|Tuesday, January 28
Updated: February 5, 12:10 PM ET
800 reasons why I like Bob Knight
By Jay Bilas
Special to ESPN.com
If you ask Bob Knight, and I have, he will say that there is nothing captivating about reaching the 800-win plateau.
He is more interested in preparing for and playing the next game on the Big 12 schedule for its own sake. He is still fascinated and absorbed with the intricacies and nuances of the game, any game, not just a game that could allow him to join an elite group of college coaches.
Well, I think Bob Knight reaching 800 career victories has special significance, because it is a milestone that provides us the opportunity to reflect on a truly unique and gifted coach. Victory No. 800, whenever it comes, will give the country a chance to celebrate the accomplishments of a legend who is still in the game.
Knight has 799 wins heading into Wednesday night's game against Nebraska. But Knight will count wins well beyond 800. He is still at the top of his game as a coach, innovator and strategist. And while many may reasonably disagree with certain things he has done or said in the past, the game is far better for having him in it. His accomplishments and contribution to the game far outweigh the controversies.
Longtime coaches simply shake their heads in astonishment when asked to put Knight's career win total and his accomplishments in perspective. Good coaches have their hands full trying to get their teams to play consistently at a high level, reach double-digit conference wins, gain NCAA berths, or earn a single trip to the Final Four in their careers. For those in and around the college game, it is difficult to comprehend the enormity of the success Knight has had over the course of his 38-year career.
He started out as the Boy Wonder at Army in 1965, making a service academy a consistent winner. When he was dismissed at Indiana, he left as the winningest coach in Big Ten history, with three national championships and five trips to the Final Four, and with the claim of being the last coach to have an undefeated team in college basketball. How Knight has remained a consistent winner is what makes his career special.
Knight won 102 games at Army running "reverse action." He led Indiana to national championships in 1976, 1981 and 1987, and to the Final Four in 1973 and 1992, running the "motion offense" he designed with Pete Newell. And last year, his first at Texas Tech, he guided the Red Raiders to a near miracle turnaround and into the NCAA Tournament.
In addition to his Final Four and title teams, his Indiana teams of 1975, 1980 and 1993 were national title favorites that fell just short of the Final Four because of injuries. To win 800, Knight has exhibited consistency, longevity and excellence. And he has not compromised his principles, whether you agree with them or not.
In addition to his 798 wins, the staggering number of Big Ten titles and his three national titles, Knight served USA Basketball with pride. He took the United States to Olympic gold in 1984 and Pan Am gold in 1979, and he did it with teams he molded into greatness, rather than with great players selected to play on the same team. Many of the game's finest coaches couldn't dream of reaching Knight's level of international accomplishment.
Along the way, Knight had high-profile missteps and controversies that provided his critics with plenty of ammunition. I have no problem with any reasonable person who does not like Knight or care for the way he approaches things. I can understand that position, and I respect that opinion. However, I make no apology for believing and saying this: I truly like Bob Knight, and I respect the hell out of him as both a coach and a person.
I was recently with Knight in Lubbock to talk to him about the significance of reaching 800. It was just after Texas Tech had lost 69-44 on the road to Kansas State. After seeing the score, I was not surprised that Texas Tech had lost, because any team can drop any game on the road in a conference as tough as the Big 12. What surprised me was the fact Texas Tech managed only 44 points against Kansas State's zone defense. You would have to go back to his days at Army, or to his first few years at Indiana, to find a game in which one of his teams had been held below 50 points. Usually quite proficient against zones, the Red Raiders did not shoot the ball well, and Kansas State packed it in and rebounded almost every Tech miss.
When teams are outshot and outrebounded like Texas Tech was at Kansas State, there is often soul searching through difficult practices and team meetings in the following days. After such a loss, coaches and players will attempt to re-commit themselves, and toughness is a consistent theme of such workouts and meetings. It can be a tense environment.
The Monday following its loss to Kansas State, Texas Tech had two short and focused workouts, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. I attended both. The morning workout was typical of Texas Tech. The players were spirited and alert while working on their shooting and zone offense. Knight was his usual self in practice, barking instructions, encouragement, dry witticisms and doing it in such a way that the action rarely stopped. If you had not known Texas Tech had lost by 25 its last time out, you never would have guessed it from the manner in which the players and coaches approached their work. Following the workout, as he usually does, Knight took his players into the locker room to discuss practice and give them the schedule for the remainder of the day. Knight told his players the things they did well during the morning workout, and what they would work to accomplish in the afternoon workout. In the afternoon, he told them they would work on man offense and defense, and he expected them to concentrate on certain screening angles and certain ways of setting up their cuts. He closed by saying something that few would believe, given the widespread perceptions of Knight. He said "thank you" to his players.
