Sunday, February 10, 2008

My Sunday Feeling

In case you hadn't noticed, college athletics, at least as it is practiced by the men in Division I, is a dirty arms race. As dirty as things are in football, it is a virtual pillar of rectitude when placed alongside basketball. Unlike football, you only need to get 2-3 guys together at one time to turn a mediocre basketball team into a good team. Note that I said, "good" team. The days of a Pete Maravich or a David Thompson turning a middling bunch into a 20 game winner are over.

It is for this reason that basketball looks relatively simple as opposed to the military style planning that goes into football. Perhaps it is for this reason that, as Alabama and UALR's Wimp Sanderson used to say, " Everybody thinks they can coach basketball." And so I would argue that expectations in the winter game are far more out of whack than in football. Bad times in hoops are simply easier to turn around.

So let us consider the last week in college basketball. South Carolina's Dave Odom announced his retirement. He opted for the gold watch before he got fired. Dave Odom is a good coach who took over a program that hasn't been much better than kiss my ass since the halcyon days of Frank McGuire 30 years ago. And those folks down there couldn't wait to get rid of him.

LSU fired John Brady who only took them to the Final Four two years ago. Never mind that he was as much a victim of circumstance as anything in the last two seasons as the Tigers were crippled by injuries and guys jumping to the NBA. Never mind that he took over a program they couldn't give away 11 years ago after maximum nutbar Dale Brown got through with it. Never mind that they have the worst facilities in the uber-competitive SEC. You haven't done much for us lately, John. Hit the bricks.

And Bob Knight retired from coaching with 10 or so games left on the Texas Tech Red Raiders's schedule. There is no more polarizing figure in sports. Make no mistake about it. Knight did some very very bad things. He threw a chair at an official. He assaulted an officer in Puerto Rico. It seemed like his every other utterance was boorish and profane.

He also accomplished some very good things. He won 3 national titles. His players tended to do well both in school and in later life. And by all accounts he remains close to them despite his fire and brimstone method of pedagogy that would certainly make a wallflower type like me want to forget the experience.

But guess what? Winning games and getting kids through school was his job. That's what he was paid to do. I'm here to say-and I can say this because everybody thinks they can coach basketball-that Robert Montgomery Knight (as he is referred to without surcease by Dick Vitale who has unfortunately completely recovered after surgery on his badly abused vocal chords) would not have survived anywhere else but in basketball crazy Indiana where he had an endless supply of Kip and Skip white boy types who were conditioned to take his abuse for the glory of playing for the Hoosiers.

He survived, barely, choking a player in practice. But when he grabbed a student who had the temerity to ask him, "Hey, Knight. What's up?" instead of "Coach" or "Mister", that was that at Indiana. Knight claimed that he was just trying to instruct the young man in the proper way of addressing his elders. It is to laugh. Bobby Knight is to etiquette as Osama Bin Laden is to diplomacy.

And so here's what's so galling about his "retirement." Knight's bumptious ways have always been tolerated because of his "integrity" and historically clean programs. Well. As I said earlier, running a clean program was what he was paid to do.

He quit on his players. Bobby Petrino leaves the Atlanta Falcons for the Arkansas job and he is rightfully depicted as a Jezebel. Knight does the same thing to Texas Tech becuase he is "tired" and the sports media doesn't bat an eye for the most part. And this is even after he tells ESPN's Jay Bilas-who is no dummy-that he hasn't ruled out a return to coaching! What do you want to bet that Knight could have summoned the resources to stick it out if the Raiders were leading the league?

Not only that, he quit on the administration at Texas Tech, and his buddy Gerald Myers, who went out on a limb to hire him when he was red-hot and radioactive after the debacle at Indiana.

Look. I'm no ivory tower type. I know that coaches get after players. They used to get after me. I know that stuff happens behind closed doors. When you are coaching young people it can't be a democracy. But there's a way to do it without being a martinet. Nobody spends more face-time with his players than Arkansas's John Pelphrey who also seems to get "teed up" by the officials every other game. And yet off the court, you will not find a more dignified and thoughtful person. Also consider thou the response of North Carolina's Roy Williams, when asked if he had any criticisms of Knight said with a straight face, " I might not have thrown a chair."

The days of a Bob Knight being allowed to visit sustained abuse on those around him are mercifully past. There's too much attention from the media and from the Internet. You grab a kid by the throat now, he sends an e-mail to his mama and she sends it to her friend and pretty soon it winds up on a message board. Ask Houston Nutt, who God knows never grabbed a kid in anger and still earned the wrath of thousands of disgruntled Hog fans just for being,well, Houston Nutt.

But only in the dirty world of college hoops can a thug like Bob Knight be thought of wistfully and thoughtfully as a paragon of virtue. It's a low bar. A real low bar.

1 comment:

Sophmom said...

I hadn't been paying much attention, but when you put it that way...

It seems to me that there's less and less tolerance of abusive behavior in coaching. Bobby Knight was always out there at the end of the spectrum, but he was the extreme of what was considered the "right" way to coach. Starting with youth sports and gently moving its way into the mainstream (Phil Jackson presents the shining example) is a new norm in coaching that avoids the in-your-face abusive treatment of players that we all grew up just accepting.

Noticing Knight's exit only in my peripheral vision, I remember briefly thinking it was about time. In retrospect, I have to wonder if there's not something more than meets the eye behind his mid-season departure.

Thanks for pointing out that March Madness is upon us. We've just about made it through the black hole of sports. All around the country pitchers and catchers are stretching and getting ready to pack their bags. Yee haa.

Hope all is well with you and yours, darlin'.