His fans, including many of his former and current players, insist that while Knight may be a maverick with a short fuse, he's also an incredible coach who demands the best from his team and pushes them to succeed academically. And the numbers support those claims: Knight's teams have won three national championships and his players have one of the highest rates of graduation among Division One programs. It's the stories behind the numbers that make people nervous. He's been cited at least a dozen times during his career at Indiana for violent and/or threatening behavior toward fellow staff members, players and game officials. He's been accused of making racist comments on multiple occasions. He's been publicly reprimanded by the university so often that everyone involved can probably do the whole thing by rote.
And Indiana University's administration is all too aware of the delicate balance required to handle an issue as explosive as this. "Sports are an industry of public interest and public passion," explains Deborah Crown, professor of management at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa. "Indiana University doesn't want to fall prey to doing what the public wants just because it's the popular thing to do; they want to do what's best for the university." On the bright side, after Monday's meeting and the painstaking negotiations that reportedly led up to it, Knight is now wholly responsible for his behavior in the eyes of the university, and he can never claim ignorance again. Of course, if the trustees had really wanted to show Knight who's boss, they would have made his presence at Monday's press conference part of his punishment; sitting there, facing the press, Knight would have had to answer the tough questions. Instead, he issued a lukewarm statement of apology and stayed the hell out of the fray.
The trustees and president of Indiana University explained they are "ethically" beholden to give Knight "one more chance" to prove he's not dangerously unstable (he's just harmlessly unstable, really). At odds are the apparently blinding effects of Hoosier loyalty and broader national standards of acceptable behavior. Knight, the university administration and the basketball players might have been better served by a panel of truly objective investigators; Monday's decision only leaves President Brand and his trustees wide open to criticism that they didn't take Knight's outrageous behavior seriously.
Part of the blame, of course, lies with Knight's players, who have come out in droves to support him. Here's a coach who's made a career of intimidating players, coaches and staff, who's shown up to practices with his teeth bared while the pups on the court obligingly slink back with their tails between their legs. Why would team members who've been subjected to Knight's explosions be so eager to endorse his tenure as coach? No one knows the answer, but everyone has an opinion. It may simply be too difficult to speak up against a man who's got your career in his hands. For example, Knight verbally abusing a player is parallel to a young executive who is singled out and verbally harassed at a meeting by a superior. Both the player and the young executive know that their elders hold the sole key to their respective successes: One to the NBA, one to upper management. They also each know the grim truth: Bearing witness to a superior's misbehavior can be tantamount to career suicide.
On the other hand, says William Gayton, professor of psychology at the University of Southern Maine in Portland, it's hard to overestimate the effect of a winning legacy, and while Knight has not been particularly successful in recent years, he maintains his aura as a winner. It's that winning tradition, explains Gayton, that may be enough to keep players from causing too much of a ruckus over Knight's "idiosyncrasies." And in the world of sports, such outbursts are hardly the exception. Just as there is a long tradition of coaches whose enthusiasm has bordered on abuse, there are probably plenty of lower-rung Bob Knights running basketball, football and hockey programs around the country right now. And maybe they act the way they do because they believe it's the only way to win. But that brings up the obvious question: What about winning coaches like UCLA legend John Wooden or Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who run clean, successful programs without the benefit of chair-throwing?
Yes, Knight is an icon who stands tall on the otherwise flat Indiana landscape. He makes alumni proud and proud alumni send big, fat checks to the university development office. And luckily for Knight, his is the twisted realm of collegiate athletics, where the NCAA is king and where anyone who uses the word "responsible" is well advised to keep a dictionary handy.
Poll: Enough Punishment for Bobby Knight?