Monday, February 11, 2008

"Lazzari's Sports Roundup" - - - - 2-16-08

Farewell To "The General"

It's a dilemma faced by all sports figures, yes, even the very best of them--that inevitable juncture when their best days have come and gone. It's that unfortunate time when a coach or player is lacking the mental or physical capabilities (sometimes BOTH) to continue on at the high level necessary for excellence. "The General" arrived at that point last week--"retreating" from a remarkable career filled with tremendous success amid some well-publicized controversy.

The fiery Robert Montgomery Knight resigned as Texas Tech basketball coach last week--leaving the coaching reins of the Red Raiders to his capable son, Pat. Some were shocked by the decision; yours truly was not. After a 42-year head coaching career marked by a Division I record 902 victories, the time had truly arrived for Mr. Knight to step aside. No, he didn't quit on his team (as some have hinted) midway through a mediocre season in which the Red Raiders were 12-8; Bobby Knight never had the word "quit" in his often-caustic vocabulary. Rather, it appears to me that Knight most likely stepped down as a result of him questioning his OWN role as an effective teacher and competitor in the current, ever-changing college atmosphere. You see, society has changed--Bobby Knight hasn't.

Sadly, when Bob Knight's name is mentioned from this day forward, many casual sports fans will remember him as a miserable "madman" devoid of a caring, human nature. They'll think of chair-throwing incidents, physical confrontations with players, and his berating of individuals who've disagreed with him; yes, you know--the stuff that appears in headlines. They WON'T remember his never-ending emphasis on academics, his high graduation rates among players, the importance he placed on discipline, and the fact that he was NEVER accused of cheating in a society where the "C-word" is prevalent. Perhaps they'll conveniently forget his three national titles while at Indiana and the fact that he is the only man to collectively win the NCAA tournament, the NIT, and gold medals at both the Olympic and Pan American Games. They'll downplay Knight's first NCAA title season--the magical 1976 campaign when Indiana went undefeated--a feat no team has accomplished since. And they may even dismiss his quiet support of charitable causes and the fact that he may have been the greatest teacher of defense that basketball has ever seen. Ah, thus is the ironic life of one Bobby Knight.

Knicks coach Isiah Thomas recently referred to Knight in the N.Y. Post as "a teacher of life within the game"--Thomas having played under Knight during his college days at Indiana. Both Thomas and current Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski (who played under Knight while at Army) have offered that NO other individual--outside of a family member--has had a greater impact on their lives than "The General." Current New Mexico coach/former Indiana star Steve Alford has credited Knight on numerous occasions--insisting that he is a better man for having played under the legend. Finally, the great John Wooden told the AP, "I don't think there's ever been a better teacher of the game of basketball than Bob.....I would say that no player that ever played for him would not say he did not come out a stronger person." Pretty strong/complimentary words about a "madman," huh?

In all honesty, I truly believed Knight was done with coaching back in 2000 after he was relieved of his duties at Indiana; it seemed that Knight's gruff, "no-nonsense" ways had become hopelessly outdated in a softer, undisciplined society. But he obviously wasn't done teaching yet; the fire was still there and he had that one more "run" in him to make men out of boys. In Knight's first six years at Tech, he led his squads to five 20-win seasons--a first at that school. And he did it HIS way, the clean way--yes, the RIGHT way.

It's also been hinted that "The General" resigned SIMPLY to pave the way for his son, Pat, to hold onto the Tech job amid a change in that school's administration. That may have a smidgen of veracity to it, but I believe Bobby Knight wouldn't let go of the only job he's ever known unless he had truly hit a brick wall in terms of his enjoyment of the game. I'm convinced that Knight did ALL he could at Tech to bring that program to respectability--without breaking rules--but knew deep down that the changing college atmosphere/average recruit of today would no longer allow "his way" to compete with college basketball's upper echelon. He just couldn't cheat, compromise, or SETTLE. And that's how I'll choose to remember one Robert Montgomery Knight.

We all have our faults; Bobby Knight surely had his and his past indiscretions will always be synonymous with his name. When you're in the public spotlight for more than 40 years, you'll surely be under more scrutiny than the "average Joe;" perhaps Bob Knight's biggest fault may have been his refusal to recognize this. But in a modern society where integrity is scarce and scandal runs rampant, let's give credit to a complex man--not a "madman"--whose coaching genius and love for his players were second to none.


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