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.