Three years ago Knight welcomed a standout recruiting class that included Patterson and Reed, both McDonald's All-Americas, Michael Hermon, Rob Hodgson and Charlie Miller. They joined a solid nucleus of Brian Evans, Steve Hart, Alan Henderson and Sherron Wilkerson, to form what should have been a powerhouse team. Then the troubles began. Hodgson, whom Knight decided to redshirt, left before his first semester was over and ended up at Rutgers. Hermon lasted one season before transferring to Malcolm X Junior College in Chicago after his scholarship was revoked because he didn't attend class. Hart also struggled academically and transferred to Indiana State before the start of his junior year. Then Wilkerson, who had a difficult time recovering from a broken leg, was arrested for assaulting his girlfriend in January '96. He was kicked off the team, later pleading guilty to a misdemeanor charge of domestic battery for which he received a 180-day suspended sentence and one year of probation. He finally transferred to Rio Grande College in the NAIA, which he has since left as well. Since Knight then told Patterson and Reed to consider transferring after the loss to Colorado, it was almost a total house-cleaning by the time this season ended.
"There is probably a large faction of Indiana fans who are unhappy, especially of late," says Hodgson, who averaged 11.9 points per game for Rutgers last season. "The thing with Neil, that's just more fuel for the fire. The class I came with had five people, and Neil makes three guys of the five who are gone. We were heralded as one of the best recruiting classes. Now we're fragmented. People can figure it for whatever reason."
Despite the superb high school credentials of that group, Knight conceded in an interview with the Louisville Courier-Journal in late February that he has had difficulties on the recruiting trail: "Our recruiting has been horse——. This is the first group of kids that we've recruited that, by the time they were juniors, hasn't become one of the best teams in the country."
It was also the first time local recruits avoided Indiana as if it were haunted. "When I got there, nine of the 13 guys on the roster had grown up in Indiana," says Evans, a 1996 Indiana graduate who now plays for the Orlando Magic. "We knew all about the tradition and the championships, and we understood what Coach Knight is all about. I think on this past year's team there was one kid who had graduated from an Indiana high school. These kids are coming in from California and Florida, and they really don't know what it's all about."
Homegrown recruits are discovering other, less painful options, including that enemy outpost 125 miles northwest of Bloomington. Four straight conference games are not all Knight has lost to his Purdue counterpart, Gene Keady. The Boilermakers can also claim nine in-state kids among their last 15 recruits. A number of college basketball insiders credit Purdue assistant coach Frank Kendrick with inflicting more damage to Knight's recent fortunes than any other opposing coach or player has. In the recruiting wars Kendrick, a standout with the Boilermakers in the early 1970s, has outdueled Knight's crew locally since Keady added him to his staff in '90. A year later Purdue landed Gary, Ind., star Glenn Robinson, now with the Milwaukee Bucks, who would have to sit out his freshman year as a Prop 48 case. Thus began the Boilermakers' run on in-state talent—and of Big Ten titles, of which they have won three in the past four seasons. Indiana hasn't had a conference championship since 1993.
Kendrick, who is black, is known as a coach who can relate to young black recruits in Indiana and beyond. The Hoosiers, meanwhile, were the only team in the Big Ten last season without a black assistant coach; they haven't had one since Joby Wright left to coach Miami of Ohio in 1990. "Maybe I'm fortunate," says Kendrick. "I'm a people person. I'm a straightforward guy who can get along with anyone from any kind of background. I love talking to kids about their problems."
The lack of an African-American assistant may be one reason so many talented black players have transferred out of Bloomington. In 1985 Delray Brooks left in the middle of his sophomore season, and three years later Ricky Calloway departed after his junior year. In '88 Jay Edwards failed a random drug test and subsequently decided to turn pro after just two seasons in Bloomington. Hart lasted two years and Hermon one before both left in '95. All were players with quickness, a quality that has been in short supply for the Hoosiers lately.
Knight rs said to spend less time around his players than most coaches, and he detests recruiting. "One of the players who transferred from there told me that after the season players don't see him for two to three months at a time," says one Division I coach. "He's doing his own thing and doing it his way."
Knight rarely attends summer camps where the top high school players are on display and is loath to deal with AAU coaches who have increasingly become the people recruiters must deal with if they hope to sign a blue-chipper. That's a laudable stand perhaps but hardly a boon to the Hoosiers' recruiting fortunes. Says one coach, "I'd love to be able to do the same, but he's one of the few who can stand on principle, lose a bunch of games and not lose his job."
For years Knight also was reluctant to recruit junior college players. In his first 12 seasons at Indiana, he did not have any J.C. transfers, but of late they have been almost as common in Bloomington as players recruited from high school. Five of Knight's 12 recruits in the last three years have come from junior colleges, including the latest, 6'4" guard Rob Turner from Tyler (Texas) Junior College and 6'8" forward William Gladness from Carl Albert J.C. in Poteau, Okla. Gladness, who signed with Indiana in April, fits into the traditional Knight mold about as neatly as he fits into a 38 short sport coat. He is a 22-year-old, married former construction worker who didn't play basketball in high school because of academic shortcomings. It is hard to imagine Knight pursuing such a player in the 1970s or '80s, but then again, he probably wouldn't have needed to.