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Bob Knight: It Was Always About the Players

Italicized text from “Silver Knight: 25 Remarkable Years of Championship Indiana Basketball” by Bob Hammel. Images from the H-T photo archives at the Monroe County History Center. Blog by Rod Spaw.

Robert Montgomery Knight

(October 25, 1940,- November 1, 2023)

When they met in a hotel room in Houston in March 1971 – 30-year-old Army coach Bob Knight and the Indiana University search committee athletic director Bill Orwig – chances are no one was thinking about history.

Indiana needed a basketball coach. Knight, after six seasons at Army that subsequent results grade as remarkable, felt he wanted to move. Indiana’s 17-7 season had ended in a player rebellion that Orwig felt demanded a disciplinarian.

All those things dovetailed nicely.

But Orwig, who died at 86 in 1995, always remembered one other thing about those early meetings with Bob Knight.

“After he came to Bloomington and we had talked everything over and were sitting in my living room, I asked him, ‘Why do you want to come to Indiana.’”

“He said, ‘I can win here”.’”

“Isn’t that a great answer? I like a guy who says, ‘I can win.’”

True to his word, that is what Bob Knight did at Indiana University for 28 years. He won:  662 games; 11 Big 10 Conference titles; one National Invitational Tournament championship; an Olympic gold medal; a Pan American Games gold medal and three national championships.

He won with relentless defense, a methodical offense, teamwork, and with an absolute refusal to accept anything less than excellence. He was his own worst critic and his own worst enemy at times. His obstinacy and temperament could get him into trouble, and it eventually led IU to part ways with its Hall of Fame coach in 2000.

There was a long estrangement as Knight finished his career at Texas Tech University, retiring in 2008 with an overall record of 902-371. At the time, it was the most wins of any Division 1 college basketball coach in history; Knight still ranks sixth all-time.

It was 20 years before Knight again appeared at a game in Assembly Hall. When he stepped onto the court on Feb. 8, 2020, he was escorted by some of his best players from his best teams, players who had convinced their coach that it was time to come home.

For Knight, it always was about the players.

“That, to me, is the enduring quality of what athletic participation is all about – players who were able to win championships and have been able then to take what they’ve learned in winning those championships to do the same thing with their lives.

“They’ve all talked about what a privilege it was to play at Indiana, to be on teams like they played on, how much they gained from it and enjoyed about it. Yet the privilege they felt playing at Indiana is absolutely nothing compared to the pleasure and the privilege I feel in having coached them as players.”

IU Men’s Coach Bob Knight during a practice at Assembly Hall in October 1971, shortly after the facility opened. Knight, at right foreground, is shown giving instruction to player Steve Downing as other unidentified players watch.

Bob Knight holds the NCAA championship plaque up to a crowd at Assembly Hall in celebration of IU’s win over North Carolina in the 1981 title game. The scoreboard reflects the final score, 63-50 in favor of IU. It was Knight’s second championship as coach.

Bob Knight talks with CBS sportscasters Brent Musberger (left) and Billy Packer (right) after winning the 1987 men’s championship in New Orleans. To Knight’s right is Steve Alford. IU players Ricky Calloway and Dean Garrett are standing behind Knight. It was Knight’s third national championship at IU.

The IU men’s basketball team takes the court after a timeout during the 1975-76 season. The team had a perfect record that season in winning Knight’s first national championship. The players, from left, Bobby Wilkerson, Kent Benson, Quinn Buckner, Scott May, Coach Bob Knight, and Tom Abernethy.

IU Men’s basketball coach Bob Knight congratulates guard Isiah Thomas after IU defeated Michigan, 98 to 83, at Assembly Hall on Feb. 28, 1981.

Bob Knight embraces Calbert Cheaney after Cheaney set the all-time Big 10 scoring record in a game at Assembly Hall on March.

Bob Knight calls on his favorite player of all time, his son, Pat, to enter a game.

Bob Knight has a sideline conference with Randy Whitman during a game in 1979.

IU coach Bob Knight introduces Mike Woodson at the annual Senior Night celebration in 1980. IU’s basketball program came full circle in 2021 when Woodson was named the Hoosiers’ head coach.

This is a photo of Bob Knight’s display at the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. He was inducted on May 13, 1991, at the age of 50.