Talk to coaches around the country and many will say that they fear Knight will become the next Woody Hayes, referring to the former Ohio State football coach whose career ended in disgrace when he punched an opposing player near the sideline in full view of television cameras. On March 24 The Indianapolis Star ran a cartoon depicting Knight looking into a mirror. Woody Hayes was looking back.
A dark cloud has descended on the Indiana faithful as they confront a frightening question: Has Knight grown more stubborn and ill-tempered with age? Even in its best days Knight's program was never a fount of happiness, but of late the atmosphere has seemed increasingly tense and dreary. Some Indiana supporters are asking, Why does he have to be so rigid, so foulmouthed? When will he accept some of the blame?
"In terms of discontent among IU fans, it has definitely increased lately," says Rick Notter, editor of Inside Indiana, a fan magazine that publishes weekly during basketball season. "People are willing to overlook things when he's winning, but now I think they're getting tired of his antics, his language, just the way he treats people."
Brad Sutton is a 29-year-old optometrist in Memphis who can afford to speak his mind. His opinion of Knight is not likely to cost him business, which may not be the case for professionals in the Bloomington area. (One car dealer declined to talk about Knight on the record for fear that it would cost him sales, but said, "If you put it on the ballot, he'd get voted out of office.") During Sutton's eight years as an undergraduate and a graduate student at Indiana, he rarely missed a home basketball game, and until recently he was a staunch defender of Knight. Now he's a vocal critic. "I think he's an embarrassment to the university," says Sutton. "All you have to do is turn on the TV and you see guys like [Kansas coach] Roy Williams and Dean Smith. They're great coaches who have had a lot of success without berating players and embarrassing their school. I know a lot of alumni, and every single one of them is anti-Knight."
When Notter asked his readers about their feelings toward Knight, he was surprised at the number of hard-core fans who agreed with Sutton. After seeing the strongly anti-Knight results of an Internet poll on Knight's worthiness to continue as Indiana's coach that appeared on ESPNET SportsZone, Notter put a poll of his own in the March 29 issue of Inside Indiana and drew responses from more than 10% of his 15,000 subscribers. Sixty-two percent of the respondents said they "agree with Coach Bob Knight's handling of the Neil Reed incident and fully support Knight as IU's head coach," but one third cast their votes to say, "I fear Indiana's basketball program is in turmoil and believe it may be time for a change." These weren't Kentucky or Purdue boosters; these were Hoosiers fans. It was like listening to Dittoheads disparage Ronald Reagan.
Bart Kaufman, 56, who graduated from Indiana in 1962 before getting his law degree there in '65, is another die-hard Hoosiers fan—and a generous donor to the university—who was unafraid to share his views on Knight. A successful investor and financial strategist from Carmel, Ind., whose family has held season tickets to Indiana basketball games since 1946, Kaufman says, "A significant number of people are unhappy with Coach Knight at this point. I think all that yelling and screaming at kids just doesn't work anymore."
It remains a mystery what Knight would say to explain his behavior and the Hoosiers' struggles. He turned down interview requests from SI for this article. Not that he would be likely to utter mea culpas if he did speak. Knight appeared on ESPN's UpClose with Roy Firestone for an hourlong interview in February, and he defended or made light of his actions over the years, including such notorious incidents as his throwing a chair onto the court during a game in 1985. None of Indiana's problems is his fault, it seems. None ever is. The world is to blame. It changed. Kids are different today. They don't listen. They're spoiled, soft, shallow. They like to shoot threes and run the floor and, if at all possible, move on to the NBA in two or three years. Some of them even want to get tattoos or grow goatees or paint their fingernails. These are modern realities that most coaches have learned to accept, while Knight still stomps around, looking for clean-cut kids in letter sweaters who would rather set a pick than see themselves on SportsCenter. "Not everyone is going to be mentally strong and mentally tough enough to play for Coach Knight," says former Hoosier Damon Bailey, who graduated two years ago and is now playing professionally in France. "A player going there with the right frame of mind, which I think I had, can handle it. A player wanting to have fun should almost definitely go somewhere else."
Unfortunately for Knight, there seem to be more kids each year who cling to the notion that basketball should be fun. For Knight and his assistants, the task of luring high school stars into the joyless Indiana program—and then keeping them there—has become more difficult than ever. The most gifted recruits today are looking down the road toward a career in the NBA, but these days that route rarely runs through Bloomington. Only four former Hoosiers were playing in the NBA at the end of the regular season, and just two, Calbert Cheaney of the Washington Bullets and Dean Garrett of the Minnesota Timberwolves, were starters. Contrast that to the late 1970s, when all five starters from Knight's '76 championship team made the NBA. Isiah Thomas, who left Bloomington after two seasons to go to the pros in 1981, is the last true NBA standout to matriculate under Knight.
Furthermore, college basketball, as Arizona emphatically made clear at the Final Four, is now a game of up-and-down speed and to-the-ball quickness. Officials look more permissively on defenders who scratch and claw their way through and over picks. That makes the interior screening and motion that characterize the half-court passing game—Knight's pet offense—less effective than it once was.
Knight's offense, however, is only one of the factors—and probably a small one—in the Hoosiers' recent decline. More significant have been his recruiting failures, including his inability to sign top players from his tristate core recruiting area. Knight used to go through the high schools in Indiana, Illinois and Ohio the way the Big Six accounting firms go through the Wharton School of Business, picking and choosing the best and brightest. But things have changed. Although Indiana's 1997 Mr. Basketball, guard Luke Recker, has signed to play for the Hoosiers, it seems the high school stars who know Knight best these days are the ones most reluctant to sign on for four years under his command. Knight's volatile presence and rigid style of play do little to arouse the interest of recruits who grew up watching Indiana. Starting with the 1994-95 recruiting class, just five of the Hoosiers' 17 recruits have come from the tristate area. That represents a steep falloff from the '80s.