When college basketball's most combustible coach made his way to the woodshed last Saturday night—the woodshed being Bryan House, the campus residence of Indiana president Myles Brand—a question came with him. How do you fire Bob Knight, anyway?
The answer is, you don't. You let him sweet-talk you into one more chance. In an equivocal conclusion to what had turned into a kind of off-season on the brink, Brand hauled Knight back from what would have been an abysmal end to his career in Bloomington. At a press conference on Monday, after a seven-week investigation by the school's board of trustees that uncovered example after example of Knight's misbehaving, Brand announced that the coach would remain at Indiana, notwithstanding "a pattern of inappropriate behavior." The president, a philosophy Ph.D. who specializes in action theory, took action, but it was mild: He suspended Knight for three games next season, docked him $30,000 in salary and laid down "zero tolerance" rules for his behavior at practice, in games and in all public capacities, including his dealings with the press. "Should Bob Knight violate any of these requirements, he will be terminated," Brand said, adding that Knight would have been fired if he hadn't agreed to all these conditions. "We want to send a clear message that abusive, uncivil and embarrassing behavior will not be tolerated."
Brand all but said that Knight's late-night visit had allowed Knight to coach another day. "Before the meeting I didn't believe he could change his behavior," Brand said. But the mood of his visitor, he added, was "clearly unique. I'd never seen him before contrite and apologetic...sincere. He made a personal pledge to me to change his behavior. He gave me his personal word. And I believe him."
For 29 years people beyond Bloomington, seeing only the hurled chairs, the churlish bullying, the physical and verbal abuse, wondered why Indiana put up with Knight. If only you knew him as we do, his defenders replied, citing his loyalty, honesty and devotion to stout standards for his players in a world gone lax. So the pattern held, even as recently as two weeks ago. To be sure, a handful of former players earlier had joined the chorus raised against Knight, but true believers had dismissed the critics from within the fold as disgruntled or embittered. Even after CNN/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED broadcast a videotape of a 1997 practice showing the head of one of the complainants, former Hoosiers guard Neil Reed, snapping back from a Knight hand thrust to the jugular, the faithful had insisted, That's just Bob—"placing his right hand in the vicinity of Reed's neck," as the hometown Bloomington Herald-Times exculpatorily put it.
But by last week even those within Assembly Hall, the swaybacked redoubt of Indiana basketball, had turned. It was as if, after years of denial and silence, a critical mass of people had finally decided to convene a huge group-therapy session. A secretary in the athletic director's office, Jeanette Hartgraves, 66, came forward to describe how two years ago Knight called her a "f——bitch" and advanced menacingly toward her as she sat in her office, and how, during the 1980s, Knight hurled a ceramic flowerpot at a picture frame behind her desk, causing her to be hit with flying glass. A former athletic department secretary, Terry Cagle, told of an episode from the 1980s in which Knight stormed into the office of then sports information director Kit Klingelhoffer and, furious over a press release, threw him to the ground. Even Bob's son Tim, who handles his father's business affairs, confirmed that during a hunting trip in Argentina in 1994, Bob broke Tim's nose and dislocated his shoulder in a fit of anger.
Then, just before a Sunday meeting of the board of trustees to hash out Knight's future, a new witness came forward, one from Hoosier basketball's sanctum sanctorum, with the timeliest story yet. According to sources close to the probe, Ron Felling, who served Knight as an assistant coach for 12 years, told the trustees that he hadn't chosen to retire, as a Dec. 4 university press release claimed. In fact, Knight had fired Felling—and had done so moments before launching into yet another violent episode.
Felling told the trustees that on Dec. 1, the day after Indiana had struggled to beat Notre Dame in overtime, he fielded a call in the office from former Hoosiers assistant Dan Dakich, now the coach at Bowling Green. The two chitchatted about drills and defense, and Felling mentioned that the Indiana players were doing a good job of picking up Knight's defensive teachings. Then Dakich asked about Knight's reaction to the game. In spite of the victory, Felling told his former colleague, Knight had vented at the Hoosiers. It was the same old stuff, Felling said: Knight was taking the fun out of winning, and Felling wondered how the players would hold up under such mental strain over the length of the season.
Felling's concerns were hardly original—basketball aficionados have long believed that Knight's style accounts for the late-season fades that have kept Indiana from advancing beyond the second round of the NCAA tournament for six years in a row. But Knight had been listening in on an extension and at this point cut in. He berated Dakich, then accused Felling of disloyalty and fired him on the spot. Moments later, brought to Knight's office, Felling apologized for not having shared his opinions directly with the boss, but he said he stood by their substance. At that, Knight lunged at Felling, striking him in the chest with two closed fists and driving him into a bookshelf full of videotapes.
Knight refused comment to SI on this or any other matter after he returned to Bloomington last Saturday, following a bonefishing trip with his son Pat and several friends in the Bahamas. But in advance of his two-hour personal appeal to the president, Knight had already gone straight to his public. A statement faxed from the Bahamas revealed a sort of 12-Step Knight who fit perfectly into the web of dysfunction in which the entire university seemed to be ensnared. In a passage that read like something lifted from a self-help book, Knight credited the success of his teams to the "three-braided rope" of his intensity, his demanding nature and his temper. He spoke of "my temper problem," mentioning that "I'm not very good at just forgetting about something and moving on, and I'm truly sorry about that."
But with contrition he showed flashes of his intractable, insuperable self "I've always been too confrontational, especially when know I'm right") and evidence of denial, such as his assertion that his temper "was lot a factor in the investigated incident." By this he presumably meant that he had acted with premeditated control when he went at Reed's windpipe, an alarming admission if true.