Power, control and legacy: Bob Knight's last days at IU

Editor's note: "The Last Days of Knight," from ESPN's 30 for 30 documentary series, can be seen Thursday, Nov. 29 at 7:30 p.m. ET on ESPN.

It looked like a janitor's closet.

The inconspicuous gray door on the court level of Indiana University's Assembly Hall easily concealed the office where the titan of college basketball watched game film and did some of his deepest thinking.

On Sept. 7, 2000, it was Bob Knight's sanctuary. That was the day the legendary Hoosiers men's basketball coach was accused of grabbing freshman student Kent Harvey by the arm and breaking the zero-tolerance policy enacted by university president Myles Brand. Hordes of media were quickly gathering to hear from the embattled coach, but Knight had devised another game plan.

With his career on the brink, the Hall of Fame coach, who had three national championships, 11 Big Ten titles and more than 600 wins in his 29 seasons in Bloomington, opened the heavy door and introduced himself to a reporter for the Indiana Daily Student with a firm handshake.

"Don't be afraid, kid," he told me with a smile and a pat on the back, adding, "yet."

At that moment, Knight's longstanding grudge against the student newspaper ended, and my story with him began. Having run out of other options, and harboring a distrust for the national media, Knight struck a deal with a handful of eager student journalists. In exchange for providing a forum on campus to address the students and fans on his terms, Knight would agree to grant the IDS two days of exclusive interviews. They were conversations he thought he could control and manipulate, much in the way he exerted his authority on his basketball program for almost three decades.

Knight told me to get any other reporters from the school paper who should be there and we'd "have a little more [to the story] than anybody else will." He said he picked us to tell his side of the story because "some guy will ask an off-the-wall question" in the news conference upstairs "and that's all that will be written or talked about."

I was joined by two other student reporters in Knight's office -- otherwise known as "the cave" -- to question him about the incident involving Harvey. Knight leaned back in his chair, stretched his legs out, clasped his hands behind his head and downplayed the accusation.

Knight had been walking into Assembly Hall when the 19-year-old Harvey said, "Hey Knight, what's up?" The students who were walking with Harvey said Knight angrily grabbed Harvey by the arm, dragged him aside and said, "Show me some f---ing respect. I'm older than you."

Three days later, Brand fired Knight. His behavior at the end of his career, including physical and verbal abuse, culminated in a disgraceful exit for an iconic coach. I watched as Knight took an increasingly defiant stance in the final days of his tenure. Almost 20 years later, it's a reminder of how much influence and power college coaches can accumulate, if allowed, and the consequences they can face if it's abused. It's also a lesson in knowing when it's time to step aside or move on.

As unique as Knight's polarizing personality was, his stubbornness and arrogance remain among the most common characteristics of successful college coaches past and present -- traits that are simultaneously their biggest strength and, ultimately, their greatest weakness.

Both college football and college basketball have produced coaches who overstay their welcome and punctuate otherwise Hall of Fame careers with disappointing exits. Their power and egos grow alongside their winning percentages and salaries. Failure and conflict bring out the inherent competitive drive to fix problems their way, not walk away from them. There's also the human concern of quitting on everyone involved with the program, and the fear of stepping into a different life or a life without it.

"I think we all leave on different circumstances, but we all fight that battle. When? Now? No? Yes?" said 75-year-old former UConn coach Jim Calhoun, who missed the sport enough after retiring to return as head coach at Division III St. Joseph's. "It's not just a job. We don't do it, we live it."

And they become it.

Nick Saban, Urban Meyer, Jim Harbaugh, Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Boeheim, Roy Williams -- they all own their programs and their towns, their identities indistinguishable from the campuses where they work. They, along with past coaches such as Woody Hayes, Bobby Bowden and Joe Paterno, are more recognizable than their own university presidents, more popular than their state officials. That fame and pride in what they built elicits a sense of entitlement that This Is Mine.

"I think we all leave on different circumstances, but we all fight that battle. When? Now? No? Yes? It's not just a job. We don't do it, we live it." Jim Calhoun

And when it's yours, you fight to keep it as long as you can.

"I have never been, from day one; I'm not the coach for this administration," Knight told the Indiana Daily Student in 2000. "But I'm the coach for our program and what we tried to do. The academic record we've established, the record for success after graduation we established, and I think my pride in that carried away my better instincts relative to whether I should stay here or look for employment somewhere else."

Knight refused to resign -- and has since refused to return to campus, telling Dan Patrick in 2017, "I have no interest in ever going back to that university." Knight, who declined comment for this story through his agency, didn't even show up for the 40-year anniversary celebration of his own 1976 undefeated national championship team. Current IU athletic director Fred Glass, who was hired in 2009, has sent Knight handwritten letters asking him to return, but to no avail.

While there are still former players and fans who remain steadfast in their loyalty to Knight, his legacy was determined by the tumultuous final years of his Indiana career. IU's administration was at its wit's end with his bullying behavior. Hurling a chair across the court paled in comparison to the disgusting ways in which he denigrated some of his players. Allegations had turned into evidence -- caught on camera and heard on tape -- including an incident in 1997, in which Knight choked player Neil Reed in practice.

The man who demanded discipline at every turn was unable to reel in his own emotions. That perception might have changed had he trusted his instincts and walked away from Indiana on his own.

But that's easier said than done.

