Listen to/Watch entire show:
This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.
So Bobby Knight called his Hall-of-Fame coaching career quits this week. If the win/loss record is the final measurement of Knight's success, then he's a genius. In fact, he's the winningest coach in college basketball history.
But there's a high-minded aspect to the profession of coaching that accompanies the win column. There's a respect to be earned with the title Coach. The great sports stories, books and films, often portray that tender, impressionable time when a youth is in trouble or faces temptation toward a wayward life and the coach comes on the scene to mentor, to guide, to inspire. We the audience know the young athlete is going to survive and even thrive when they soften and look their mentor meaningfully in the eye and say Thanks for everything you've taught me, Coach. Coach is synonymous with Dad or Mom, resonant with the implication of a flow of life lessons to help carry you through your days with moral strength and the pride of solid ethics. There are two people in my life at the moment whom I call Coach. They are both beacons of inspired light to me. Calling them Coach is much more than a term of endearment. It's an elevation.
Some coaches are barkers. They use tough love to motivate. Knight was most definitely a barker. He swore at and berated his players for 43 years. Most responded and played to their full potential. Some defected to other schools, looking for kinder and gentler techniques. If Bobby Knight was a paradigm of tough love for results, it worked.
But Knight's outrageous, immature, violent, petulant tirades and tantrums and threats and outbursts throughout his career were not worthy of the term Coach. As Coach of the United States team at the Pan American Games in Puerto Rico, he was arrested and convicted of attacking a police officer because a practice court wasn't opened for him. Police had to restrain him from going after a fan at a game against Baylor. There is videotape evidence of him flying into a rage and choking one of his players during a practice. He snapped during a game against Purdue and violently hurled a metal chair across the floor because he didn't agree with a ref's call. And these are just the highlights of poor character displayed over the years. We could easily construct a list as long as his win column.
The nadir moment of Knight's consistent string of disgraces came in 1988 in a nationally televised interview with Connie Chung. His words had to be replayed multiple times for the public to absorb the unspeakable sincerity in his voice. Knight said, "I think that if rape is inevitable, relax and enjoy it."
He coughed up a demanded apology but the misogyny behind his words, the temper behind the thrown chair, the malice behind throttling the neck of one of his own charges to my mind don't allow him the coveted title of Coach.
I must say I was shocked to read John Wooden's tribute words to Knight this week. Wooden, the unquestionable class act whose career personified dignity, who both talked and walked his responsibility to impart character to his players, stated "I don't think there's ever been a better teacher of the game of basketball than Bob. I don't always approve of his methods, but I would say that no player that ever played for him would not say he did not come out a stronger person."
Coach Wooden, icon of sports values, what are you saying? Abusing players, physically attacking fans and refs, making light of rape sets a shining example of strength to one's students? Coach Wooden gives kudos to Knight as an incomparable teacher of the game. Doesn't the title Teacher carry the same reverent weight as Coach? It does in my book. I won't even deign to call the man Coach, much less deify him as such.
This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.
Head coach Bob Knight of the Texas Tech Red Raiders talks with D'walyn Roberts #5 during play with the Texas Longhorns on January 26, 2008 at the Frank Erwin Center in Austin, Texas Photo: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images