Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Bobby Knight’s Legacy

A major record in college basketball has been broken as Bobby Knight yesterday reached 880 wins, passing Dean Smith to become the all time leader in games won in men’s college basketball. I got to catch Knight’s postgame press conference and it was what I expected from him, curmudgeonly and acerbic but with a great deal of respect for the people who helped make him who he is and helped him achieve that goal, from legendary coaches like Claire Bee and Red Auerbach to the guy who drove the team bus at West Point. And it was clear that, despite his recent denials that breaking that record was important, doing so really meant something to him. It certainly should.

Knight will always be a controversial figure for reasons that are all his own doing. I don’t think anyone, including him, would deny that he has had some anger problems and that he’s pretty authoritarian in the way he does things. I don’t think anyone, including him, would deny that he’s done a few things that deserved rebuke and that he should regret. By the same token, I don’t think any reasonable person could deny that he is one of the great coaches and motivators, not only in college basketball but in any sport. His name will justifiably be mentioned alongside names like Bear Bryant, Scotty Bowman, Phil Jackson, and Vince Lombardi.

He started as a player at Ohio State in the late 50s and early 60s where he was teammates with John Havlicek and Jerry Lucas, both also hall of fame players. In 1965 he became the head coach at Army, where his first point guard was a kid named Mike Krzyzewski, now of course known as Coach K. Knight went on to Indiana University, where he would win 3 national championships and win nearly 700 games. As a college basketball fan growing up in Big Ten country, I have always loved watching his teams play.

He teaches the game the way it really ought to be played, as a team game and not an individual one. He didn’t always have the most talented team, but they almost always played harder and smarter than their opponents. On top of that, he coached for 41 years at the highest level without a hint of a scandal over recruiting, academics or NCAA rules violations. His players represented the university with a dignity that their coach didn’t always display and they nearly all graduated, but that’s because he demanded that of them and wouldn’t tolerate anything less.

Knight replaces the legendary Dean Smith at the top of the record books, and it appears that Dean Smith is just fine with that. In several interviews over the last couple weeks, Smith has seemed almost happy to have his record broken. Fittingly, Knight called an AP reporter back in to his office after the press conference because he had forgotten to thank Coach Smith while speaking to the media and he wanted to make sure that got in the reports. It’s clear that these two giants of coaching have great respect for each other.

The relationship between Knight and Coach K is really an interesting one to me. K played for Knight at Army, spent a year as his graduate assistant at Indiana, then became the Army coach himself in 1976. He left for Duke in 1981, where he has matched Knight’s 3 national championships, 10 final fours and, if he keeps coaching, will likely break the record that Knight set today. Coach K has 765 wins and has averaged around 30 wins a year for, hell, as long as anyone can remember.

The similarities don’t end there. Like Knight, Coach K insists on recruiting players who can cut it academically. In his tenure at Duke, 90% of his scholarship players have graduated. Coach K still coaches the motion offense and man to man defense he learned from Bobby Knight and he preaches the same virtues of discipline and teamwork. And like Knight, Coach K has been known to let loose with a few f bombs on the sidelines. If he ends up breaking Knight’s record eventually, it will be fitting and appropriate.

Knight’s record reflects not only his excellence as a coach but also his longevity. At 66 years old, Knight took 41 and 1/3 years to reach 880 wins, an average of 21.3 wins a year. Dean Smith took 36 seasons to reach 879 victories, an average of 24.4 wins a year. Coach K has now coached 30 years and has 765 wins, an average of 25.5 wins a year. But that includes one year where he only got 9 wins because he sat out the rest of the season with medical problems. Take out that year and the average rises to 26.3. And for the last 10 years, he has averaged 30.4 wins per year, with no sign of that changing any time soon as they continue to have top recruiting classes year after year. At 59 years old, he could easily coach another 10 years, which would put him well over 1000 wins before he retires. At this point, the all time record is his if he wants to coach long enough to get it.

And there are others within reach as well. Jim Boeheim, at a young 64 years old, has 729 wins. Lute Olson has 761 wins, but at 72 years old every season may be his last. Jim Calhoun is around 720 wins as well, but he’s 64 years old. Roy Williams probably got started too late to be in the conversation. At 56 years old, he just passed 500 wins, but this is only his 20th season currently. He’s averaging more than 26 wins a year for his career, winning over 80% of his games; if he hadn’t spent so much time as Dean Smith’s assistant, he’d be a serious threat to this record as well. As it stands, he would have to coach well into his 70s to have a reasonable chance at it. Still, there’s no question that he belongs in any discussion of the all time great coaches given his incredible win percentage and consistent success.