"They always say you'll know when it's time to get out, and I don't think you do," said former Texas football coach Mack Brown, who won a national championship and played for another, but didn't step down until he struggled through four seasons with at least four losses. "You don't ever want to get out if you love it."

Nobody is immune to circumstance or losing, and stature can only protect even the most powerful coaches for so long. Eventually, coaches like Krzyzewski, Boeheim and Saban will face this reality, if they haven't already.

"The way I look at it is, as long as I'm healthy and as long as I feel that I can do a good job, I want to keep doing it because I enjoy doing it," Saban told ESPN's Chris Low. "What I don't want to do is just stay forever, forever and forever and ride the program down where I'm not creating value. I would never want to do that, and I think I'm a long ways from doing that. I don't want to talk about anybody else, but there have been a couple of coaches where their legacy was tarnished by them maybe doing it longer than they should have. That won't be me."

Nobody thought it would be Woody Hayes, either.

Hayes won five national titles during his 28 seasons at Ohio State, but when he punched Clemson player Charlie Bauman in the 1978 Gator Bowl, he ended any chance he had of leaving on his own terms.

Larry Romanoff was Ohio State's head academic advisor at the time and was about 10 yards from the altercation. He began his Ohio State career as Hayes' student manager and still works for the Buckeyes' athletic department. He said the worst moment he has had in his 49 years around the Buckeyes program was when Hayes walked onto the team plane after the game.

"He takes the mic from the stewardess and goes, 'I'm no longer going to be your coach,'" said Romanoff. "Nobody said boo. Seriously, you could've heard a pin drop on the plane. And then it was like, 'Oh, my god, Coach, don't go.'"

When they got back to Columbus, Romanoff and two other employees went to Hayes' office and helped him pack.

Video of Hayes' punch was part of a television profile of Knight that aired on ABC during the 1984 Olympics, and Dick Schaap asked Knight if he had any fear of losing control like Hayes did.

"I don't think that you can ever say yes or no, and I honestly think when that happened with him, he should have just quit," Knight said, "right then, 'cause he really, he did lose it. ... I have always said to myself that if I got to that point, I would just quit.

"But I may get really upset because I think I am legitimately upset with either a poor play or a poor call or whatever it might be. But if I go beyond being legitimately upset because of the preparation that we have put into it, then I have got to get out of it, because it isn't worth it to anybody then."

It wasn't the last punch that doomed Hayes, though, just like it wasn't Knight's final run-in with a student that ended his career. Both men ran their programs with Jekyll and Hyde personalities, constantly flipping the switch from entertaining, even endearing, to threatening and demanding. Too often they crossed the line from teacher to tyrant, leaving their respective administrations little to no choice.

"There were a lot of things that happened before that that led me to believe that was it," Romanoff said of the Gator Bowl incident. " ... I'm sure he knew all this was crumbling down, all the great things. Not many people know that after the game, he had a diabetic reaction, and the doctors were working on him after the game. It was tough. I was hoping they'd let him go back and just retire. For all he'd done and all he'd created, all the traditions he created here and all the great people he sent out on his coaching tree is amazing. Even Bobby Knight learned a lot of his methods from the way Coach Hayes ran his organization."

The prism through which those coaching methods are viewed, though, depends a lot on one's perspective, or perhaps one's generation. Were they disciplinarians or bullies? Were their methods worth the madness? Some still chalk it up as tough love, old-school coaching that produced strong, young men and respectable graduation rates.

What many people remember about Hayes and Knight, though, is not how they won. It's how they lost everything in the end.

Former Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops figured this out, retiring last spring with a team in position to contend for the national title. So did legendary Nebraska coach Tom Osborne, who was 60 at the time of his retirement, dealing with health problems, and had led the Cornhuskers to an undefeated record in his final season.

''I think it's important in this business,'' Osborne told the New York Times in December 1997, ''to walk away while you can still walk.''

Nearly three years later, in September 2000, after his firing, Knight sat at a wrought-iron table on his back porch with me and two other student reporters, and we were mad as hell because we knew we were trapped by his terms of the deal.

"I made two huge mistakes here. One was not leaving in May, and one was not leaving five years ago." Bob Knight

Knight had won.

We asked him all of the pressing questions about the incidents that led up to his firing, but it was futile. He refused to answer any of them until the second day of interviews, per the agreement he had made with the editors of the school paper. Instead, we spent a few hours listening to him talk about his glory days, wondering what we were going to write about.

Over the course of two days, I saw firsthand how he could switch from manipulative to entertaining in a matter of minutes. In the end, he did answer all of our questions.

Knight's wife, Karen, brought us sloppy joes and bags of potato chips in brown-paper lunch bags. There were times his booming voice shattered the peace of the nearby woods. ("You've got to be smart enough to figure that out!" he scolded me once.) Possibly the most personal thing he told us over those two days was that he knew he should have left Indiana sooner.

"I made two huge mistakes here," Knight said in the aftermath of his firing. "One was not leaving in May, and one was not leaving five years ago."

Surrounded on his back porch by some of his most staunch defenders -- local sportswriter Bob Hammel, former Hoosier and Detroit Piston Isiah Thomas and former Notre Dame coach Digger Phelps -- Knight seemed to wrestle out loud with all of it.

"I woke up the other morning for the first time in 35 years, and I didn't have a team to coach," he said.

Knight sat there, though, in a position he put himself in.