“I’m trying to help them be the best they can be. I have enough of an ego to think I know better than anyone what’s best for them.”—Bobby Knight
For legendary Indiana University basketball coach Bobby Knight, what was “best” for his students was to be a legendary jerk.
Knight died on November 1st. But if you’re expecting me to offer a list of his accomplishments on the basketball court, you’ll have to look elsewhere. While he was one of the games winningest coaches, he was also an arrogant, contemptible, petty man who was a serial abuser. He yelled, bullied, and—in at least one instance that we know of (it was captured on video)—grabbed a student-player by the throat during practice. “He once berated and kicked his son Pat, a player, on the sidelines of a game,” political columnist Jonathan Chait wrote in New York magazine.
The only role modeling Knight provided his students, if any, was how to be as malicious as possible.
If Knight had been an academic teacher caught up in a single abusive infraction, he’d have been fired in a New York minute. However, he falls into the same exception as other such bullies: he brought success to the University, which is to say, he brought money to the University, a great deal of money from fans who, apparently didn’t care how he did it, they just wanted a winning sports team no matter the cost.
When his contempt finally became intolerable . . . well, here’s a portion of an op-ed I wrote May 18, 2000 for The New York Times.
“Along with many others, I was appalled to read that Indiana University had retained its basketball coach, Bobby Knight, despite Mr. Knight’s verbal attacks against players, officials, journalists and office staff, and his grabbing a player’s throat at a 1997 practice. Myles Brand, the university president, said: ‘I think the ethical approach is to give him one last chance.’
“This kind of thinking is all too common in business as well as sports. What it says is: In spite of the offense, if you apologize and act penitent enough, we will tolerate, allow, make exception. We’ll give you a pass because you’re talented and we want — we need — that talent. Talent is the overriding factor because of what it contributes to big sales and winning teams.
“Unfortunately, when you make this kind of allowance, you lower the bar for everyone else. You also put the entire organization at risk, jeopardizing the trust of others you work with and rely on, and sending a message about how far you are willing to go to win.
“‘I had never seen him before contrite and apologetic,’ Mr. Brand said of Mr. Knight. But apologies aren’t enough if they are not followed by sincere actions to change. When asked whether Mr. Knight needed professional counseling, Mr. Brand said, ‘He has given me his word that he will take extraordinary steps to change his behavior.’”
Knight’s word didn’t last long. He was fired four months after I wrote those words. And just as I predicted, he was snapped up by another university. To this day, fanatical supporters remain awed by his winning streaks. The only thing I’m awed by is how his zombie-like hold on his fans morphed onto the political stage by a repulsive replica whose own zombies believe he is the winningest president in US history.