Knight thanked them for their concentration, hard work and attentiveness to the tasks at hand. He also said they gave him as enjoyable a practice as he has had as a coach. He told them he expected the same kind of effort and environment in the afternoon workout. In a way, it was extraordinary. In another way, it was just Knight.
Spending that Monday with Knight was just as enjoyable and educational as it would have been if Texas Tech had drubbed Kansas State two days before. There was basketball talk, good food and stories worthy of multiple SportsCentury pieces. Knight had watched film of the K-State game, clearly understood where his team was, and knew exactly how he wanted to approach the next games.
Clearly, Texas Tech will win several more games this year in the rough-and-tumble Big 12. It will also undoubtedly play well in a few and still lose to some of the nation's best teams in that conference. And Knight will coach his team the same way, whatever its record. He will teach his players the right way to do things on the court and tell them what he expects from each off the court -- and they will do it. Or they will not play. Isn't that what we all expect coaches to do?
Bob Knight's approach of 800 has also provided me with an opportunity to examine how I approach and perceive coverage of Knight. I know why many do not care for him, and why he is such a compelling figure in the world of sport. He is a man of certain beliefs, and he is without compromise. He has a low tolerance for bull, and he does not cater to the media for the sake of media coverage. If Knight thought it important for the media to like and revere him, and give him better coverage, he could easily achieve that end.
There are several coaches who can put on a show for the cameras and writers, painting themselves as something they are not. Bob Knight does not and will not do that. I respect that.
It is not our birthright as media members to have full and complete access to Bob Knight or any other person. While we are free to criticize and condemn those who we find unworthy or disagreeable, we should not be heard to complain when a subject feels that way about us. For a field that expects its subjects to take criticism well, we generally do not take it well ourselves and are far too sensitive to it.
When I discuss Knight with others, whether it is in radio interviews or television commentary, I often feel the need to provide a disclaimer when providing analysis or saying something positive about him or his coaching. It seems as if I am expected to state that I do not always agree with Knight, and I have not always approved of certain things he has done or said in the past. Knight's past mistakes, more than any other coach I know, are revisited with such frequency and fervor that I can feel the expectation of others that I add a "but, add disclaimer here ..." to my commentary.
I do not get that feeling when discussing any other coach, even though I have often disagreed with other coaches. I will no longer give in to that feeling and provide such a disclaimer regarding Knight just because some may expect it. Like I will with any other coach, if in the future I believe that Bob Knight made a mistake, I will say so. However, like I will with any other coach, if Knight continues to do well, I will say so without bringing up past mistakes. That is the only right thing to do.
For those who feel that Indiana was right and justified in dismissing Knight, and that Knight should have been disciplined earlier, that is a reasonable position with which I will not argue. Ultimately, he was fired. However, he was hired at Texas Tech, and has, by all objective standards, done a remarkable job. He has comported himself very well from the start, and has been an exemplary coach. For some, that is not enough. For me, it is.
Objectively, watch the way Knight conducts himself on the sidelines. He sits down most of the game. He coaches his team, and rarely gets into the officials, relative to his coaching brethren. Only once has an official blown a whistle to give Knight a technical at Texas Tech, and that call was questionable.
Approaching 800 wins, Knight is still the same coach and person. But he is clearly much more comfortable with where he is. The frustration he felt at Indiana is behind him.
Bob Knight will tell you that playing for him is not for everyone. On that we can all agree. I played for, and learned from, one of the greatest coaches in the game, Mike Krzyzewski, who played for and learned from one of the greatest coaches in the game, Bob Knight. As I felt when I committed to play for Krzyzewski in 1981, I would have played for Knight in a heartbeat, and still would today. But, upon hearing that, Knight will undoubtedly tell you that I never would have played for him ... because he never would have recruited me.
That is yet another reason why Knight is approaching 800, and will go beyond 800.
Send in college basketball questions to ESPN's Jay Bilas, who will answer a few each week as the season continues.
Jay Bilas is a college basketball analyst at ESPN and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.