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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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In the dazzle of the tight arena, basketball coaches tend to be popinjays, ruling by force of personality, glint of teeth, while football coaches are distant, solid sorts, administrators, with scores of lieutenants and troops. Being a basketball coach doesn't seem to prepare you for anything else in life, but even football coaches who can't win get bumped upstairs to assistant athletic director (a football coach who wins becomes athletic director). "I've always thought there's a greater depth to football coaches," Knight says.

But that's subsidiary to the main point: Knight loves all coaches. He will ask people who knew Rupp well to tell him about the old man. What made the Baron tick? Why did he do this? How? He has spent many hours listening to Sparky Anderson. He calls in the old basketball masters and studies at their feet. In his office, the only photographs (apart from those of his teams) are of Pete Newell and Clair Bee. Even as a boy, he would go off on scouting trips with coaches. Bill Shunkwiler, his football coach at Orrville, remembers that after school, when other kids were hanging out, chasing, Bobby would come by Shunkwiler's house and the two of them would sit and have milk and cookies and talk coach talk. Knight still keeps in touch with many of his old coaches, still calls them "Mister," and there is, in Coach Knight, almost a tribal sense of heritage and tradition.

"I just love the game of basketball so," he says. "The game! I don't need the 18,000 people screaming and all the peripheral things. To me, what's most enjoyable is the practice and preparation."

The ultimate contradiction is that Bobby Knight, of all people, profane as he is, seeks after purity. What troubles him is that the game must be muddied by outlanders and apostates—the press, for example. In fact, Knight has studied the subject, and he understands the press better than some writers who cover him understand basketball. He even numbers several writers as friends, and sometimes he will actually offer a grudging admiration beyond his famous institutional assessment: "All of us learn to write by the second grade, then most of us go on to other things." But his truest feelings were probably revealed one day recently when he blurted out, "How do they know what it's like if they've never played? How? How? Tell me: How can they know?"

At the base of everything, this is it: if you're not part of basketball, you can't really belong, you can only distort. He has taken over the microphone at Assembly Hall, the Hoosiers' arena, and told his own fans to back off, be good sports, even to stop using dirty words. Imagine, Knight telling people to improve their language. "It showed no bleeping class," he snapped afterward.

He just always wanted to be Coach Knight, officially expressing this desire in an autobiography he wrote when he was a junior in high school. It was entitled It's Been A Great Life (So Far). Nancy Knight remembers nothing otherwise: "All Bobby ever wanted was to be a coach, in the Big Ten." Even now, when Knight deliberates on the rest of his life, he doesn't go much beyond his one love. "I hope," he says, "that when I retire I'll have enough assistants in head jobs so I can live anywhere I want and still have a place nearby where I can go over and help out and watch some films." As much as there is such a thing, he's a natural-born coach.


Knight's father—his square name was Carroll, but everyone called him Pat—was a railroad man from Oklahoma, who came to Orrville because it was a railroad town, a division point. The main Pennsy line passed through, and the city slickers from Cleveland and Akron had to journey down on a spur to little Orrville to catch the Broadway Limited. So, despite having only about 5,000 folks when Bobby was growing up, Orrville was not quite as closed and homogeneous as you would expect of a Midwest coloring-book place, set in a dell, with a water tower.

Knight was born there, one of the last of the Depression Babies, on Oct. 25, 1940, a couple of weeks before FDR won his third term over Wendell Willkie and the objections of the Orrville electorate. He was reared in the '50s. Actually, the '50s were not much different in attitudes and values from the two decades that preceded them, but what sets the '50s apart is that they came right before the upheaval of the '60s. But just as the '60s flowered, Knight went off to coach at West Point, where his '50s just kept on going, even becoming sort of a badge of separation.

The '50s are too often disparaged for being simple, everyone in lockstep. But more accurately, what the '50s offered, in spades, was definition. In analyzing pre-'60s coaches like the unrepentant Knight, observers tend to confuse definition with discipline. Knight most of all wants to know where people stand—and that they do stand for something. Here's an example of how rigidly lines were drawn when Knight was growing up.

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