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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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His strategic axioms are firm—no zones, disciplined offense—but he exercises latitude year by year, permitting himself to be dictated to by his material and the state of the art. He has such consummate confidence in his ability as a coach that he suffers no insecurity about crediting the sources of his handiwork. It all came from other coaches, didn't it? His defense is based on the old Ohio State pressure game, which Taylor had borrowed from Newell. His offense is an amalgam of the freelancing style used at Princeton in the early '60s, by Butch van Breda Kolff ("The best college coach I ever saw"), intertwined with the passing game that the venerable Hank Iba employed at Oklahoma State.

This season Knight was willing to modify some of his most cherished tenets to permit Isiah Thomas more artistic freedom. But, ultimately, those who would survive at Indiana, much less succeed, must subjugate themselves to the one man and his one way. Incredibly, 10 of Knight's former assistants are head coaches at major colleges, but those who coach under him are strictly that: underlings. Among other things, they aren't allowed to utter so much as a word of profanity before the players. Only Bobby.

He prowls the practice court, slouched, belly out, usually with a sour, disbelieving expression upon his visage. He is dressed in Indiana red and white, but of a different mix-and-match from his assistants'. Except for a few instructions barked out by these subordinates, the place is silent as a tomb. Only the most privileged visitors are permitted to watch this class.

The chosen few watch on two levels of consciousness: what they see before them, and what they anticipate Coach Knight might do next. If he really contrives to make a point, he will perhaps merely rage, or pick up a chair and slam it against the wall, or dismiss a hopeless athlete. It's like technical fouls—you don't ever get them, you take them. And, like every good coach, Knight knows how to deal with the unexpected. One day a few years ago Knight kicked a ball in anger. He caught it perfectly on his instep and the ball soared toward the very heavens, straight up. More miraculously, when it plummeted back to earth, it fell into a wastebasket, lodging there. It was a million-to-one shot, something from a Road Runner cartoon. But nobody dared change his expression. Finally, Knight began to grin, then to laugh, and only at that point did everyone else break up.

"I've always said, all along, that if I ever get to a point where I can't control myself, I'll quit," Knight says stoutly, though unmindful, perhaps, that he can drive things out of control even as he skirts the edge himself.


John Havlicek once said, "Bobby was quite a split personality. There were times when we were good friends and, then, like that, times when he wouldn't even talk to me." Knight says, "My manners set me apart in a little cocoon, and that's something that's very beneficial to me." Maybe, but too many people humor Knight instead of responding to him, and that may be the single real deprivation of his life.

The one group of people who can still treat him honestly are the older coaches, Dutch uncles, who have earned his respect. A few years ago he took on as an assistant Harold Andreas, the man who had first hired him as an assistant at Cuyahoga Falls. What a wonderful gesture! Andreas retired from coaching in 1977, and so, in Andreas' place as the father/grandmother figure, Knight hired Roy Bates, who used to coach one of Orrville High's rivals. Bates, who recently took a leave of absence because of poor health, is a no-nonsense fellow with a crippled left arm, whose teams were 441-82 in basketball and 476-52 in baseball. Bates adored Knight, and though Knight had three younger assistants, it was the older man he was closest to, literally and otherwise. Bates always sat next to him on the bench.

Still Bates had to be tested, like everyone else. He has had a radio show in Ohio since 1949, and one time a while ago, when he was staying at the Knights', he asked Bobby to do a five-minute tape with him. Bobby said sure, but then he put Bates off and put him off. Finally, one day Bates said, "You know, Bobby, I've had that radio show for 30 years without you on it." And with that, he put on his coat and headed for the car. By the time Bates had started up the driveway, Knight was out there, waving for him to come back, and as soon as Bates arrived back at his home in Ohio, Bobby was on the phone to him. Knight was still in control of himself. But not of events.

"Bobby has got so much," Bates says. "And nobody can ever get him. He doesn't cheat. He doesn't drink. He doesn't even chase women. But for some reason he thinks he has been a bad boy, and no matter how successful he becomes, he thinks he must be punished."

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