It was after midnight, and the players sat as silently as strangers on an elevator, waiting for the last member of the Indiana basketball entourage to board the bus outside the Lawrence Joel Coliseum in Winston-Salem, N.C. The Hoosiers had been humiliated 80-62 by Colorado about an hour earlier and bounced out of the NCAA tournament in the first round for the third straight year. They didn't know how their coach, Bob Knight, would handle the most lopsided postseason loss of his 26-year career at Indiana, but they were pretty sure a stop at Chuck E. Cheese was out of the question.
After a 14-1 start that included the championship of the preseason NIT, the Hoosiers had lost 10 of their final 18 games and slipped to sixth place in the Big Ten. Against Colorado in the tournament they had barely put up a fight, and for much of the game even Knight had appeared strangely docile and disinterested, perhaps' relieved that the Buffaloes, and not his Hoosiers, would serve as the victims for North Carolina coach Dean Smith's record-breaking 877th win in the second round. Knight had called only one timeout in the game, with 7:15 left in the second half and Indiana trailing by a hopeless 22 points.
After the game, with the players waiting so nervously you would have thought Keyser Söze were coming, the bus driver finally started up the bus. Knight would not be joining his players. He had decided to walk back to the hotel. Two miles away. Through questionable neighborhoods. In the rain.
Even some friends have expressed concern for the 56-year-old Knight, who has won three national titles, the most recent in 1987. "It looked like he didn't care," says Roy Bates, a former Indiana assistant, who watched the Colorado game on TV "Maybe he just decided he had a bad club and wanted to get the season over with."
Woody Hayes and Bear Bryant are both gone now, and it seems the General has fallen on hard times too. His teams are playing soft, his methods are being questioned, most of the top high school players in his usual recruiting hotbeds—Indiana, Illinois and Ohio—are looking elsewhere, and a good number of his supporters appear to be turning on him. In addition, last month his top assistant, Dan Dakich, left to become the coach at Bowling Green.
Some of Knight's peers believe that his heart is no longer in the game and that he has lost what little affection he may have had for the new generation of college players. "I don't think Bobby likes kids today," says one prominent Division I coach. "A lot of us really don't, but the rest of us don't show it. Kids today are changing. They don't respect anybody. You have to deal with that differently than you did a few years ago."
A day after the loss to Colorado, Knight called center Richard Mandeville, forward Andrae Patterson and guard Neil Reed, all juniors, into his office and told them to consider transferring because, he said, they weren't going to play next season. Some people around Bloomington think that this was a motivational ploy, one used by many college coaches. The coach doesn't really want the player to leave. He wants him to work harder and come back stronger. In this case Reed took Knight at his word and left the program. Reed also broke the code of silence observed in such circumstances and spoke publicly of what he called "verbal attacks and physical assaults" he had suffered at Knight's hands.
Knight and his supporters shot back, accusing Reed of laziness and a lack of discipline, a curious charge to levy against a player who as a freshman played most of the season with a painful separated shoulder. (Back then, Knight had even said, "We're not tough at any position on our team with the exception of Neil Reed. He's a tough kid, but with everyone else there's a toughness that's lacking.") The Indiana administration, as always, fell in line behind Knight, and his legions of supporters recited a familiar litany: Knight runs a clean program and his kids graduate—as if players at Duke, Kansas and North Carolina move on to lives of crime and illiteracy once they complete their eligibility.
The fallout from the Reed incident, however, turned into something of a referendum on Knight, and the results were surprising. Angry letters, many calling for Knight's ouster, poured into Indiana newspapers. Even the sports pages of the Indiana Daily Student, the school paper, treaded into unfamiliar territory, daring to pose the most-whispered question in the state in a headline: HAS THE GAME PASSED COACH KNIGHT BY?
With Knight, whose reputation as a skilled and demanding coach with a hot temper and a foul tongue is well documented, there has never been much of a gray area; in his mind, you are either with him or against him. Now it was clear that a startling number of fans and alumni were fleeing to the other side of the red curtain. Knight's careerlong boorish behavior and his tendency to hold grudges has eaten away at his core of support and, perhaps for the first time at Indiana, left him vulnerable. Says one Knight friend, "I told Bob a long time ago, if you're going to alienate so many people, then you better win and win big. Because when you don't, they're going to be lined up to shoot you down when you fail. And that's what's happening."