In the first basketball game he coached, Bob Knight lost his temper and broke his clipboard. It was only a junior varsity high school game in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, but it wouldn’t be the last time that the objects and people around him felt his wrath.
During a coaching career of more than 40 years, Knight was one of the most complicated and polarizing figures in sports.
He was, by any measure, one of the most successful coaches in basketball history. At Indiana University, he led his team to three national championships, including in 1976, when his Hoosiers had the last undefeated season in men’s college basketball.
He was named the national coach of the year four times and led the U.S. men’s team to an Olympic gold medal in 1984. When he won his 880th game in 2007, he overtook Dean Smith of the University of North Carolina as the winningest men’s college coach in history.
But victory never seemed to be enough for the mercurial Knight, who was 83 when he died Wednesday at his home in Bloomington, Indiana. His family announced the death in a statement but did not cite a cause.
When Indiana won the NCAA Tournament in 1976, 1981 and 1987, Knight was hailed as a brilliant coach and a master of motivation. As he drove his team toward perfection, he demanded absolute control. His voice was the only one heard at practice.
“Remember this, boys,” he told his team in 1985. “There’s only one drummer you can listen to and that’s me.”
When his expectations were not met – whether by players, referees, sports writers or university officials – he exploded in furious and profane tirades. During a game in 1985, he flung a chair across the court in anger, leading to a two-year probation from the Big Ten Conference.
The 6-foot-5 Knight wielded intimidation as a coaching tool. He choked at least one of his players in practice, head-butted another and once during a game appeared to kick a member of his team – his own son.
“My players put up with me,” he told the Washington Post in 1985, “because they know that when I do things, even when I do things that I consider distasteful, I do it because I’m trying to help them be the best thing they can be, whatever it is.
“And I have enough of an ego to think I know better than anyone – professors, girlfriends, the guy in the dorm – what’s best for them.”
His team used an unselfish “motion offense,” constantly passing and setting screens to find an open shot. Above all, though, his Hoosiers were known for their relentless man-to-man defense, which frustrated opponents, forced them into mistakes and inevitably wore down their will.
“The average coach wants his team to score points,” Knight told Sports Illustrated in 1981. “It’s his character, his machismo, whatever you want to call it, that’s at stake.
“So if I make a coach concerned enough about my defense stopping his offense, then he’ll forget about my offense.”
Off the court, he ran a clean, scandal-free program, and more than 95% of his players who completed four years of eligibility received their degrees.
He received his sport’s highest honor – election to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame – in 1991, midway through his career.
Yet, for all his accolades and accomplishments, Knight was incapable of curbing his temper or his tongue
Knight railed against changing standards in sports and society, including the role of women. In a 1988 interview, he told NBC newscaster Connie Chung, “If rape is inevitable, relax and enjoy it.”
He apologized for some of his transgressions, but his anger and menacing sense of defiance never abated. As his hair grew whiter and he dropped the boyish nickname of “Bobby” in favor of “Bob,” he remained unrepentant. His greatest enemy was always himself.
“I see absolutely no reason to change my ways,” he said in March 2000.
Weeks later, a three-year-old videotape surfaced showing that Knight had grabbed one of his players, Neil Reed, by the throat during a practice.
University trustees instituted a “zero-tolerance” policy, warning Knight that any future outbursts would lead to his dismissal.
Then that September, as Knight walked on campus, a freshman student reportedly shouted, “Hey, what’s up, Knight?”
The coach grabbed the student by his arm, cursing him for not showing respect. Within days, citing a “pattern of unacceptable behavior,” the university president, Myles Brand, fired Knight, in one of the most stunning falls from grace in sports history.
For years, Knight had stalked the sidelines in a plaid sports coat or red sweater. Not only had he brought championships and glory to the state, but he had raised millions of dollars for the university, including $5 million for the library.
To some, he was a hero; to others, a disgrace.
But, after 29 years as the basketball genius of Indiana, he was out of a job. He vowed never to return to the campus that he had once reigned over as a virtual god.
When his 1976 championship team was honored at a 40-year reunion in 2016, Knight stayed away and said he hoped everyone who had a hand in his firing would die. He finally returned in 2020, when Indiana celebrated the 40th anniversary of his 1980 Big Ten championship team.
Players and coaches who had stood by him began to turn against him. Dan Dakich, who spent 16 years playing and coaching under Knight, called him “a miserable human being.”
“I lost respect for him when he didn’t come back for his 1976 championship team,” Dakich told sportscaster Dan Patrick in 2017. “Indiana was always about ‘us,’ the team. … But he made me think … it’s really about him and his feelings.”
After a year of forced retirement, Knight was hired as head coach at Texas Tech University. It was in Lubbock, Texas, not in Bloomington, where he broke Smith’s record for wins.
In February 2008, while the season was still in progress, Knight abruptly stepped away, turning over the coaching job at Texas Tech to his son Pat Knight – the player he had appeared to kick at Indiana. At the time, Knight’s 902 victories (since surpassed by more than a dozen coaches) were the all-time collegiate record for a men’s basketball coach.
Emergence of ‘the General’
Robert Montgomery Knight was born Oct. 25, 1940, in Massillon, Ohio, and grew up in the nearby town of Orrville. His father was a railroad worker, his mother a teacher.