But today is for celebrating what Bobby Knight has achieved. Even with a few black marks on his record, there is no doubt that he will go down in history not only as one of the great coaches in the history of sports, but as one of the great characters as well. I wouldn’t wanna go hunting with him, but if I had a team and could pick one person to coach it for one must-win game, I don’t think I could do much better than to pick Knight for the job.

Comments

  1. #1 Matthew
    January 2, 2007

    Texas Tech is doing about as well as you can expect, but Indiana declined under him in the 90s. He has had a significant tournament run in almost 15 years. His style just isn’t effective any more. Not sure if I’d rank in top 5 college basketball coaches.

  2. #2 SLC
    January 2, 2007

    Shame on Mr. Brayton, leaving out the greatest coach in college basketball history, John Wooden who has 10 NCAA titles under his belt.

  3. #3 Andrew
    January 2, 2007

    Calling sociopath Bobby Knight “one of the great characters… in the history of basketball” is like calling Michael Behe “one of the great characters in the history of evolutionary science.”

  4. #4 Ed Brayton
    January 2, 2007

    SLC-

    Obviously, Wooden belongs in any discussion of the great coaches in any sport. I certainly didn’t intend to slight him by not mentioning him here, but on this particular record he’s far behind. Of course, no one is ever going to come anywhere near his record for championships either. That record is as safe as any record could possibly be. I doubt anyone will even eclipse half his total of 10 (Coach K has three and could very well win 1 or 2 more, but I can’t imagine any more than that).

  5. #5 Jeff Hebert
    January 2, 2007

    Good writeup Ed, thanks. Although what I really want to know is what Richard Dawkins has to say about Bobby Knight, and how this record proves that atheism is better than theism. Or vice versa, whichever, I’m just trying to figure out a way to turn every single thread into that particular fight. That’s the way Coach Knight would want it, I’m sure.

    And I don’t think I’d call Knight a “sociopath”, that’s a bit much. He’s certainly an arrogant authoritarian, almost definitely a bully to boot, but that’s what America asked for in its coaches for a long time. Do you think Vince Lombardi was handing out hugs like candy, or did he just have better press? Knight’s been caught on tape doing some pretty rotten stuff, but I’d bet a chunk of change that it’s not much different than what most coaches have done throughout their career.

    I don’t care for the guy’s style personally, and I’d not want to send a child of mine to play for him, but I think he’s been demonized more due to easy access to videotape and his lack of media savvy than because he’s a uniquely sociopathic monster.

  6. #6 TomMil
    January 2, 2007

    I’m a Terp (Grad. ’87) so I have to get a plug in for Gary Williams. He’s 61 (will be 62 in March) and has 560 wins. I know that is off the pace of the guys you mentioned esp. Coach K (who I can’t hate even though I’d like to), but I’m a sentimental sort.

  7. #7 Alan B.
    January 2, 2007

    TomMil,

    I believe that the 560 number doesn’t include the 13 wins from this year. And, of course, Gary had to suffer through 3 years of sanctions that weren’t his fault.

  8. #8 Ed Brayton
    January 2, 2007

    TomMil:

    Gary Williams has little chance of being a factor in this particular record, for the reasons you note. But still – and I say this as a Duke fan – I think he’s a hell of a coach.

  9. #9 stogoe
    January 2, 2007

    I’m in agreement with Andrew. This Bobby Knight creature is deserving only of ridicule and incarceration.

  10. #10 Michael Heath
    January 2, 2007

    Ed – what kind of relationship does Coach Knight currently have with Coach K?

  11. #11 Ed Brayton
    January 2, 2007

    Michael Heath wrote:

    Ed – what kind of relationship does Coach Knight currently have with Coach K?

    From all accounts, a very good one. At one point many years ago there were rumors that some sort of rift had developed between them, but when Coach K was inducted into the basketball hall of fame it was Knight who did the induction and called K the best coach in the game. After the game the other day, they showed a videotaped message from K congratulating Knight and returning the compliment, saying that Knight was the best ever and that he owes his entire career to him.

