I was out of town on September 10, 2000, returning to Indianapolis, and I remember being in the middle of nowhere, scanning through the AM spectrum, and settling on a station and hearing a reference to "the Hoosiers' coach...well, former coach." Just like that, after 29 years, the only coach that a generation of IU fans had known was out of a job, just a month before the basketball season began. It's cliche to say so, but in some ways it seems like yesterday and in other ways it seems like it's been an eternity. I'm in my mid 30s. My freshman year at IU was 1992-93, when Knight produced his last great team, and any Hoosier fan who remembers that squad swears up and down that if it weren't for Alan Henderson's knee injury, Knight would have won a fourth title that year. Knight remained the coach for several years after I graduated, so I can convince myself that it hasn't been that long, until I realize that the current IU freshmen living in my old dorm were eight years old when Knight coached his last game at IU.
Certainly, Knight's firing did not come out of left field. Various factions of the media and IU fan base had been demanding his scalp for years, certainly since that 1985 game against Purdue when he threw his chair across the Assembly Hall court. In 1993, IU, ranked #1 in the final regular season poll, lost to Kansas in the regional final and lost a fantastic senior class: Calbert Cheaney, the Big Ten's all-time leading scorer (still) and a lottery pick who enjoyed a long NBA career; Greg Graham, another first rounder; and Matt Nover and Chris Reynolds, two quintessential Knight players, guys with various talent deficiencies who someone became very good college basketball players. The demise began with the next two recruiting classes. In 1993, IU enrolled a large class, anchored by Sherron Wilkerson, Indiana's Mr. Basketball until a temper tantrum got him expelled from the Indiana All-Star team. The class also included Steve Hart, Richard Mandeville, Robbie Eggers, Rob Foster, and Monte Marcaccini. Marcaccini never enrolled. Foster went back to California before he ever played in a game. Hart flunked out after a couple of years. Wilkerson was booted because of a domestic violence arrest. Eggers and Mandeville were role players at best. The next year's class, while it produced some more steady players, also was a disappointment. Andrae Patterson, the mostly highly touted recruit of the class, showed flashed of brilliance, none more incredible/painful than his 39-point outburst against Duke in the final of the 1996 preseason NIT., but never averaged more than 13 points a game. Charlie Miller, a southpaw who could have passed for Cheaney's younger brother, had a decent but far-from-great career. Rob Hodgson enrolled but soon transferred to Rutgers. Michael Hermon, a late addition from the Chicago Public League, played well as a freshman but didn't return for his sophomore year. Neil Reed? More about him later.
My point isn't to give IU fans the shakes, but is to point out that of the ten players in two consecutive recruiting classes, every single one underachieved. IU still made it to the Sweet 16 in 1994, but these classes are what set the stage for IU's three consecutive first round NCAA Tournament losses from 1995-1997 and weakened Knight's standing at the university.
After the 1997 exit, a blowout to Chauncey Billups-led Colorado, Reed transferred and alleged physical abuse, claiming to have been choked by Knight to the point that assistant coaches had to pull Knight off of Reed. Sports Illustrated did an expose, but absent any hard evidence, the university, including president Myles Brand, stuck beside Knight, and he hung in there. The program continued to muddle along, making the NCAA Tournament every year but never really contending for the Big Ten title. It's often debated whether Knight's behavior or his record led to his termination, and the obvious answer is both. The "struggles" (defined against the standard he set) set the stage for his termination for misbehavior.
In the spring of 2000, the video of the Reed incident materialized, and all hell broke loose. Never mind that the video showed that Reed's own recollection of the incident was bunk. The notion that Knight had to be physically separated from Reed was complete nonsense. Still, the video, though grainy, showed Knight storming across the practice court and, in apparent anger, putting his hand on or near Reed's throat for a couple of seconds. It wasn't as Reed claimed, but it also wasn't "repositioning." This led Brand, the president who had defended Knight earlier, to launch an investigation, along with IU trustee John Walda. The "investigation" revealed, if you can imagine, that for all of his positive traits, it turns out that Coach Knight had a history of angry and even violent behavior toward his players, employees, students, and members of the community at large. Everyone who had ever spent a week in Bloomington knew this already, but IU pretended that it was a revelation and Brand, who nearly fired Knight then, instead placed him on a "zero tolerance" plan that seemed destined to fail. Sure enough, in September 2000, after Knight scolded and grabbed a student who greeted him with "what's up, Knight?", Brand dismissed him. Brand complained of a number of Knight's behaviors over the summer. I never was clear about how a number of incidents could have added up to a violation of "zero tolerance." Either he violated it or he didn't.
Unquestionably, IU hasn't been the same since. In 29 years at IU, Knight missed the NCAA Tournament only 5 times, and four of those misses occurred before the field expanded to 64. In the ten seasons since his firing, IU has missed the tournament four times. Knight won 73 percent of his games at IU. IU has won 55 percent of its games in the last ten years. Including interim coach Dan Dakich, the Hoosiers have had four coaches since then.
Was any of this avoidable? Obviously, to some extent, it was avoidable because IU could have stuck it out with Knight. What I mean is, could the mess have been avoided even assuming Knight's firing? The conventional wisdom is that any school that loses, via firing, retirement, or any other means, a coach of Knight's caliber will suffer some sort of decline. While that's typically true, I'm not sure it's the case with Knight. As I noted above, there is a clear line between the first 22 or 23 years of Knight's IU tenure and the end. IU won no Big Ten titles in his last seven years and didn't advance past the second round of the NCAA Tournament in his last six. Certainly, IU would kill for such "mediocrity" now, but at the time, a fan base spoiled by Knight's earlier success was growing discontented. That's not to say that Knight's ouster was favored by anything close to a majority of IU fans. I don't think it was. But some wanted him gone, and others were tired of the whole spectacle. Even Knight now says that in retrospect, he may have been better off leaving the the mid 1990s. My point is that Knight was not going out on top. John Wooden retired after winning an NCAA title in his final season. Dean Smith's last game was at the Final Four. Knight was not in such a position. While daunting, replacing Knight wouldn't have been quite the same as replacing someone who was going out on top. I think the job would have been more appealing than many other such situations.
