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Opinion: Bobby Knight wasn't a teddy bear

Former Indiana basketball head coach Bobby Knight made an appearance at Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind., Feb. 8, 2020.
Doug McSchooler
Former Indiana basketball head coach Bobby Knight made an appearance at Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind., Feb. 8, 2020.

Bobby Knight was no teddy bear.

The famed coach of the Indiana Hoosiers and USA Olympic men's basketball team died this week at the age of 83. He won 902 NCAA basketball games with his teams, a record at the time; a dozen Coach of the Year awards, 11 Big Ten championships; three NCAA championships; and an Olympic Gold Medal.

Bobby Knight also once threw a chair across the court during a game to protest a foul call. He was charged with assaulting a police officer in Puerto Rico, while coaching the US team at the Pan American Games. He was known to grab his players by the jersey and yell into their faces when he thought they let him down. He seized one player, Neil Reed, by his throat at practice, and later twisted the arm of a student he passed on campus who did not call him "Mr. Knight."

Indiana University canceled Mr. Knight's contract after that — after 29 years.

Bobby Knight also insisted his players attend classes. Most of them graduated, in contrast to the "one and done" that's customary at top basketball schools now. He didn't bend rules to recruit promising high school stars to his school, was generous with charities, and wrote hand-written notes to fans.

He also — and you can hear how "alsos" begin to add up — made a cruel, stupid remark about sexual assault in a television interview. One of his former championship players, Todd Jadlow, wrote that Knight broke a clipboard over his head, grabbed his waist so hard he left bruises, and once squeezed his groin during a timeout.

Bobby Knight could be difficult to quote because he was notably profane. But he also once reflected on sportswriters by saying, "All of us learn to write in the 2nd grade. Most of us go on to greater things." I have quoted that line at a lot of literary festivals. It gets huge applause, especially from writers.

He was smart, energetic, and creative about the game of basketball. Many great players and coaches and fans speak of him with affection and respect.

But Bobby Knight didn't fulminate and fling around chairs because he was anxious to make some advance in the fight against a deadly disease, or for the survival of an embattled nation, but to win a basketball game. And he won plenty. But you might wonder if he couldn't have done that without the threats, the bullying, the tossing of chairs and grabbing the throats of athletes who gave their all to play well for him.

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Scott Simon
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.