In no way will I be covering new ground with this post. Everyone and their dog is offering up commentary on the passing of “the General,” Robert Montgomery Knight. But, despite the recent chili-related content, this is still nominally “A Citizen’s Guide to Indiana,” and Knight was a dominant personality in the state for a very long time. He passed away this week at the age of eighty-three. His health had been failing for some time. The AP has an excellent obituary.
I grew up in a household with a joking/not-joking “the Lord is My Shepherd, but Bobby Knight is My Coach” bumper sticker on the refrigerator. Knight’s significance as an almost incomprehensibly successful basketball coach in already basketball-crazy Indiana is tough to overstate. I was too young to have any real memory of the 74-76 teams that went 63-1 over two seasons. The first memory that really lodges in my mind was the 1981 championship game where, in my memory anyway, the network introduced the game playing Barry Manilow’s “Looks Like We Made It.” (Be careful around kids – you never know what utter randomness is going to get lodged in their brain for the next 40 years.)
During the 1987 run, the semifinal game against UNLV was being played on the same day as the Indiana high school basketball finals. Richmond had beat Gary Roosevelt in the semi-final early game. They had a break until the evening game (where they would lose to Marion in the championship game for the second time in three years.) A bunch of people had rooms in one of the downtown Indianapolis hotels. I can’t remember the name, but it was tall and had rooms surrounding an open central gallery so you could see the floors above and below you. I remember IU hitting a big shot and the central area filling up with cheers, echoing from top to bottom. Seemed like everyone in the place was watching the IU/UNLV game. (Which stands to reason since much of the hotel was presumably filled with basketball fans from Richmond, Gary, Marion, and Bedford who had come to watch the high school finals.)
To this day, I hold a grudge against “TV” Teddy Valentine with out whom, I am firmly convinced, Indiana would have won a sixth championship in 1992. IU lost to Duke in the semifinal game by three points, ultimately crumbling under the weight of Valentine’s officiating. A little more than a year later, I would find myself sitting next to IU guard, Chris Reynolds, in my Civil Procedure class when we both went to law school at Indiana. If Chris was representative of the work ethic of Knight’s players, that work ethic is everything it’s billed to be.
On senior day in 1994, I was present in Assembly Hall when Knight made the famous quip that he wanted to be buried upside down so critics could kiss his ass. That one is getting a lot of mileage right now for obvious reasons. But, truth be told, after the 1993 season, it never felt like Knight’s teams ever performed at the levels he had achieved over the prior two decades. Eventually his scandals, his reduced success, and changing societal standards led to his ouster.
I could never figure out if Knight got angrier and less appropriate over those last years or if standards had changed. In any event, the University decided that the juice was no longer worth the squeeze, and he was shown the door in 2000. At the time, I was among the Knight loyalists mad about the decision. In retrospect, I’m no longer a hardliner on the issue. It probably could have been handled better. The triggering event was ticky tacky. But, the larger issue of him being a hothead using physical intimidation as a tool was never going away. Meanwhile, you could no longer point at a gaudy string of victories and titles as an excuse for sweeping it all under the rug.
Many years later, after snubbing any number of conciliatory efforts by people related to Indiana basketball, Knight would surface in Indiana to campaign in support of a person who was antithetical to everything Knight supposedly instilled in his players – commitment to hard work and excellence, grit, integrity, no cheating and no short cuts, dedication to team without self-aggrandizement (even to the point of not having names on the jerseys) – which made me question his commitment to any of it. But, upon his passing, I can soften on this too. He came back to Assembly Hall in 2020, and there was much rejoicing.
He was very, very good at coaching basketball and that meant a lot to my state for a lot of years. R.I.P. Coach Knight.