was almost taunting us to see what our reaction would be. Whether it was today or a week from now or two months from now, based upon the behavior that was being exhibited over past three to four months, something had to be done.
“If he had lived by the guidelines, we would all have been living happily ever after.”
And so you are Trustees Vice President Frederick Eichhorn and your say you had enough when Knight went fishing rather than obey the President’s requests to stay in Bloomington.
“When you’re insubordinate to the president of the university, that’s a major step,” you say.
And then you are Trustee Ray Richardson and you say that “All the zero tolerance code required was for Bob Knight to be a decent human being and he couldn’t hold up to that standard.
“Bob Knight fired himself.”
And finally, what do you do when you are 59-year-old Robert Montgomery Knight, when in so many ways you represent the best of college coaching and athletics? When you win the right way, without scandal, without cheating. When you produce three national championships, 11 Big Ten crowns and 763 victories (fifth all-time), 661 at Indiana. When you help mold young men, not only into tremendous players, but into outstanding citizens.
What do you do when you contribute in so many ways to the university and its supporters, when you go out of your way, by God, because it’s the only way you know how, refusing to compromise your principles, refusing to be something you’re not, telling people to shove it when you deem appropriate, battling the windmills and rabbits and all the perils of human nature, raging at the media and the critics and officials who don’t understand, indeed, who you won’t let understand because it’s none of their (bleeping) business, and then you are betrayed?
What do you do when you don’t get the support and loyalty you need? When people leave and administrators change and those you thought as friends, or at least, as backers, back you no longer, when they twist words and actions, when they turn on you even though you KNOW you have done nothing wrong, when while you have made mistakes (who hasn’t?) you have never truly hurt anyone or violated your own standards of honor and honesty? When you have given so much of yourself in so many ways despite the burden of having everything you do distorted into international incidents that have little in common with the facts.
And what the hell does zero tolerance mean?
And so on a dark night in Bloomington, you return early from the Canada fishing trip to meet with the team you will never coach, the team you believe can achieve so much, the team that might have taken you to the mountaintop one last time.
In a tear-filled locker room in Assembly Hall you tell the players how much they mean to you, how much you appreciate what they have done and if they ever need anything, no matter how small, no matter the time or place, to let you know and you will be there. You tell your assistant coaches that you will take care of them, paying their salaries out of your own pocket if they cannot find jobs.
And then, because going quietly into the night is not your style, you address the transgressions the president says you committed, first in a nationally televised interview, then in several at-home interviews and finally in an on-campus talk before thousands of students.
Boosted by family and friends (including visits by former Notre Dame Coach Digger Phelps and ex Hoosier Isaiah Thomas, now the Indiana Pacers head coach) you admit no fault, accept no responsibility other than over-staying a situation that is no longer right for you. You insist university officials lied and distorted facts, referring to Brand and university spokesman Christopher Simpson as Charley McCarthy and Edgar Burgen (McCarthy was the puppet of Burgen, a famous ventriloquist from the 1950’s and ‘60’s) because Brand says whatever Simpson writes. You attack and blame and justify, giving as good as you got, better actually, because that is your style, because it helped make you what you are, arguably the greatest basketball coach who ever lived, certainly the most controversial.
You deny refusing to follow the appropriate chain of command (insisting your contract, which you wrote, gives you total control of basketball and thus no chain to follow) or yelling and swearing at Frapwell or not fulfilling contractual obligations to appear at university functions. You insist you were only giving a lesson in good manners to Kent Harvey.
And then you ask students not to blame Harvey and to provide full support to the basketball team. You remind them of how important they’ve been to the program’s success over the years and to take full advantage of all the university has to offer.
And finally, you vow to coach again, to succeed again, to teach and demand and challenge again, forever against the tide, never changing, always confronting, fighting the unbeatable foe and righting the unrightable wrong because this old soldier will one day die, but he will never, ever, fade away.