Long disdainful of the press, Bob Knight joins ESPN
Posted: Thursday February 28, 2008 9:45PM; Updated: Monday March 3, 2008 3:51PM
Bob Knight joined the media on Thursday, a career change that reminds one of the Groucho Marx line about not wanting to belong to any club that would have him as a member.
Knight joined the same group of vultures he once described as "one or two steps above prostitution." He has become one of the "damn people from television" he famously critiqued.
In a master stroke of publicity on the eve of the silly season in college basketball, ESPN announced it had hired the winningest coach in Division I men's college basketball as a studio analyst. Knight will debut March 12 from the network's Bristol studios and work through April 7, including from an on-site set in San Antonio during the Final Four. He will also appear on select shows and platforms, including SportsCenter, ESPN Radio and ESPNEWS.
"He's always been the type of person that if you were flipping through the channels and you saw him in a long-form interview or a press conference or during one of his games, you stopped and watched it," ESPN executive vice president of production Norby Williamson told SI.com Thursday night. "There are very few people like that. It was a fairly easy decision. Our goal is to inform and entertain sports fans, and when you look at somebody of the stature of Bob Knight, he is one of the most compelling sports figures of the last half century."
Knight declined to hold a conference call with reporters, which is standard practice for network hires of this magnitude. An ESPN spokesman said Knight will consider interviews after he gets started in his new assignment.
"I think ESPN has been real good for college basketball," Knight said in a statement. "I look forward to working with some of their people who I have known a long time."
Given that the Knight universe of favorable press outlets is a universe the size of the late Herve Villechaize, ESPN has generally enjoyed favored nation status with the coach. Longtime supporters such as Dick Vitale and Digger Phelps have shouted his virtues to audiences for years (recently, Knight has channeled his inner Thomas Paine to try to get Vitale into the Basketball Hall of Fame), and Knight's television agent, Sandy Montag, represents a number of ESPN on-air talents including Vitale, Chris Fowler and Lee Corso.
As soon as Knight announced his resignation from Texas Tech on Feb. 4, Williamson called Montag. The deal came together quickly.
Studio hosts Rece Davis, Karl Ravich and John Saunders are skilled at making those around them look good, and that should help Knight's transition to the medium.
"Our biggest goal when you bring in an athlete or coach is to make them comfortable," said Williamson. "A lot of our analysts have a good relationship with coach Knight. He was always a guy that you would look at and say, 'Boy, when he does quit, you want to see if he will come work for you.' We reached out right away when he announced he resigned. We said, 'We realize this might be a little sudden, coach, but would you be interested? And he was."
Indeed, he was. Access to a microphone, a large bundle of cash and ESPN's vast resources have such an effect on people. It also gives Knight a national forum to pontificate on one of his favorite subjects: Bob Knight.
The network said in a release Knight will serve as an analyst on pregame, halftime and between-game segments for games the week of March 12, as well as on ESPN's Selection Sunday specials. He will also appear throughout ESPN's studio coverage of the NCAA Tournament and be on-site for the Final Four.
Williamson said the network had done enough previous interviews with Knight -- from Sunday Conversations to its airing of Knight School, a six-week series in 2006 that followed Knight and his assistants as they choose a walk-on from 16 candidates -- to feel confident he would be a viable fit. "That body of work demonstrates he is compelling television," said Williamson.
Of course, part of Knight's television legacy is walking off the set of ESPN's Cold Pizza when asked about the resignation of his successor at Indiana University, Mike Davis, and verbally smacking ESPN reporter Jeremy Schaap during a 2000 interview.
"Bob Knight is a polarizing figure," says Michael Grant, a Louisville Courier-Journal sports writer who covered Knight during his final two seasons at Indiana. "Even the people who don't like him admit he can be captivating, perceptive and funny. On the other hand, he's a serial bully who holds grudges. He can be rude, extremely hostile and profane. ESPN better have a 10-second delay handy."
"I think he's a really smart guy but people don't want to just hear from a smart guy," added TNT's Charles Barkley. "You can't just do X's and O's. That ain't no fun for the fans. I think he has a sense of humor and it's just a matter of whether he's going to open up. The biggest key for coach Knight is will he let his personality show. And the delay button is going to be interesting, too."
Why would a news-gathering operation with hundreds of working journalists hire a guy who has consistently treated members of the media with contempt?
"Well, I would say that as a news-gathering organization featuring SportsCenter, which has been probably the biggest critic of Bob Knight when there has been controversies or when there have been potential issues.... I think ESPN, SportsCenter, Outside the Lines and ESPN News has aggressively asked those questions and dealt with those issues," said Williamson. "I feel very comfortable given our position and how we examined that. To be honest with you, that gives us the credibility to go there.
"I realize where you are coming at with the question, but I come back to he is the most successful college basketball coach in terms of games won ever, he is a compelling figure who people will listen to, he is someone who has won at different programs, and he is someone who has graduated his players and run very clean programs. Again, if our goal is to provide the most information, the most analysis, and the most entertainment for basketball and sports fans, I don't think we are doing our job unless we take a chance and get a person of Bob Knight's stature to come and work for us."
Give Williamson credit for not hiding from the question on the day the network hired Knight. And ESPN has certainly picked it spots to present Knight unplugged, including an unintentionally hilarious ESPN biopic starring Brian Dennehy. Two years ago SportsCenter offered a memorableTop 10 Bob Knight Sound Bites, a rather extensive (and admittedly entertaining) primer on Knight's fondness for cursing. And the network's dot-com writers, especially the well-regarded columnist Pat Forde, have been very tough on Knight.
"I realize a lot of people are going to say he is a very polarizing figure," Williamson said. "But again, I go back and look at the body of work, the intellect, the success, the graduation rates, the programs he has run. When you put everything together, it is an easy decision to hire Bob Knight for your college basketball coverage."
"It's a very aggressive schedule we have for him," Williamson said. "It's not like he is showing up for just a couple of days. We want him to continue to work for us. For now, we'll see how it goes from his perspective. If he enjoys it, if he has a good time and likes what we are doing, I feel very confident that sports fans will enjoy his analysis of the tournament. Then we'll go from there. Our goal is to have a longterm relationship with him."