How College Basketball Left Bobby Knight Behind

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Used to be that college basketball was all about the coach. Players came and went, every four years. When you thought of UCLA it was John Wooden first, then Lew Alcindor or Bill Walton. North Carolina for years routinely featured the top athletes in the game, and yet it was always Dean Smith's team, not Michael Jordan's. (The joke was that the only person who could hold Air down to under 20 points was Coach Smith.) And in Indiana, until last weekend, there was Bobby Knight, the guy with the gut and the red sweater, and yes, those three championships.

But none since 1987, when NCAA basketball was a much different place. Truth is, Knight was never a great coach. He was a good coach of often overrated players. (Yes, yes — we kept hearing that he could still recruit top-notch talent. Pop quiz: Name any Hoosier since Isiah Thomas to have any kind of meaningful NBA career.) Most of all, Knight was a great, outsize personality who benefited tremendously from what men's college basketball was in the years of his ascendance, a place were there were only a few avenues to the NBA — and as coach of Indiana he controlled one of the gates. Today, university athletic directors aren't looking for the next Bobby Knight. They're looking for the next Billy Donovan, a young, energetic coach who can relate to (Knight would say indulge) top-notch players for at least a couple of years before they head off to the pros.

True, he was a very good teacher of the mechanical aspects of the game, and yet he never seemed to be able to teach the most important part, that joy and love and spontaneity matter as much as making the extra pass. They're still kids, these hulking six-foot-ten-inch guys, and the ones on the truly great teams play with confidence, not fear. That fear of screwing up, of playing not to win so much as avoid hearing the coach scream at you in public, was all we saw on the court in Bloomington the past few years.

And yet he hung in there. And there were some things to praise. Players who were tremendously loyal to him, for one. And they were for the most part model citizens; Knight always played by the arcane and maddening rules of NCAA recruiting.

What caught up with Knight was college basketball's decline into what's at best a second-tier waiting room for those kids not yet physically mature enough to make it into the NBA.

Maybe he can console himself with this: Bobby Knight's still big. It's college basketball that got small. And if he has any sense, and any pride, he'll leave it at that.