Editor’s note: This is part of a series of stories revisiting the biggest what-ifs in IU history.
Many sports fans romanticize about the idea of “going out on top,” when legendary players or coaches win a championship, then end their career on their terms and ride off into the sunset, with the public’s last memory of them on the field or the court or the sideline now frozen in time, as confetti rained down upon them and with a shiny trophy hoisted above their head.
That’s exactly what former IU basketball coach Bob Knight, who is months away from his 80th birthday, could’ve done almost exactly half a lifetime ago. He could’ve been a John Wooden, a John Elway, a Peyton Manning – an all-time great who walks away after winning a championship.
What could’ve motivated a 40-year-old Bob Knight, fresh off of winning the 1981 national championship, his second in five years, to walk away from Bloomington?
The chance to potentially double his salary as one of CBS’ lead college basketball commentators after the network acquired the rights to broadcast the NCAA tournament in March 1981 with a three-year, $48-million deal.
The annual rate of $16 million per year that CBS offered the NCAA was a 60-percent increase compared to what NBC paid for the rights to air the 1981 NCAA Tournament, according to The New York Times. CBS was willing to pay for college basketball – pay the NCAA for the rights and pay for top on-air talent.
Knight, who had his weekly, televised Bob Knight Show where he talked basketball, had worked as a color commentator for CBS radio broadcasts during the 1979 NCAA Tournament, a year in which the Hoosiers won the NIT, and now the network was trying to land him in a full-time capacity. The Indianapolis News reported in July 1981 that Knight, who earned roughly $200,000 at the time from his IU salary, his summer camps and basketball clinics, could have doubled his salary with CBS.
The exact level of interest that Knight had in the role is somewhat unclear, based on some conflicting media coverage at the time, but a few things are certain:
- Knight reached out to CBS
- CBS was interested in Knight
- The two sides spoke about a potential role and CBS offered Knight a contract
Those are all the elements you need for an alternate reality in which the reigning national champion Indiana Hoosiers are conducting a head coaching search in July or August 1981, as students are getting ready to come back on campus for the new school year. An alternate reality where a Hall of Fame head coach trades his clipboard for a headset despite having another 30ish years left in the tank as a head coach.
Here’s why that alternate reality could’ve been, well, reality.
The Associated Press reported that Knight “approached CBS about joining the television network” for the 1981-82 season. “He did come to us, and the decision it totally up to him,” CBS spokesman Jay Rosenstein told the AP. “He has not been pressured, and we have not been pressured.”
There’s a saying in college sports, at least in regards to head coaches during coaching carousels in the era of search firms, FlightAware and FOIA requests, that no one is offered a job until they accept a job. But that’s not true in this case, when it came to one of the best coaches in the sport and a major TV network that was investing heavily in college basketball. CBS was on the record saying they had offered Knight a lucrative contract so the job was there for Knight if he wanted it.
“Kevin O’Malley, vice president of programming and development for CBS sports, confirmed the network made a concrete offer for a substantial amount to Knight this summer,” reported the AP. At the very least, Knight considered the offer. He didn’t reject “the idea out of hand,” according to the AP.
Knight was reportedly in Idaho on an offseason fishing trip at the time these reports were published but he made his thoughts clear on what the media was saying about him and his professional future.
“I don’t have any interest in commenting on what a ‘reliable source’ says about me,” Knight said. “It would look awfully funny if you wrote that story and then I released that I had on July 15 signed a 10-year contract to coach at Indiana University. I’ve never released contract information, but if I were forced to do it because of an unfounded rumor, I’d do it.”
Notice that, while Knight mentioned the notion of an “unfounded rumor,” he never specifically denied the newspaper reports.
On the CBS side of things, the AP reported that O’Malley, CBS’ VP of programming and development, told a source that he “never had the feeling (Knight) was intent on doing this.”
“I frankly didn’t consider it that great a possibility,” O’Malley said. “Talking with Bobby was an interesting experience, but we never abandoned the prospect of looking at other people. It would be a disservice to him and college basketball to exaggerate Bobby’s interest in us.”
That’s where this story becomes a little muddled. The AP reported Knight reached out to CBS initially, and not the other way around, and that after discussions, CBS offered Knight the job. The two sides definitely did more than just grab coffee and have a walk-and-talk.
When he returned to IU in the fall of 1981, Knight ultimately admitted to the media that he was “very close” to accepting the offer, according to The Courier-Journal.
