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Doing it his way

Iconic Knight fulfills wish of going out on own terms

Posted: Monday February 4, 2008 11:09PM; Updated: Tuesday February 5, 2008 7:21AM
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Indiana's Todd Leary gets an earful from his head coach.
Indiana's Todd Leary gets an earful from his head coach.
John W. McDonough/SI
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By William F. Reed, Special to SI.com

Bob Knight always assured me that he wouldn't go out like Woody Hayes, the iconic Ohio State football coach who imploded on national TV during the 1978 Gator Bowl. Late in the game, Clemson linebacker Charlie Baumann intercepted a Buckeye pass and was tackled on the Ohio State sideline. Hayes punched Baumann in the neck when he got up, and the officials kicked Hayes out of the game. A few days later he was fired by the university where he had won three national championships.

Knight got to know Hayes during his undergraduate days at Ohio State from 1958-62, and, the truth be told, he derived a lot more of his coaching personality and style from Hayes than he did from his basketball coach, Fred Taylor. Even then, Knight knew that coaching would be his destiny, so he often picked Hayes' brains and attended his practices.

He liked the way Hayes emphasized academics, made friends with faculty members, and avidly studied military history. He also noted that like Ted Williams, his baseball idol, Hayes had little use for the media and sometimes allowed his passion for winning to boil over into confrontations with officials, fellow coaches, and fans.

I once asked Knight -- it might have been after the infamous chair-tossing incident in the early 1980s -- if he ever worried that he would pull a Woody.

"No," he said. "It'll never happen. I'm always in a lot more control than I might look. I know what I'm doing. I'm going to go out under my own terms."

And so he did. On Monday night, it was announced that Knight had resigned his job at Texas Tech, effective immediately, and would be replaced by Pat Knight, his son, former player at IU, and university-sanctioned coach-in-waiting.

Why now? Why step aside only days after he had become the first coach to reach 900 career victories? Could it be that the man who began his head coaching career when LBJ was in the White House finally has become burned out? Or is it something more complicated, something that Knight may -- or may not -- share with the media?

I haven't talked with him since late last year, although I did get a Christmas card from Knight and his wife, Karen. I had no reason to think he had become tired or unhappy. I laughed along with basketball fans everywhere at what he said and did when he brought one of his grandchildren to a post-game press conference recently.

He told me he loved living in Lubbock, where he pretty much had the run of the town -- just as he did in Bloomington, Ind., for 29 years -- and could go hunting or fishing whenever he wanted. He said he liked being out of the basketball mainstream, and I suppose, in some ways, he did.

Yet I also think he missed coaching in an area of the country where basketball is more important than it is in West Texas. Think about it. He grew up in the heart of Big Ten country, and his home in Orrville, Ohio, was close enough to Kentucky that he could listen to the the broadcasts of Adolph Rupp's great teams on 50,000-watt WHAS radio in Louisville.

During his career at Ohio State, the Buckeyes were the dominant program in college basketball. Led by center Jerry Lucas and forward John Havlicek, the Buckeyes won the 1960 NCAA title, then were upset by in-state rival Cincinnati in two straight championship games.

Although Knight never rose higher than sixth-man status during his playing career, he loved being a part of the action. From his seat on the bench, he studied the great coaches and teams of the time. He wanted to know what made Jerry West tick, or why California coach Pete Newell played the offense he did.

At West Point, where he succeeded Tates Locke in 1965, Knight spent a lot of time attending games in Madison Square Garden, where he made it a point to befriend legendary older coaches such as Clair Bee, Joe Lapchick, Pete Carlesimo, and Doggie Julian. The old-timers were pleased to be remembered, and they shared their stories and philosophies with the eager kid.

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