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THE RABBIT HUNTER
Frank Deford
January 26, 1981
Bobby Knight may be tremendously successful on the court, but off it, Indiana's controversial basketball coach often stalks the insignificant
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January 26, 1981

The Rabbit Hunter

Bobby Knight may be tremendously successful on the court, but off it, Indiana's controversial basketball coach often stalks the insignificant

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Money has never motivated Knight. He has turned down raises, preferring that the money go to his assistants, and he professes not even to know what his salary is—except that, relative to what other teachers at Indiana make, it's too much. This is not to say, of course, that Knight wears a hair shirt. He has a television show, a summer basketball camp, the free use of a car, and, he volunteers, Checkers-like, "I did take a fishing rod once." Also, it's an absolute point of pride with him that he must be paid as much as the Hoosier football coach, Lee Corso. But just as pointedly he has advised alumni and the commercial camp-followers who grubstake coaches on the side to take a wide berth. Recently, however, Knight decided he was a fool to look a gift horse in the mouth, so he solicited bids from shoe companies that were willing to pay him in the hope that his players would wear their sneakers. Adidas won, but instead of sticking this "pimp money," as he calls it, in his own pocket, Knight is turning it over to the university.

This isn't going to endear Knight to the coach who's looking to put a new Florida room on the house, just as a lot of Knight's colleagues weren't thrilled two years ago when he kicked three players off his team for abuses of training rules (drugs, obviously), and then trumpeted that he was the only coach extant with the "guts" to live up to his principles. But his honor even exceeds his smugness. "He just doesn't cheat," says Newell. "Never. Bobby doesn't even rationalize. Instead, what he does do is the single most important thing in coaching: he turns out educated kids who are ready for society."

Now Knight is on an even broader crusade, trying to impose on others, by legislation, his devotion to academics. He would like the NCAA to pass a regulation that would deny a college some of its allotment of athletic scholarships if its players don't graduate within a year after their eligibility ends. That is, if a coach has five so-called student-athletes finishing up on the team in 1981 and only two graduate by 1982, then the coach can only replace the five with two new recruits. "With this, you're making the faculty a police department for the NCAA," Knight says. "Even if you can get a few professors to pimp for a coach, you can't buy a whole damn faculty." He laughs, devilishly. "And how can a coach vote against this plan? How can anyone vote publicly against education?"

Nothing pleases Knight as much as the success his players have had off the court. Indeed, he uses their accomplishments to justify the controversial "way we operate," saying, "Look, if all our players were losing jobs, I'd have to reassess my way. And if I heard some of my old players blistering my ass for the way I run things, I'd have to reassess. But, you see, despite all the crap you read, the only ones who've ever complained are the kids who didn't play, got frustrated and quit."

But, tit for tat, it may also be true that Knight's players have a high success rate because only success-oriented types would select Indiana basketball in the first place. In other words, the twigs only grow as they were bent a long time ago.

Knight's honesty extends to his recruiting. When a recruit is brought to Bloomington, he's introduced to the whole squad, and not merely sequestered with a happy star, a Mr. Personality and a pretty cheerleader. Parents of recruits are encouraged to talk with parents of present squad members. Knight doesn't have a missionary instinct. He isn't, he says, "an animal trainer. Recruit jackasses, they play like jackasses." Instead: "We've drawn up a personality profile, and you might even say it's a narrow-minded thing."

So, black or white, rich or poor, the neatly groomed Indiana players tend to be well-intentioned young things, upwardly mobile, serious about education and so well adjusted that they can endure Coach Knight's wrath in fair exchange for the bounty of his professional genius. Calculated coach, calculated players.

The hand-picked Hoosiers are expected to speak to the press, even in defeat, the better to mature and cope. They dress in coats and ties on game days, and during the season must wear trim haircuts, without beards or mustaches.

Significantly, things have gone awry only since the national championship season, soon after which a number of players quit, some castigating Knight, and two seasons after that when the coach bounced the three players for disciplinary reasons. "All of a sudden I won, and I thought I could be a social worker, too," he says. "I thought I could take a guy off death row at Sing Sing and turn him into a basketball player." Never again. The prime result of that convulsion has been an even more careful weeding-out process. A single blackball from a team member can eliminate a prospect from consideration, and as a consequence, a sort of natural selection of the species has occurred. The system has become so inbred that, as contradictory as this sounds, rough-tough Knight's team now includes a bunch of nice Nellys. The Hoosier basketball coaches all worried about this even before this rather disappointing season—Indiana was 10-6 at the end of last week—confirmed their fears. Knight himself, like a grizzled old soldier, waxes nostalgic about the single-minded roughnecks who chopped their way to victory for him at the Point.

Had Knight never won a game at Indiana, he would have secured a lasting reputation for his work at Army, where he succeeded with little talent and no height. At Indiana, as well, the mark of Knight as coach goes far beyond his mere W-L totals. When he arrived in Bloomington, the entire Big Ten played run-and-gun, in the image of Indiana, the conference's traditional lodestar: racehorse ball, the Hurryin' Hoosiers. It wasn't just a catchy sports nickname. It was a real statement. The Hurryin' Hoosiers. The Bronx Bombers. The Monsters of the Midway. There aren't many of them. But no matter how much the old alumni whined at the loss of tradition and hittin' a hundred, Knight went his own way. From Knight's arrival through last week, Indiana has gone 215-65, but, more significantly, the average Big Ten score has declined from 74.0 to 67.5 in that span.

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