Knight would’ve been a big “fake news” guy if he coached in 2020, with fake news of course meaning news that’s true but you’re just upset that it’s been publicly reported.
So, with his admission that he was indeed close to leaving IU for CBS, what if ... Bob Knight had left the coaching profession after the 1981 season, after 16 years as a head coach – quite a long career, already, for a 40-year-old – after amassing more than 300 wins, two national championships, three Final Fours, six Big Ten titles and five Big Ten Coach of the Year awards?
Where does IU turn for Knight’s replacement late in the summer? What are the next three (or five?) decades like for the Hoosiers on the hardwood? How does Knight’s broadcasting career fare and what would’ve been the legacy he left behind as a championship-winning head coach who got off the highway on his own terms, with his metaphorical car still filled with a half-tank of gas, rather than running the tank dry and being carried away by a tow truck?
Could IU have looked up the road and tried to hire Notre Dame’s Digger Phelps, then 40, who had led the Irish to the regional semifinals or farther in seven of the previous eight seasons, including the Final Four in 1978? Or would IU’s search have led south to Louisville’s Denny Crum, then 44, who made the Cardinals a second-weekend regular in the NCAA tournament and guided them to the 1980 national title?
Whatever you think of the national standing and reputation of IU basketball today, especially if you’re over 30, is what IU basketball actually was in 1981. The Hoosiers could’ve certainly attracted top coaching talent. Maybe not anyone in the coaching profession, given how late in the summer Knight would’ve hypothetically left for CBS, but if IU calls you in 1981, you listen.
Remember, Duke hadn’t yet won a national title. Kansas had won just one championship and the Jayhawks hadn’t played for one since ‘57, when they lost to North Carolina – the Tar Heels’ first and only title at that point. Kentucky had five titles to its name but four of them came under Adolph Rupp between 1948 and ‘58, so the Wildcats had won just one national championship during the lifetime of graduating college seniors at the time.
IU was on the short list of the country’s most prominent programs, along with UCLA, Kentucky, and maybe a few others.
There’s been a national media narrative that IU has spent the last 20 years trying to escape Knight’s shadow, and that’s certainly debatable, but what’s not debatable is that IU basketball hasn’t been nearly as consistent or dominant since Knight left as the Hoosiers were at their peak during his tenure. If Knight left Bloomington for the bright lights and big checks offered by CBS in 1981, would the soul-searching that IU has experienced over the last two decades have also taken place in the previous two decades, from 1981 to 2000?
Or would IU brass have hired the perfect Knight replacement to take over the reigning national champions and keep the Hoosiers humming with a renewed, less controversial energy?
We’ll never know, but perhaps Knight is a figure whose employer would be better off after his tenure if he had left too soon rather than if he overstayed his welcome and had been forced out.
If Knight joined CBS in 1981, his legacy at IU would’ve been a fascinating one, after a 10-year tenure that featured two national championships, plus another Final Four, an Elite Eight and two Sweet 16s. Just for reference, that’s a wildly successful first decade that, in terms of NCAA tournament success, isn’t terribly different from John Calipari’s first 10 years at Kentucky, which resulted in a national championship, three other Final Fours, three Elite Eights and a Sweet 16.
If you’re keeping score at home, that’s two national championships, three total Final Fours, four trips to the Elite Eight (or better) and six times in the Sweet 16 for Knight’s first 10 years at Indiana (2/3/4/6) compared to 1/4/7/8 for Coach Cal’s first 10 at Kentucky.
In 2019, Calipari was 20 years older than Knight was in 1981, but however you’d hypothetically think about Coach Cal leaving Lexington after the 2019 season could be a relatively fair comparison for how IU fans would’ve reacted to Knight leaving at the peak of his powers in 1981.
With potentially 30 years of coaching ahead of him, the question would have been how many more championships Knight could’ve won if he had stayed in coaching.
Two? Three? Four?
The reality of what Knight’s post-1981 career actually was probably would’ve been dwarfed by the imagination of IU fans. After ‘81, IU won just one more national title, made just one other Final Four and two Elite Eights under Knight. In Knight’s 18 NCAA tournament appearances after IU won the 1981 national title, the Hoosiers lost in the first weekend 10 times, including in each of Knight’s last six seasons.
IU was still successful in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but anyone who would’ve tried to triple alternate-reality CBS color commentator Bob Knight’s coaching achievements from age 30 to age 40 in order to calculate what Knight would’ve done if he stayed would’ve grossly overstepped in their calculations.
