Wear your tie, Bobby.
All right, Mom, I'll put it on, but I won't tie it tight.
The boy-coach who got his first major-college head-coaching job at 24 may be middle-aged now, but still, every day, in some way, adolescence must be conquered again. "Listen to me," Woody Hayes pleaded with him once. "Listen to me, Bobby, because I've made a lot of mistakes and you don't have to repeat mine."
The real issue isn't the countenance, anyway. The real issue is the rabbits. And Knight knows that. In the Indiana locker room before a game earlier this season, Knight was telling his players to concentrate on the important things. He said, "How many times I got to tell you? Don't fight the rabbits. Because, boys, if you fight the rabbits, the elephants are going to kill you." But the coach doesn't listen to himself. He's always chasing after the incidental; he's still a prodigy in search of proportion. "There are too many rabbits around," he says. "I know that. But it doesn't do me any good. Instead of fighting the elephants, I just keep going after the rabbits." And it's the rabbits that are doing him in, ruining such a good thing.
Pete Newell, the former Cal coach, a mentor: "There are times Bobby comes so close to self-destructing." Edwin Cady, a Duke University professor, after the Indiana Athletics Committee he chaired recommended Knight's hiring in 1971: "He's in a race now between overcoming immaturity and disaster." And even the warmest, most benign observers of the man offer variations on these themes.
Others are much more critical—especially since the sad events of July 1979 at the Pan American Games in Puerto Rico when Knight, the U.S. basketball coach, was arrested for aggravated assault on a police officer (and subsequently convicted in absentia and sentenced to six months in prison). "Bobby's so intelligent, but he has tunnel vision," says another Midwestern coach. "None of that stuff in Puerto Rico had to happen. On the contrary, he could've come out of there a hero. But he's a bully, always having to put people down. Someday, I'm afraid, he's going to be a sad old man." Says an Eastern coach, "He'll get away with the bullying and the vulgarity only so long as he wins. But the shame is, he's so smart, and he's so faithful to his principles, so why can't he understand that other people have principles too?"
Such criticism doesn't necessarily affect Knight in the ways and to the extent that most people imagine. In a sense, he enjoys being misunderstood, so no one can get a fix on him. It's like the effect Indiana's good defense has on the coaches of its opponents. "The average coach wants his team to score points," Knight says. "It's his character, his machismo, whatever you want to call it, that's at stake. So if I make a coach concerned enough about my defense stopping his offense, then he'll forget about my offense."
Though Knight may not give a hoot whether most people like him, it genuinely upsets him that anyone might think he's impulsive, much less berserk. "Hey, I'm not dumb, and too many people look at our operation as if we're all dumb here," he says. "Only people really involved here know what the hell we're doing. See, I don't think people understand what I can or can't do. They're not cognizant of my situation and what I know about myself. I always know what I'm doing."
Yet as intelligent as Knight is about most things, as searching as his mind is, he's also encumbered by a curious parochialism that too often brings him to grief. When all is said and done, his difficulties in Puerto Rico resulted mostly from his inability to concede that San Juan isn't just another Chicago, or that the Pan Am Games aren't another Mideast Regional—and it's their own fault that they're not. Knight's mind is too good to be wasted on a mere game—and he probably recognizes that—but he's personally not comfortable away from the precisely circumscribed environment in which college basketball is played. Therein lies the great conflict in him.
Does anybody else in this universe of shifting sands still have the control of a coach? No wonder it's difficult for a person like Knight, who tends toward prepossession anyway, to be confused about the limits of his dominion. Puerto Rico, women, writers, shoe salesmen, NCAA bigwigs...all of them are just more Rubicons to cross. He's in command; an awful lot of what you see is a good act. Says Harold Andreas, the high school coach who first hired Bobby as an assistant, "He can be as charming as anybody in the world or he can be the biggest horse's ass in the world. But he makes that decision, and he does it in a split second." Everyone identifies Knight with bad language, but the fact is that he can talk for hours, if he chooses to, using much less profanity than the average Joe. He doesn't have a foul mouth; he simply deploys bad language when it can be a weapon.