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Lessons From Bobby Knight

Guest Column Philip Burrowes

Indiana University’s basketball website used to describe Bob Knight as “the name synonymous with greatness and winning .... The numbers and achievements prove what he has done.”

Indeed, Coach Knight had the most wins of any active basketball coach, coached gold medal-winning Olympic and Pan American Games basketball teams, and almost became an institution unto himself at IU. It was this coaching record which brought students in droves to support Knight when he was dismissed from the University two weeks ago.

Coach Knight, however, also had a name synonymous with recalcitrance, biliousness, and an overall irascibility with players and officials alike. It was this coaching record which prompted the University’s board of trustees to place him under a “zero tolerance” policy in May, and ultimately led to his dismissal. Although his firing was based more on relationship with administrators than job performance, I must side with the board on their decision.

To begin with, Knight was not a teacher in any vocational sense of the word. It is true that many of his players have gone onto professional basketball, but IU is in no way dedicated to producing professional basketball players. In fact, the cause of the professional basketball player -- to make a living -- is completely antagonistic to that of a participant in the NCAA (appropriately or not). Knight, instead, was the administrator of an extracurricular program instituted to instill pride in the University. His job was to lead a team which fostered a more positive image of IU. Very few people will contend that the teams he coached did not do that. What he did not do was make the administration feel like he was beholden to them. But as an employee, and especially as an employee who was not integral to the purpose of the University he most certainly was beholden.

It was the contention of those members of the student body in support of Knight, however, that he was not so nearly as subservient as the board of trustees would have him out to be. “I think the ‘zero tolerance’ policy they put on him doesn’t allow him to be a basketball coach,” said one recent IU graduate.

In essence, many students felt Knight needed -- and deserved -- a degree of sovereignty from IU which he was not being given. His recruitment, his coaching strategy and other elements of his basketball program itself, however, were never threatened; his off-the-court behavior has been cited far more than his on-court antics (to be fair, Knight himself said he was unsure if the “zero tolerance” pertained to such matters as a technical foul).

More disturbing about the students’ viewpoint than their misconception of the nature of their school is their sublimation of any blame from Knight himself. Many have blamed University president Myles Brand for making a completely misguided decision. A freshman who brought a complaint against Knight directly before his dismissal has been the target of several death threats. While not all students, perhaps not even a majority, hold these positions, very vocal groups have been presenting a conception of an administration completely out of touch with the needs of the students. It appears to me that the students themselves are not truly aware of what their life at IU should entail.

I cannot say I have a purely objective view of college life which leaves me better able to discern the situations than these members of the IU student body. Perhaps years of schooling where academics were stressed -- often to the detriment of the student-athlete -- has rendered me unable to understand the true effect of a successful athletics program.

Both my high school and MIT, however, excel at largely peripheral sports, where it often seems that athletes’ participation is more important to themselves than the student body in general. Success, then, does not precipitate importance. What was it about Coach Knight and IU that created such an importance? More importantly, is it something any institution of higher learning should condone, let along encourage?

Philip Burrowes is a member of the Class of 2004.