- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 13, 2000

Bob Knight is a brilliant basketball coach, the best there is and the last of a kind.

He is an anachronism from the '50s who has resisted the touchy-feely sentiments of the new millennium. He refuses to change. He refuses to adapt.

He is the Vince Lombardi of his profession, an unyielding, uncompromising figure who sometimes appears unaware of the social forces around him. Or maybe he is just indifferent to them. He is right, the world is wrong, and his 763 career victories attest to his power and insight.

He is called the "General." That is not an apt metaphor. He really is the vitriol-spewing drill sergeant from Parris Island, S.C., who sees it as a duty to whip his young men, the recruits, into top physical and mental shape.

If they could last four seasons with him, they were better for it. They were tougher and stronger than the other guys. Some didn't make it, of course. They were the washouts, flawed in some way, banished forever from the exclusive Indiana basketball family.

Would you want your son to play for Knight?

That used to be one of the favorite questions of Knight's critics. The answer was easy. It depends on the son. Military school is sometimes one of the last resorts of bewildered parents.

The players are sticking behind Knight, their threats to leave enlightening. They know the man best. This is not a reprieve for them, as some would have it. This is an attack on their well-being, a pansy decision made by the pencil-neck geeks outside Assembly Hall.

Kent Harvey, the student whose arm was grabbed by Knight, just happens to be a convenient pansy, traumatized by a 59-year-old man, almost an old man.

The 19-year-old student is not tough, only full of himself, conditioned by an element of society that embraces victims. He did not stand up to Knight after initiating the confrontation. He told his daddy, one of Knight's critics in Bloomington, Ind., and then daddy told school officials.

Daddy probably regrets the disclosure. The student, if he elects to stay at Indiana, has become a target of his peers, none of whom is almost an old man. His college experience just expanded to therapy, counseling and bodyguards.

As Indiana's players could tell you, the sports culture is different from the work-a-day world. The passion is high, the cauldron unforgiving. You can't be weak in places like West Lafayette, Ind. The weak lose. There is no ambiguity in the final score. You meet the challenge or you don't. The administration, the alumni, the boosters and the media respond accordingly. They don't check the team's grade-point average or the peach-fuzz souls maturing into men. They check the profit-margin line and the wins and losses.

Knight elected not to play the game within the game. He could feud with his athletic director as easily as he could with reporters. His capacity to suffer fools dissolved years ago. He was above the inane, the politics, the give-and-take. He earned the privilege, as he saw it. He got the big things right, didn't he?

He didn't cheat. He pushed the NCAA to reform. He demanded his players to be committed in the classroom. The student-athlete ideal was real to Knight. He actually believed, however antiquated it sounds today, that sports can build character.

So how did he become this media caricature, this flawed genius, this chair-throwing idiot savant of basketball?

He was too easy, too genuine, a maverick in a mostly bland, cookie-cutter environment. He made mistakes, and the mistakes accumulated. They became part of the legend, the obligatory parenthetical matter: the run-in with the Puerto Rican policeman and the LSU fan. And the flying chair. Who could forget the flying chair?

Knight is many things, not just a keen basketball mind with an explosive temper. He can be charming, witty, the life of the party. He can talk on a variety of subjects. Military history is a personal favorite. He can needle with the best. You have to look hard to see the twinkle in his eyes. The locker-room banter is how he connects.

The salty asides are intended to be ingratiating, if not a window to the locker room. The view is not always pleasant, even jarring, as the Neil Reed videotape in the spring showed.

Coaches grabbing players recalls a bygone era, back in Knight's formative years, when a coach might yank the stubborn dimwit before him to make a point. There was not a lot of psychology to it. Misguided testosterone is an awful thing to waste in athletics. That was the thinking then, and Woody Hayes was the least of it.

Most of the old-school types are either dead or retired, and the new breed, polished and gussied, is respectful of the information age. Perception is reality. They wouldn't even rake leaves in one of Knight's game-night red sweaters.

The cries being dispensed either in favor of Knight or against him are shrill, perhaps because he reminds America of what it once was. So his parting either is something to celebrate or lament, depending on your point of view.

Knight is the incorrigible holdout, convinced of his rightness, irascible and overbearing but gracious and open. He is up against Oprah and Rosie, the ribbon-wearing crowd and an industry devoted to being ultra-sensitive, politically correct and sufficiently androgynous.

The university's zero-tolerance policy was a hopeless leap of faith, hardly a noble solution, given the human condition.

The human inclination to express frustration is limitless, and Knight was stripped of that fundamental freedom.

His firing is not a triumph or a statement steeped in virtue. Mostly, it is unfortunate.

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