Bob Knight and the Legacy of a Flawed Genius

Bob Knight
Bob Knight / Gary Mook/GettyImages

Bob Knight passed away at 83 years-old on Wednesday and a deluge of tributes and obituaries poured in. Depending on the viewpoint, Knight was a basketball genius, a thoughtful friend, a brutal bully, a misunderstood savant or a volatile tyrant. In reality, the Hall of Fame coach wasn't any of those things. He was all of them. Like any of us, his life can't be put into one box or another. He was a complex, complicated figure. So who was Bob Knight? It's left to us to define his legacy.

How you view Knight depends largely on how you came to know him. I'm a proud Indiana alum, and can tell you opinions on the legendary coach are decidedly mixed in my world. Those who grew up in the state while Knight was coaching the Hoosiers largely view him as a mythical figure and revered hero. Those who went to Indiana while he coached see him largely the same way, though slightly more human depending on the years they where there. Those of us who came after see Knight far differently, especially if we didn't grow up in the state. Many of my friends were on campus when Knight was fired in 2000. At the time of his ouster, most of the world's reaction was "finally!" Those in Bloomington started a riot over the news. So, yeah, it's complicated.

Robert Montgomery Knight was born in Massillon, Ohio, in 1940. He was certainly of another age. Like many great coaches of his generation, he had a far different view of his profession than those who came after. His perspective on life and the sport he loved was forged through his time at Ohio State, where he played with legends on some incredible Buckeyes teams. He played on the 1960 national championship squad which featured future Hall of Famers Jerry Lucas and John Havlicek and was coached by Hall of Famer Fred Taylor. While Knight didn't play much during his time at Ohio State, he was certainly memorable.

My father once got a chance to meet Lucas and heard him tell a story about Knight. After games, Lucas -- a superstar and three-time All-American -- would head back to his room where Knight would be waiting. Exhausted from his on-court exertions, Lucas would simply want to go to sleep, but Knight would badger him all night, wanting to break down every play from each game in detail with a near photographic memory of the action. He was basketball nerd through and through. That was Bob Knight.

A few years ago I wore an Indiana basketball shirt to my gym in San Diego and an elderly gentleman stopped me and asked if I had gone there. After we introduced ourselves, and I told him what I did for a living, he sheepishly informed me he had played for Indiana in 1960. After a winding conversation about his experiences I asked about facing that 1960 Ohio State team. He gushed about Havlicek and Lucas, but when I asked about Knight his eyes darkened a tad, before he broke into a wry grin. "He never stopped f--king talking during games, even when he wasn't playing. Then when he got off the bench he'd foul everyone. He was just a battering ram. No skill." Then he paused, "But he was brilliant." That was Bob Knight.

After graduating from Ohio State in 1962, Knight coached high school basketball for a year before enlisting in the U.S. Army from 1963 to 1965, then the reserves from 1965 to 1969. While in the Army, he took a coaching position at West Point and was eventually named head coach of Army in 1965 at just 24 years old. In five seasons he went 102-50, which got the attention of Indiana.

He took over the Hoosiers in 1971 and they reached the Final Four in his second season. By the time his fourth year rolled around, Indiana went undefeated in the regular season, and if star Scott May hadn't suffered an injury during the NCAA Tournament, Knight & Co. likely would won the title instead of bowing out in the Elite Eight. No matter, the Hoosiers ran it back during the 1975-76 season and went undefeated on their way to a national title. Those Hoosiers remain the last men's Division I college basketball team to go unbeaten. That 63-1 record is still the best two-season stretch in college basketball history.

In 29 seasons at Indiana, Knight led the Hoosiers to three national titles, 11 Big Ten titles, five Final Four appearances and a .735 winning percentage. Numbers don't do that stretch justice, though. It wasn't the wins, it was how they came. Knight's teams played with an edge few can find these days. They were tough, hard-nosed, smart and ran his brilliant version of the motion offense to perfection. Knight's Hoosiers were unselfish, disciplined and, while talented, often played above their level due to their togetherness. Watching Indiana during Knight's heyday was like seeing a symphony at its peak, with a genius conductor directing the action. It was a sight to behold. He also took pride in two things above all others: His program never cheated and his players graduated. Whether they liked him or not, his peers respected the program he ran. His success was so profound that he finished his career as Division I's all-time winningest coach.

While Knight was truly a singular genius when it came to the basketball court, he was a supremely flawed man. It's not worth sugarcoating this section of the story. Knight was a bully. Many know him as the guy who threw a chair on court during a game, but that was actually one of the tamer episodes that has passed into legend. He was regularly verbally abusive to his players and staff members. Video and audio of these episodes shows uncontrolled rage that poured forth from Knight when things didn't go his way. His treatment of officials was similarly unhinged, as he berated referees on a regular basis.

While the verbal abuse was public at the time, few knew Knight was also physically abusive towards players and staff. Several of those incidents went public over the years, most notably when he choked guard Neil Reed during a practice. But other players have come forward over the years with their own stories of abuse suffered at the hands of the coaching legend. He even kicked his son, Pat, during a game. He made off-color remarks that offended scores of people, including an analogy about rape that set off a firestorm. Though he attempted to backtrack quickly, he never apologized. That was Bob Knight.

Those who were close to Knight swear by him. I've met dozens of his friends over the years and all went on at length of the things he had done for them. How he'd always been there in difficult times with a phone call or financial assistance when things weren't going well. He could be incredibly caring, giving and would do much for those less fortunate than himself. He raised millions for charitable causes and was a father figure to many of his players and former staff members. Someone they could always turn to for advice or assistance. I've heard glowing stories about his friendship for years. Stores also abound about people who were touched by interactions over the years. A kind word, advice at a basketball camp, or stopping to talk to fans on the street. The kind of intimate gestures that stay with people for a lifetime. That was Bob Knight.

Conversely, Knight could be incredibly bitter and held grudges for years. When Indiana fired him in 2000, he refused to even return to campus for 20 years. Despite multiple changes in coaches, and university administrators, Knight held firm in his anger. Those he felt wronged by faced his wrath for life. Years after perceived slights, they still felt his fury. A fellow Indiana alum who was close to Knight once told me, "It would be impossible to have better friend than Coach (Knight). Or a worse enemy."

A broadcaster who worked with Knight and had been friends with him for years told me a story that was enlightening. The pair were watching a game from the stands once and Knight began discussing a long-time friendship that had turned sour. Knight then turned to him and said, "I've had a lot of good friends over the years. But in the end, I always seem to fuck it up." That was Bob Knight.

When I arrived at Indiana in the fall of 2003, Knight had been gone for three years. The university was just digging out from the scandal that caused his firing. In some sense, the campus had gotten over it and moved past the legendary coach, but the greater "Hoosier Nation" may never truly be over it. When he finally returned to Assembly Hall in 2020 during halftime of a game against, I was there. Dozens of his former players were there for the moment and seeing the joy on their faces was cathartic for everyone in attendance. But that wound may never be fully healed. Many Indiana fans refer to Knight's Era like the good old days. A bygone era where everything was just great. They think kids these days are just too soft to deal with a coach like Knight and that, not the abuse, is the real problem.

For better or worse, Knight's shadow will always hang over Indiana's basketball program. A larger-than-life figure whose legend was, if anything, enhanced by his faults. And that's the legacy he leaves behind.

He was a coach who became a hero to an entire state, a villain loathed by most of the sports world, a calculated, exacting genius, an unhinged lunatic, a flawed man who could produce beauty and ugliness in equal measure, a dear friend, bitter enemy and a complicated, utterly human figure who meant so much to those who loved him.

That was Bob Knight.