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Bob Knight Wise to Blow Off Indiana

Nov 7, 2009 – 5:09 PM
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Terence Moore

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BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Even before the start of both events during the past two days to celebrate the seven inductees into this year's Indiana University Athletics Hall of Fame, everybody hoped. Everybody prayed. In fact, everybody who bleeds Hoosier red meant no harm, but they wanted Bob Knight to do the wrong thing.

Instead, Knight did the right thing.

He stayed away. And, yes, I know these aren't the same folks who used that myth nine years ago to get rid of the greatest college basketball coach ever.

About that myth: The bosses at Ohio State fired Woody Hayes in 1978 because he couldn't beat Michigan anymore as much as because of his slugging of a Clemson player during that Gator Bowl. Likewise, Knight was ousted at Indiana because he couldn't win in the NCAA Tournament anymore (not going past the second round in his last six appearances, including four first-round losses) as much as because of his tendency to punch, throw and choke stuff at the wrong time.

Knight's old Indiana bosses were just too cowardly to admit the truth.

Former Indiana president Myles Brand was the leader of them all, but he left to become head of the NCAA before dying of cancer two months ago. Not only that, most of his associates also are no longer around the Hoosiers.

Still, Knight was wise to suggest during the last few days that he'd rather chomp on his favorite fishing pole than return to his old kingdom.

"I told him he was welcome up to and including the day of the event," said Indiana athletics director Fred Glass, among those believing in Mother Goose and Flying Monkeys as they searched the horizon on a gorgeous Saturday afternoon at Memorial Stadium for a white-haired guy looking bigger than life in a red sweater. In other words, this latest in two centuries of shaky Indiana football teams playing and losing to Wisconsin was secondary. So were those other Hall of Fame folks preparing to stand before the Parents' Weekend crowd at halftime.

This was all about Knight, 69, now retired and most recently the former head basketball coach at Texas Tech. He said he wasn't coming back to town. He said he didn't wish to have his rather large shadow smother the other inductees. Added Glass, in his first year as Indiana AD and Class of '81, "I never ever put in pressure on him to let me know if he decided to change his mind. So if he walked in and sauntered onto the field and said a few words, I would be thrilled and not completely surprised."

So much for Hoosier fairy tales. As was the case Friday night during the official induction ceremonies at Assembly Hall, former sports editor Bob Hammel of the local Bloomington Herald-Times was Knight's stand-in. Hammel shared a letter from Knight with the record crowd of 800 or so gathered, and Knight stated bluntly near the beginning of the letter, "I just have too much negative feeling toward some people and the things they did or did not do during my last few years and who had no understanding of either athletics or honesty."

Yeah, Knight needed to stay away, all right. Forgiveness beats the alternative in the long run for everybody, and such is even true for Knight, a notorious hardliner when it comes to his principles. It's just that, in the short run, he has earned the right to remain bitter for a while longer at all things Indiana .

One moment, Knight was the flawed but effective icon on campus. The next, he was set up for failure by a zero-tolerance policy that led to his firing after he made Indiana famous (or infamous, depending on your feeling about coaches tossing chairs) during his tenure with the Hoosiers from 1971 to 2000. He hasn't come within a vintage Robert Montgomery Knight yell of Monroe County since Brand devised that policy, then claimed Knight violated it on several occasions and then enforced it by shoving his coach out the Assembly Hall door in September 2000. This is the same Assembly Hall that featured most of Knight's record 902 victories as a head coach along the way to three NCAA championships and an NIT title.

This also is the same Assembly Hall that honored those new Hall of Fame members before an audience "nearly more than twice" the normal amount for the annual event, said Glass, who orchestrated Knight's inclusion into the Hall of Fame.

According to Glass, a corporate attorney in his native Indianapolis before returning to campus, the last time he encountered Knight was never. "Never talked to him. Never met him, but I watched him a lot as a kid, as a student and as an alumnus," said Glass, who only has corresponded with Knight through letters -- and Glass' message has been the same throughout: Please come back.

Said Glass, "You know, I had the emotions that all of the Hoosier Nation had back then (when he was fired). The highs and the lows. And I think when the smoke clears and the emotion comes out, it's still three national championships, 11 Big Ten championships, six Big Ten coach of the year awards, four national coach of the year awards, 11 Big 10 mvps, 26 All-Americans and the 98 percent graduation rate."

Knight didn't cheat, either.

That's why this Knight remains shiny throughout this storied basketball state that is the birthplace of John Wooden, the inspiration for the movie "Hoosiers" and more hoops on the side of barns per capita than any place in the universe.

"After all these years, I know everybody wants him to come back, because when you think of Indiana University basketball, you think of Bobby Knight," said Jim Hazzard, 47, an IT supervisor from Indianapolis who was among the early tailgaters in the Memorial Stadium parking lot. Hazzard is an Indiana State graduate, but he travels with his family from Indianapolis to a slew of Indiana football and basketball games in his 12-ton trailer that sports a banner on its front saying, "You're in Hoosier Country." Added Hazzard, "Bobby still has ties here, and I think he still considers this to be his home. I think deep down in his heart, he really wants to be here."

They want Knight here -- young and old.

The most popular Halloween mask around town last month was the Bobby Knight mask, which shows that his popularity spans the generations.

Take, for instance, the young and lively gathering this weekend at Kilroy's Sports Bar on Walnut Street near The Square downtown. It was its typically pro-Knight self. Said Paul Miller, 25, a bar manager, "The people I interact with are students, and they were really excited to hear he was going to be in the Hall of Fame. He was long gone when most of them came to school here, but who hasn't heard of Bob Knight?

"The other thing is, when it comes to students, he was sort of the bad boy of basketball, so all of the kids kind of like him for that reason. He also was the rebel, and that's very appealing to a bunch of them."

No wonder thousands of Indiana students flooded the middle of campus days after Knight's dismissal nine years ago in protest. To their delight, Knight sauntered into their midst, stood on a platform and told them to stay calm. He'd be OK.

Go in peace.
The only thing that remained in turmoil around Indiana after Knight's departure was his once-prolific basketball program. Although Mike Davis took many of the players that he inherited from Knight to the NCAA championship game two years later, the Hoosiers have spent the majority of their post-Knight years going from the telephone scandals of Kelvin Sampson to the six-victory disaster of last season.

Home attendance was so shaky in recent years that Indiana officials did something that they haven't done since the early days of Knight's tenure. They discounted some of the tickets inside of the 17,456-seat Assembly Hall.

It's all a shame. It's all a needless shame, too. Knight wasn't at the Bobby Bowden stage of staying long past his usefulness. Instead, Knight remained effective enough to retain the right to leave Indiana University on his own terms.

Now Knight has earned the right to return to Indiana University on his own terms, and those terms weren't to his liking this time.

There is hope, though. Said Knight in his letter to Hammel while speaking of Glass, "You mentioned in your letter to me that you would like to sit down and talk with me any place or any time. I would be willing to do this and would suggest you bring Bob Hammel with you as he would be a great help in your understanding why I feel as I do."

Actually, Hammel isn't necessary for that.

Just re-read everything I just wrote.

Terence Moore is a national columnist and commentator for FanHouse. He is a frequent panelist on "Rome Is Burning," an ESPN show hosted by Jim Rome, that is seen Monday through Friday at 4:30 PM ET. Moore spent more than three decades working for major newspapers, including 26 years as an award-winning sports columnist for the San Francisco Examiner and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He resides in Atlanta.
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