An only child, Knight said that he was closest to his maternal grandmother, who lived in the family home. He was a good athlete in football, basketball and baseball, but not a gifted one, and he was drawn to coaching from an early age.
Even then, his truculent personality was evident. When his coach substituted him in a high school game, Knight refused to leave the court and was suspended from the team.
At Ohio State University, under coach Fred Taylor, Knight was a backup player on a team that won the 1960 NCAA title and reached the championship game for the next two years, only to lose both times to cross-state rival Cincinnati.
After graduating in 1962, Knight began coaching in Cuyahoga Falls, where he shattered his first clipboard. A year later, he became an assistant coach at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York. As a condition of his employment, he had to join the Army at the rank of private.
Two years later, at 24, Knight was named head coach – becoming one of the youngest men’s coaches at a major program. He was called “Bobby T” for all the technical fouls he received and drew reprimands from the West Point brass, but his team began to win.
Knight emphasized conditioning and tough physical drills, and he said his favorite part of coaching was practice.
“I just love the game of basketball so,” he said in 1981. “The game! I don’t need the 18,000 people screaming and all the peripheral things. To me, what’s most enjoyable is the practice and preparation.”
One of his players at Army, and later an assistant at Indiana, was Mike Krzyzewski, who became college basketball’s all-time winningest coach at Duke University and retired in 2022 with 1,202 victories.
Knight liked the discipline and order of West Point and, wherever he coached, taught his players to think of themselves as warriors. He kept a figurine of Gen. George S. Patton on his desk and absorbed the teachings of other tough-minded leaders, including football coach Vince Lombardi and Lombardi’s onetime boss, Earl “Red” Blaik, who had coached Army’s football teams in the 1940s and 1950s and was nicknamed “the Colonel.”
Knight later outranked Blaik, at least in the public eye, and became known throughout his career as “the General.”
‘Why is he so angry?’
In 1971, Knight went to Indiana, a state with a rich basketball tradition. In his second season, the Hoosiers won the first of 11 Big Ten titles under Knight. His 1974-75 team went 31-1, losing by two points to Kentucky in the regional final of the NCAA Tournament.
A year later, Knight’s Hoosiers could not be beaten. His team, led by Scott May, Kent Benson and Quinn Buckner, finished with a record of 32-0 and defeated Big Ten rival Michigan 86-68 in the NCAA championship game. No major men’s college team has had a perfect season since.
With a 63-1 record over two seasons, Knight was seen as college basketball’s next great coach: a thoughtful teacher of the game, a stern disciplinarian and a steely-eyed commander of the hard court.
Indiana won the national title again in 1981, led by point guard Isiah Thomas, and again in 1987, sparked by Steve Alford and Keith Smart, who scored the winning basket to beat Syracuse 74-73 in the championship game.
But cracks in Knight’s generalship had begun to form as early as 1979, when he led a U.S. team to victory at the Pan American Games in Puerto Rico. During a dispute about noise at a practice session, Knight swatted away the hand of a police officer. He was charged with assault and later sentenced in absentia to six months in jail.
Amid a torrent of profanity, Knight said of Puerto Ricans, “The only thing they know how to do is grow bananas.”
The episodes of bad behavior continued to mount. Knight once stuffed an opposing fan in a trash can; he cursed at officials and opponents and accused them of cheating; he reportedly threw a potted plant at a secretary’s head; he kicked female reporters out of his locker room and said, “There’s only two things you people are good for: having babies and frying bacon.”
In 1985, Knight allowed Post sports writer John Feinstein to spend the full season with his Indiana team, giving him complete and unprecedented access. The resulting book, the bestseller “A Season on the Brink” (1986), depicted Knight as alternately sensitive, arrogant and volatile.
Upset that his foul-mouthed diatribes were printed in the book, Knight refused to speak to Feinstein for eight years. (In a 2002 TV movie based on the book, Knight was portrayed by Brian Dennehy.)
After Indiana’s 1987 championship, the team began a slow decline, and Knight’s actions drew greater scrutiny.
In 1995, he was fined $30,000 for an outburst at a postgame news conference. Three years later, he was fined $10,000 for criticizing an official after his team lost a game.
Star players transferred away from Indiana, and recruiting began to suffer. Knight’s relationships with his protégés, including Alford and Krzyzewski, grew strained.
“Why is he so angry?” Hall of Fame basketball player and commentator Bill Walton wrote in Time magazine in 2000. “He is who he is: a coach whose success is based on bullying and intimidating people. His style is rooted in boorish behavior, with which he psychologically terrorizes his players for his own benefit.”
Knight’s marriage to Nancy Falk, with whom he had two sons, Tim and Pat, ended in divorce. In 1988, he married Karen Vieth Edgar, a former high school basketball coach. A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.
After retiring from coaching in 2008, Knight worked as a basketball analyst for ESPN, but he skipped production meetings and was reluctant to interview other coaches. He was let go after seven years.
Withdrawing from the public eye, Knight resurfaced in 2016 to campaign for Donald Trump and other Republicans.
After one of his former players, Mike Woodson, was named Indiana’s coach in 2021, Knight was occasionally seen at Hoosiers practices and games. He quietly moved back to Bloomington, spending his final years less than 3 miles from Assembly Hall, the site of his greatest triumphs and trials as a coach.
“Your biggest opponent isn’t the other guy,” Knight said. “It’s human nature.”