|Saturday, February 1
Updated: February 6, 12:21 PM ET
Knight has his own brand of winning
By Adrian Wojnarowski
Special to ESPN.com
Bob Knight has a chance to reshape his legacy, to transform the countdown to his coronation as college basketball's winningest coach into a pulpit from where to preach the possibilities of college sports reform. The NCAA is selling an agenda of sweeping change, radical plans that have been core beliefs Knight hasn't just discussed for 30 years, but practiced. Long ago, he lost the credibility to be a voice of reason, his act often too unreasonable.
So, Wednesday night officially began the countdown to Dean Smith's record, the Texas Tech coach's 800th victory bringing within 79 of the all-time record, within reach of a redemption that could come out of better behavior. It isn't just his legacy he can change, but the spiraling, soulless sport surrounding him. He's always had the courage and convictions to make a stand, but maybe now he's gaining something else again: His credibility.
As Knight is inclined to sit out the interviews that await him along the way, he should think again. It's his opportunity to make this about something bigger than himself. His chance to make this about the NCAA, about reform, about change. All he has to do is steer clear of the skirmishes, large and small, that he has somehow seemed to sidestep at Texas Tech and he'll assure that his message won't be lost in bad behavior.
For too long, Knight demanded a discipline out of his players that he didn't demand of himself. But when Knight was busy blowing himself up with run-ins with Neil Reed and Ron Felling, it was impossible to hear him preach of graduation rates, less television and more class time for college basketball players. Now the NCAA's new executive director wants to "turn the volume down"on college sports, an ideal that Knight has always lived.
The greatest irony is unmistakable: Myles Brand, the man responsible for running Knight out at Indiana University, is selling himself as the ultimate reformer as the NCAA's new chief executive. He's the president promising to return power to the presidents, those wardens who have allowed these athletic asylums to rage out of control for years; all chasing greater athletic glory, all chasing the almighty dollar.
Brand used the firing of Knight to catapult his career, and became the first college president hired to be the NCAA's president. More or less, Brand is a functional phony, talking a game as the NCAA's executive that he was never willing to live as IU's president until it became politically beneficial. He was never willing to take a stand until Knight's clout was on the decline, the public pressure to discipline his coach on the rise.
Brand could see the political promise of selling himself as the president responsible for bringing down Bobby Knight and leaped on it. All these self-righteous presidents cheered Brand, then asked him to replace Cedric Dempsey, conveniently forgetting that those Escalades parked outside the campus basketball arena belonged to their centers and point guards.
I've hated a lot of what Knight has done through the years, but he takes stands nobody else dares to take. And these days, coaches are too obsessed with the next job, the next payday, to take a stand on anything. If there was another coach in America turning his sneaker money over to the campus library, he should raise his hand. If there was another coach willing to do so many speaking engagements for charity, I haven't heard of him.
Knight spoke out on past cheaters at Kentucky and Illinois, the way too many coaches are afraid to do. Nothing could sanitize dirty programs like the clean ones calling them out. He ripped late television games, when everyone else feared networks wouldn't otherwise want their schools on the air.
It's hard to make an ethical stand as a coach, when you're caught on camera holding a sophomore by the throat or tossing a chair across the court. Near the end at Indiana, his purpose had been reduced to a constant bid for self-preservation. On the eve of his final NCAA Tournament game in 2000, a 20-point loss to Pepperdine, Knight turned his players into human shields to discredit and destroy the character of the former players calling Knight out on his atrocities. He had his own sports information staff pass out releases dishing dirt on departed Hoosiers, including Neil Reed.
"What he always preached to us," one former Knight pupil told me, "is that you can never view yourself as bigger than the program."
He learned his lesson the hard way, all the way out of the door at Indiana and down to the dusty plains of Lubbock, Texas. This is Knight's second act, a second chance, and so far he's holding up his end of the bargain. Maybe there are things happening behind the scenes, but we'll give him the benefit of the doubt now. He's learned his lessons, tempered his bad act and just maybe is rounding third and heading toward 879 with a clearer conscience.
Perhaps, Bob Knight has finally turned down the volume on Bob Knight. He has always had something to say worth hearing. It's time to listen again. Sometimes, it was hard to tell. Sometimes, it was harder to hear. Yet, just understand: Myles Brand has come late to this crusade, embarking on a mission that his deposed basketball coach started long ago.
Adrian Wojnarowski is a columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPNWoj@aol.com.