Ask two generations about That Man, you're likely to receive far different answers.
Neither will be correct.
Even in an era that largely predates big-money college athletics, it would be gross negligence to understate Bob Knight's impact on Indiana University. He built modern-day Indiana basketball into a late-century empire upon Branch McCracken's foundation, creating an undeniably iconic program that has undoubtedly had a massive economic and emotional impact upon the university, town, region, and state in which it resides. To those of a certain age, he is the embodiment of the halcyon days of hard work and toughness, the figurehead responsible for the nostalgic feelings brought about by candy stripes, Hey Baby, and, yes, those banners on the wall.
To others, Knight was just the dude that choked Neil Reed, maybe. Or tossed a chair across a court. Or promptly told his critics to kiss his ass in front of 17,000 people. Or continually treated media members as if they were subhuman. Add to that, it's likely that no one younger than 30 has any memory of a deep Bob Knight tournament run. He's more known among that group as the mad old dude that lost to Pepperdine.
In a society that deals only in absolutes and extremes, the reality is that Knight's legacy at Indiana falls somewhere in the middle. The man's basketball acumen, his impact on those that stand by him today, and impact on the state of Indiana as a whole is one that, again, can't be understated. Hell, there's a tangential argument that Indianapolis' entire emergence as a sports capital could be tied to Knight's success in the 1970's at Indiana. A number of players speak for what he did for them off the floor -- and close friends will forever defend him vehemently. He's also a man that would not have existed in collegiate athletics in 2015. Knight was a man who achieved success in spite of his flaws, rather than because of them. Our sensibilities as a sporting society have changed over time, and physical and mental abuse of unpaid "amateur" athletes doesn't fly anymore. One need not look further than a now-member institution of the Big Ten conference to understand such. Some members of an elder generation will use this point to complain about the "weakness" of millennials, but the reality is that yelling and screaming and toeing a very thin line of physical abuse doesn't get you anywhere at home or at work. If you're needing to get out a protractor to determine whether Knight's hand was on a neck or a chin or chest in this video, then you've already reached a point where we can safely assume that, yeah, this is probably not very good.
All that said, we've forgiven members of Knight's era -- or even today's -- for far worse sins. Woody Hayes punched an opposing player and still has a building named for him in Columbus. Adolph Rupp was probably a racist. Same for Bear Bryant. On some wholly-broken continuum of sins upon which we judge the fate of our coaching heroes, Knight's behavior certainly isn't becoming, but it wasn't wildly nefarious in the ways listed above. With the exception of Hayes, it's not even in the same ballpark. There's a reason ESPN didn't view him as a toxic waste upon leaving college athletics. If Indiana wants to honor Bob Knight, they should. That's fine. He's absolutely deserving of such.
They should just stop bending over backwards to do it. Because a return would require Bob Knight to be something other than prideful, stubborn, hypocritical, and petty -- something that will absolutely not ever happen.
It's not unfair to say that blame lay on both sides of the aisle when discussing Knight's removal from his post at Indiana in September 2000. Indiana's administration botched the situation from start to finish, but the the ball began rolling down that aisle because of none other than Knight's own actions. A favorite mechanism of deflection for Knight and his staunchest defenders was to not ever deny the behavior, but attempt to rationalize why such an explosive reaction was okay. Those folks will talk about "treating elders with respect" regarding the "HEY KNIGHT" incident that broke the zero tolerance policy, Knight himself uses the same mechanism in this interview with Jeremy Schapp in discussing his alleged inappropriate tirade toward IU attorney Dottie Frapwell. They messed up my paperwork, so yelling was okay. Knight is a smart man -- one smart enough to realize that his own mistakes played a role in his dismissal -- but the same pride that keeps him from admitting such mistakes is the same pride that keeps him away from the Assembly Hall on a night as massive as the one on Tuesday.
Knight's hypocritical nature, however, might be best reflected in his fragile, one-sided view of loyalty. Quinn Buckner's hinted about how one never knows if they're "on or off the boat" with Knight. Dan Dakich, Knight's former assistant turned radio host that often seems cut from Knight's cloth, has spoken to Knight once since returning to join Kelvin Sampson's staff. AJ Guyton, who defended Knight's hypocrisy and stubbornness to Dakich on Twitter today, cited Knight's own words in a Facebook post begging the former coach to come home last season for his Indiana Athletics Hall of Fame induction.
"Indiana University, what ever charity you have to donate to on Coach Knight's behalf, lets get it done. Time's ticking & we all deserve a homecoming. I'm asking you Coach Bob Knight, you said you'd do anything for me once I graduated, can you please attend my induction ceremony, which is coming back home to Indiana University."
It's those like Guyton that reflect Knight's hypocrisy so greatly. They'd stand in front of a train for the man, but it hardly seems that "Coach" would meet them halfway. In the Indiana basketball alumni world, Knight is a vengeful, grudge-holding deity where former players and coaches must fear retribution for any behavior or life choice that he might so find to be "unloyal" in the skewed reality in which he resides. Even if such the opportunity is life-changing and there is no other option, like the choice Mike Davis faced in September 2000 that he opened up to me about last year.
Asked about his relationship with Knight, Davis' strong voice begins to trail off.
"I haven't talked to Coach Knight. No, no I haven't."
He hasn't spoken to the man who he came to Bloomington to learn from since the days before he took the job at Indiana.
"You know, I think everybody in coaching has a guy that was kind of involved, responsible for their development a coach - kind of that mentor. I mean, I understand the situation. But you know..."
He pauses a bit with his words.
"It's tough. But I, I... understand the situation."
Knight is a man who has seemingly never viewed a situation with nuance. He failed to recognize that out of a terrible situation, one of his assistants that looked up to him so was afforded a life-changing opportunity. He failed to recognize that he's created a culture of fear of disapproval in his former players. He's failed to recognize that, hey, maybe I should take some accountability for some of my actions at Indiana. Bob Knight's favorite viewpoint is his own, and that's a fine quality and maybe an admirable one in some respects. Problem is, it's also his second, and third, and fourth favorite viewpoint, too.
One of these days, Bob Knight might come home. If he does, it will be one of the most memorable moments of my sporting life -- a hero's welcome that would restitch the wounds for a fanbase and a program where his shadow still looms all too large over 15 years after his departure. And if I can afford a ticket, I'll be there to cheer as loudly as any -- and I won't need any apology for any of his actions to do so. The act of showing up would be enough to indicate what I've wanted to see from Knight all along. Hey, maybe I did have some missteps here. And there are things I could've done differently. But we did a ton of great things here, and I'm proud of that. Our success, I'll never apologize for. Those first few steps onto the floor would represent those words, whether they were spoken into a microphone or not.
Problem is, Bob Knight knows that, too.