Had Knight’s broadcasting career started in 1981, it would’ve been fascinating, if not potentially horrifying, product.
This was someone who had an incredibly complicated duality of some measured, arguably before-his-time beliefs on the role of education and rule-following, while he himself was a rule-breaker (see his conviction in Puerto Rico) and fiery character who offered more than a few cringe-worthy takes on society.
Knight noted that it was way easier for college football programs to raise money than it was for the United Fund, saying, “that’s absolutely out of place.” When he got the IU job, he told IU alumni that if he ever found any of them cheating, he’d turn them into the NCAA and allow his program to be placed on probation. Knight said any coach caught cheating should be fired and banned from college athletics. Those are noble statements!
You could write 10,000 words, especially in May 2020, on Knight’s statement that “I think it is incumbent on those of us in athletics to realize that if a university’s athletic programs were eliminated tomorrow – totally eliminated – it wouldn’t affect the university and the quality of education one bit.”
Then there were takes like how he thought women waste time “talking about inconsequential things that wear my patience” and how “any newspaper which runs point spreads should run prostitutes’ telephone numbers with prices right underneath. It’s the same thing. Prostitution is no more legal than gambling.” He once told the Boston Globe’s Bob Ryan that he should quit writing for Basketball Weekly after Ryan wrote about a reported gambling incident at Boston College.
Man, Knight would’ve hated Bovada and MyBookie dot AG if he coached today. He would’ve personally hunted down the people behind the burner accounts that angrily tweet at Devonté Green for ruining their second-half over against Illinois that was part of their Tuesday night parlay.
During one of his weekly television shows in the spring of 1981, Knight had extended an offer to Purdue AD George King to be a guest on the show. King declined, so Knight said, “We’re fortunate that we were able to get an outstanding substitute,” as he introduced a live donkey named “Jack.”
Maybe Knight could’ve had the athlete advocacy side of Jay Bilas, the unpredictability of Bill Walton. He also could’ve had a very Dakichian “I’m not part of the media but here’s why the media sucks” vibe, despite himself being a regular on national radio and TV. Sportswriters were often in Knight’s crosshairs. “There isn’t a story about me that I can pick up that doesn’t contain half a dozen things without any basis in fact,” Knight once told the AP.
Then there’s the complete wildcard element of whether or not Knight would’ve gotten in his own way, now playing by somebody else’s rules – largely those of the average American watching at home who’s a casual viewer of college basketball. Knight once shoved an LSU fan against a wall in Philadelphia after the fan insulted him. There was an investigation into whether he cussed out an Ohio State player in the closing moments of a game and he once shoved an official who he thought was blocking his view. Those outbursts, alleged or real, misunderstanding or not, may not have flown as an employee of one of the biggest television networks in the country, especially not on live television.
Put the 1981 version of Bob Knight onto regular CBS telecasts in 2020 and maybe, just maybe, he finishes the season without getting canceled. Does he last a month? A week?
Knight, at least, was somewhat self-aware. “Because of some of the things I do occasionally, my tenure may be decided on a day-to-day basis,” he once told the AP in the early 1980s. “I tend to do some things which are misunderstood.”
If he kept his thoughts on women, gambling, the NCAA, officials and the media at large to himself, a 40-something-year-old Bob Knight probably could’ve made for really compelling, insightful and entertaining basketball analysis on TV.
Knight, of course, did have a brief broadcasting career with ESPN as a studio analyst and color commentator but his exploration of the medium would’ve been far more interesting if it had started in 1981, not 2008.
(By the way, remember when Knight called the IU-Georgia game in 2012, when he refused to stand up for Dickie V’s classic pregame picture with the broadcast crew, talked non-stop about shot fakes, praised former IU guard Jordan Hulls while repeatedly criticizing Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and he said that possessions that had just one pass before a 3-point attempt made him want to get out his gun? Good times!)
Ultimately, CBS moved on from its pursuit of Knight in 1981 and the network hired NBC’s Billy Packer, who worked for CBS until 2008, which is ironically when Knight’s TV career eventually started with ESPN.
“At the time, they were interested Bobby Knight,” Packer told Newshouse News Service’s Bob Wisehart in 1982, after he was hired. “That didn’t work out, and then we talked and things came together very quickly.”
Packer became one of the faces of what became the modern era of college basketball TV coverage, while Knight led IU to another national title in 1987 and continued a coaching tenure that ended in [gestures vaguely at Myles Brand’s front lawn], leaving us with one of most fascinating crossroads moments in the history of IU basketball.