Instead of allowing Mike Davis to coach an interim season and then conducting a national search for the best coach available, the administration gave Mike Davis a long term deal after a solid but far from spectacular interim season. Davis's advocates relied on silly exaggerations to support his candidacy, such as noting that Davis won more games than any other first year coach in IU history. Of course, that was true, but that ignored the larger number of games played in 2001 compared to 1971 and every other time IU had hired a new coach. No one mentioned that IU's 13 losses in 2000-01 were the most for a first-year IU coach, and were the most losses IU had suffered in a season since 1985. Still, on the strength of a Big Ten Tournament upset of Illinois, Myles Brand broke his promise to conduct a coaching search and handed Davis the job.
About Myles Brand. I hesitate to speak ill of the recently deceased, and in no way do I condone the threats that he faced after firing Knight. But it's impossible to escape the conclusion that Brand breached his duty to the IU community with the way he handled the aftermath of the Knight firing. As I said above, the IU fan base was split on Knight. Some remained 100 percent in his corner. Some were growing a bit fatigued, and hoping the Jared Jeffries/AJ Moye recruiting class would finally return IU to national prominence. Others, a minority but not a miniscule minority, wanted him gone. But even among the latter group, there remained, in my opinion, reasonably high regard for Knight generally. IU fans and alumni were nearly unanimous in their respect for Knight's success, his ethics, and the good character of the players he brought to Bloomington. Even for those who wanted him gone (and I was not among them), there was some sadness that it had come to that. Brand, however, instead of helping the IU community heal after a painful and divisive episode, went on something of a victory tour. In January 2001, while Mike Davis still was the interim coach, Brand gave a speech to the National Press Club. You can read the whole thing. In some ways, despite Brand's earlier promise to conduct a national search, this speech probably should have tipped us off as to what would happen:
One especially challenging factor in these efforts is dealing with celebrity coaches. I have some firsthand experience in this area. Some coaches, through their successes or styles, attract a great deal of media attention. That is not necessarily bad; in fact, it can be good for the university and the athletic program. It all depends on whether the coach is committed to academics first and understands that the university is more important than any one individual, even a celebrity coach. Interestingly, Bob Knight is a staunch supporter of academics, and he had an understanding of the importance of institutional integrity.
In any case, the challenge increases when a coach develops a following independent of the university, when his popularity and style create a fan support system that can influence the institution's governing board and business and elected leadership. Successful coaches often establish decades-long tenure. Thus, a president can be faced with a strong, established support network in dealing with a celebrity coach. In the best case, there is harmony and common purpose-but not always. When that occurs, the president must, with the concurrence of the governing board, act in the best long-term interests of the university. Once again, the responsibility lies with the university president.
Brand, who would be responsible for hiring the first new IU basketball coach in a generation, portrayed "celebrity coaches" in a mostly negative light. The problem with Brand's position, then and now, is that as long as universities are going to be involved in big time athletics, as long as they sell the television rights to their games for tens of millions of dollars, any coach who excels at what he has been hired to do will become a "celebrity coach" with fans far and wide. While I'm sure he would resist the characterization, he essentially was arguing against a stable and successful basketball program. It should have been obvious that the fix was in for Davis all along. But even beyond the merits of Brand's comments, that he continued to rub salt in the wound of his university's constituents. This self-congratulatory self-promotion paid off for Brand, financially and professionally. A year later, he resigned from IU on very short notice and became president of the NCAA. Mike Davis's program peaked in 2002, when he led IU on an improbable run to the NCAA title game. By the time the decline set in, Brand was long gone. The current condition of the program is directly connected to the Knight firing, or at the very least to IU's failure to conduct a national search in 2001. Davis struggled because he wasn't ready for the job and probably never owuld have sought a job with a spotlight like IU's job. It's still not fully known exactly who pushed for it or how it happened, but the struggles under Davis unquestionably led to the decision to hire Kelvin Sampson, a very good coach but a coach who was Knight's opposite on issues relating to NCAA compliance and academic expectations for his players. Sampson's low standards for himself and others are why IU is in its current predicament.
That's all water under the bridge, and the current discussion about Knight and IU centers upon whether Knight will ever return to be honored by IU. Athletic director Fred Glass has made inroads with Knight, and IU inducted Knight, in absentia, to its Hall of Fame last year. In his current role as an ESPN analyst, he can bring himself to say the word "Indiana," and during last year's Jimmy V Classic in New York, Knight was in the building for a Hoosier game for the first time since 2000. Still, according to an article by Terry Hutchens in today's Indianapolis Star, Knight remains convinced that he was wrong by some current IU officials (even though the athletic department administration, upper university administration, and Board of Trustees membership have turned over completely since 2000). I hope it happens at some point, but the article today, and the comments from his good friend Bob Hammel, show that it's uncertain if it will happen. That's too bad. Woody Hayes went back. Nolan Richardson went back. I hope Knight decides to make the move at some people. Even though Tom Crean and Fred Glass go to great lengths to avoid saying that the ball is in Knight's court, it really is. While the future of the Knight-IU relationship remains in doubt, the Knight firing continues to affect the IU basketball program today.