What do you say when a guy like Bobby Knight dies?

by | Nov 5, 2023 | Comment, Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

Nearly 20 years after he was fired by Indiana University, Bob Knight was asked by Dan Patrick about going back to be recognized for the 29 years he put in at the school. Knight refused.

“I have absolutely no respect for those people …” he said. “I hope they’re all dead.”

“Some of them are,” Patrick said.

“Well, I hope the rest of them go,” Knight added.

What do you say when a man like that dies? I’ve been mulling that question as I watch the tributes, eulogies and vilifications roll in, after Knight, who won three national championships at Indiana and more college basketball games than almost any coach in history, passed away last week at age 83.

Our natural inclination after someone’s death is to downplay the negative and oversize the positive. Stress how good a friend he was, how much he loved his family (or at least his dogs) and leave out the nasty incidents or long-simmering feuds. It feels unseemly.

With Knight, it feels unseemly not to mention that stuff. This, after all, is a man who once famously said he wanted to be buried upside down “so my critics can kiss my ass.”

This is one of the most successful basketball coaches ever. He’s also a guy who choked his own player, kicked his own sonleft a tampon in an athlete’s locker, brought a whip to practice, cursed like a dozen Quentin Tarantino characters, was constantly antagonistic, frequently misogynistic, once said if rape was inevitable a woman should “relax and enjoy it,” (he later tried to put that in context) held long grudges, threw tantrums and folding chairs and once insulted Puerto Rico, after getting embroiled in a police incident there, by saying, the only “thing they know how to do is grow bananas.”

Good luck with that eulogy.

Head coaches of a feather stick together

I had my moments with Knight. I was fairly young when I attended his news conferences, and I remember being terrified to ask a question. He could turn on you in an instant if you used a word he didn’t like.

He once said of the media: “All of us learn to write in the second grade. Most of us go on to greater things.”

I always wanted to ask, “You mean like dribbling a basketball?”

I never did.

Knight was nice to me in our encounters. We spoke about athletes and academics. When I wrote a book about Bo Schembechler, he offered a quote for the back cover, and I spent time listening to him wax on about why Bo was so great. It’s no surprise that the two coaches admired each other. Both were intense in their jobs and brooked no dissent. Both were allergic to losing. Both admired strong men, believed they were in that group, and felt certain that the world would be run better if strong men were in charge.

But Bo had a conscience about things that Knight seemingly lacked. Bo yielded to internal stop signs, while Knight bull-rushed through his to make a point. If that meant physically abusing a player, grabbing, shoving or headbutting him, so be it. If that meant refusing to attend reunions of his championship teams (out of his grudge against Indiana), so be it.

Both Schembechler and Knight admired the song “My Way” by Frank Sinatra. In Knight’s case it’s no surprise. The famous lyric “Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention” could serve as mea culpa for all his awful behavior. A few regrets? Yeah. But why bring them up?

Besides, as the song says, “the record shows, I took the blows, and did it my way.”

Isn’t that what counts?

A big impression, yes. But what kind?

So what do you say when a guy like that dies? John Feinstein, who wrote the bestselling book about Knight called “A Season on the Brink” said last week in the Washington Post that Knight’s two biggest flaws were pretending that he didn’t care what people thought of him (when he actually cared too much) and always having to have the last word, even if it hurt others and himself.

Still, Feinstein wrote, “He made an indelible impression on anyone who met him.”

That’s true. But the same could be said of a truly rude person, a truly giant person, or a truly smelly person. Making impressions is an incomplete summary of a life.

Many are calling Knight “complex.” On the other hand, a writer for New York Magazine, whose piece was headlined “Bobby Knight Was A Misogynistic Bully,” summed up Knight’s death this way: “If there is an afterlife, right now Bob Knight is being bullied by Satan.”

That’s pretty harsh.

I’ve read many sports obituaries. I’ve written a few myself. If there’s one thing I would change in most of them it’s how much winning — or being intense about winning — washes over many sins.

Let’s be honest. Wanting to win is not unique. Who doesn’t want to win? And hard work, contrary to what the sports-crazed might think, is not the exclusive domain of those who blow whistles, watch film or give fiery halftime speeches. Ask a day laborer in Haiti who cleans out septic fields by hand what “hard work” means. I have. It’s what makes me say there are tougher tasks in this world than coaching basketball.

Knight no doubt did charitable things and made charitable contributions (although men with his kind of money and influence should, no?) and he no doubt had a funny side and created countless positive moments with fans (although many of those recounted are by people who saw him as an icon to begin with; that tends to shade any interaction in gold).

It also speaks for itself that Knight’s time at Indiana, where he was a godlike figure, with 662 wins and 24 NCAA tournament appearances, came to an end when he couldn’t control his temper with a student who chirped “What’s up, Knight?” The coach reportedly grabbed the kid and screamed at him for disrespecting him. Under a “zero-tolerance” policy after numerous bad behavior incidents, that was the final straw.

A simple, stupid remark brought such an accomplished coach down.

So here, for me, is what is fair to say about Bob Knight.

He was a big man who frequently behaved like a child. He justified many offensive actions by placing winning, which he was good at, above decency, which he often lacked. He held grudges. He made people miserable. He often seemed miserable himself. He valued loyalty and returned loyalty to those who showed it. And, like many powerful men, he had a way of making those around him feel special if he took them into his confidence or council. When he laughed, they laughed. When he slapped their back, he made them feel like kings.

Also, he was a brilliant coach who won a ton of basketball games, emphasized defense, preparation and teamwork, and was never satisfied, the mark of a perfectionist.

If you reverse those last two paragraphs, you’ll get a different impression than if you leave them alone. And sometimes that’s the thing about remembering the dead. It’s not just what you say, it’s what you say first.

Or in Knight’s case, which direction you are buried.

Contact Mitch Albom: malbom@freepress.com. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Follow him @mitchalbom.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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