The Coach didn't turn into a pumpkin, but as the clock struck midnight on Oct. 13 and Bob Knight emerged from the Texas Tech locker room, he appeared to have assumed a new identity. At Midnight Madness, Knight's first basketball practice since his firing from Indiana 13 months earlier, he jogged onto the United Spirit Arena floor to thunderous applause from a crowd of 9,400. Clad in a white T-shirt and slimmer than in his last days in Bloomington, Knight, 61, charged into the huddle and high-fived his players. When a malfunctioning microphone interrupted his address to the crowd, he kept his cool. "I've got a lot of lines," he deadpanned, referring to his serial cursing of bygone days, "but I'm trying to improve."
Could this hail-fellow-well-met possibly be the same man whose behavior was so reprehensible on his last job that he was subjected to a zero-tolerance policy, which he ran afoul of in a mere four months? Could this be the same choleric coach who stood accused of bleaching the fun out of basketball, who made no secret of his disdain for the pageantry and packaging of college sports? "Hey, there's something invigorating about changing jobs," says Texas Tech president David Schmidly, who hired Knight last March. "I'd be worried if he didn't use this as a chance to do things—and view things—a little differently."
Although he denies adopting a kinder, gentler persona after his season in exile, the General has launched a charm offensive in windswept West Texas, careful to avoid the missteps that brought about his demise with the Hoosiers after 29 seasons and three national titles. Knight's downfall was hastened by a video that depicted his throttling the neck of a player. His troops at Tech claim he has been a teacher, not a tyrant. "He's the same guy all the time," says senior center Andy Ellis, the Red Raiders' top player. "He just wants the best effort."
While Knight feuded publicly with Indiana president Myles Brand, he and Schmidly, 57, have already become fishing buddies. Indiana officials say Knight was terminated in part because he failed to uphold commitments to address meetings of the school's Varsity Club. Since arriving in Lubbock, Knight has visited more than a dozen Red Raider Club chapters throughout the state. His final act of defiance in Bloomington was a confrontation with a student. At Texas Tech he has volunteered to guest lecture an undergraduate course in administration and will let the student body vote on the color of the sweater he should wear for each game.
Not that Knight has undergone a complete makeover. For starters, he has surrounded himself with a platoon of loyalists. His younger son, Pat, is his top assistant. His elder son, Tim, and Steve Downing, an Indiana star in the early 1970s, are new Texas Tech associate athletic directors, in charge of special projects and internal affairs, respectively. Knight was barely on the job for a month before chasing off three players, including last year's starting point guard, Jamal Brown. His reason? "They needed to be dismissed," he said, "period."
His old-school regimen of discipline, unity and military precision is also in evidence. As at Indiana, the players' names are not sewed on the backs of their jerseys, a reminder that the team takes precedence over the individual. At the first practice Knight routinely interrupted play, his stentorian voice resounding through the arena when his players missed defensive assignments or failed to fight through screens. A sign in Tech's well-appointed locker room reads, MOTION, MOTION, MOTION. Another reminds players: ALL EYES ARE UPON YOU.
If nothing else, Knight has done wonders for the athletic department's coffers. Last season the Red Raiders drew average crowds of 9,619; this year no season tickets remain, and the athletic-department anticipates that all 15,050 seats will regularly be filled. With Knight's working the rubber-chicken circuit, membership in the Red Raider Club has increased roughly 50%, to 4,200. One appearance before the Knight faithful raised $30,000 for Texas Tech—not remarkable, except that it was in Starlight, Ind.
Owing to Knight's cachet, the school sold a new television package of coaches' shows that guarantees the athletic department $420,000. Wienerschnitzel, a fast-food chain, even paid $25,000 to sponsor a midcourt dachshund race at Midnight Madness. Athletic director Gerald Myers estimates that Knight has already brought more than $3 million to the school. "He's influenced Texas Tech more in six months than anyone else in our history," says Myers. "Remember, we haven't played a game yet."
That might be a good thing. Although the air is redolent with expectation, only four scholarship players are left from last season's team, which went 9-19 and tied for last in the Big 12. The rest of the roster comprises one scholarship freshman, two freshman walk-ons, two seniors recently given scholarships and four junior college transfers. At their first scrimmage it was clear the Red Raiders are woefully undersized, marginally talented and unaccustomed to playing together. When Knight told the Midnight Madness crowd, "We have a chance to be competitive," he wasn't predicting greatness.
Even if he doesn't win his customary 20 games a season, Knight is well within striking distance of Dean Smith's record for alltime victories (879). However, his return to the sidelines is less about the record—he needs another 115 victories to tie—than about restoring his reputation. During his last six years at Indiana, Knight's program was marked by a rash of transfers, quick exits from the NCAA tournament and a growing perception that the pool of players willing to endure his strictures and structure was perilously shallow.