  12. #12 J-Dog
    January 2, 2007

    Ed said: “His name will justifiably be mentioned alongside names like Bear Bryant, Scotty Bowman, Phil Jackson, and Vince Lombardi. ”

    Scotty Bowman is hockey, so, meh, who cares. Bear Bryant – racist, checked-hat wearing cracker. Vice Lombardi, gap-toothed yelling SOB from my most-hated team, with the ugliest colored uniforms ever.

    Out of your pantheon, Phil Jackson is the only one I respect, and in my humble opinion, the only real coach among them. (Not including Lombardi of course, because he is Packer-tainted, and a screaming maniac).

    Bobby Knight? I scrape things like him off my shoe. I would like to see him and Pat Summitt from Tennessee in a cage-match though. They deserve each other, and I am surprised that some knucklehead TV producer hasn’t thought up a reality show, putting them together so that they can yell at each other. Maybe they should coach each other’s teams? Families?

    Beat Up The Bully might work too, and some of Knight’s and Summit’s former players would line up for a free swing at their current or former “coach”. It could be a VERY long-lived TV show… TV spinoffs could also be profitable for the networks, as I think quite a few New Yorkers would like a go at Isaih Thomas, and women in Iowa, and across the US might like a shot at Knight disciple and rapist-protecting Steve Alford.

    Bobby Frigging Knight. Welcome to This Is Your Nightmare!

  13. #13 Ed Brayton
    January 2, 2007

    J-Dog:

    Feel better now that you got that off your chest? LOL

  14. #14 MarkP
    January 2, 2007

    Knight was a great one. I thought it was most impressive that he got 3 NCAA titles with 3 completely different teams (the Benson/Buckner team of ’76, Alford’s group in ’81, and Smart with the winner in ’87.) He did the big things that matter right, and did all the little things wrong that piss people off. Those are pretty much all in the “you aren’t important” category, which tells you a lot.

    His antics once when a reporter asked him if they had their game faces on was priceless. She asked a stupid question, so he gave her a stupid answer. I thought it was hysterical.

    I don’t think you’d have to worry about hunting with him. I believe he is an avid fisherman, which proves, despite what some of his critics might think, that he can indeed be quiet for long periods of time.

  15. #15 AndyS
    January 2, 2007

    Ed, Ed, Ed,

    If Bobby Knight is a great basketball coach then

    * boxing is a sport
    * GWB is a great president
    * Wounded Knee was a great military victory
    * 2 + 2 = 5

  16. #16 TomTallis
    January 2, 2007

    When I saw your headline, I thought it was about the man from Concerned Women of America!

  17. #17 Dave
    January 2, 2007

    I was in grad school at IU while Knight was coaching. I had 3 of his players in class and all were sub-par students. Athletics used to send notes, asking about students: how many classes missed, grade at this point in the semester, are there probs? I would send them back but never, not once from the b-ball team, was I contacted until one of them failed. Then lots of pressure to change the grade (I did not). I had 3 players, after this, in first day classes, but none showed up for day 2 and I was told by a friend who tutored for athletics that they wouldn’t let athlete-students take classes from me. So, I’m not convinced that Knight deserves all the kudos he gets for graduating students; there are major (though certainly not unprecedented) shennanigans that go on.

    I was never a Myles Brand fan, but a couple of days after he fired Knight I saw him on campus and spoke with him for a bit about the firing, told him it was a good and gutsy decision.

    Once Mike Davis was coaching I was apparently off the no-take list, I had one player take a class.

    best,

    Dave

  18. #18 Chris
    January 3, 2007

    An important note: Knight only has the most wins in Division I men’s basketball.

    IIRC, the DII coach with the most wins has considerably more.

  19. #19 Andrew
    January 3, 2007

    Given that you’re a libertarian, Ed, I’m surprised at you.

    The problem with Bobby Knight isn’t the aggressiveness or the f-bombs or whatever; it’s the initiation of violence. He’s a man who likes to choke boys. Isn’t that just plain wrong?

    To that end, I’d also disagree with Jeff Hebert’s comment that other college coaches do what Knight does and are honored for it. I certainly can’t name one.

  20. #20 J-Dog
    January 3, 2007

    Ed – Yes, it was very cathatic, so thanks for the opportunity! In re-reading my post, I guess I just don’t like bully’s, and of course this makes it easy for me to also bully-hate Bill Dembski and his minion DaveScott.
    I like coaches like Phil Jackson and Lovie Smith, that can get performance, without the shouting. Ask me about Lovie again though in a couple of weeks…

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