Jeff’s Weekly Sports Rapp: Incomparable Inductee
By Jeff Rapp
(Editor’s Note: Jeff Rapp has covered Ohio State athletics since he graduated from the university more than 20 years ago. He currently serves as a voting member of the Heisman Trophy Trust and is a longstanding member of the Football Writers Association of America and the U.S. Basketball Writers Association).
Ohio State will usher in another terrific group of Athletics Hall of Fame inductees this weekend. The names include decorated football stars Ray Griffin and Mike Vrabel, women’s basketball centerpiece Jessica Davenport, and accomplished women’s volleyball coach Jim Stone.
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But the list gained a headliner deluxe this summer when the University and men’s Varsity ‘O’ president Bernie Brown announced that legendary basketball coach, and former Buckeye player, Bob Knight would also join the group, becoming the first member via the lifetime achievement category.
The category was created earlier this year to honor outstanding former Buckeyes who have excelled in their careers after leaving Ohio State. It is not an annual award. The basis for a lifetime achievement award is someone who has reached the highest, most exclusive level of success in his industry, sport or profession.
Some national columnists found the appointment to be strange since Knight came into fame at Indiana, leading the Hoosiers to national championships in 1976, ’81 and ’87. The 1975-76 team finished 32-0 and is still the last to go undefeated in major college basketball. IU also made the Final Four in 1973 and ’92 under Knight, who amassed 11 Big Ten championships and was the conference’s Coach of the Year eight times while in Bloomington.
But the Ohio State Hall of Fame?
It’s appropriate that Knight’s inclusion is a bit head-scratching to some. After all, is there a bigger walking conundrum in the sportsworld than Bob Knight?
I’ve asked myself this question a few times – resigned to despising him then finding myself admiring what he’s done and even being entertained by his sardonic wit and competitive antics.
It goes even deeper than that for me because I, too, am an alum of The Ohio State University and hold sacred the heritage of Big Ten and OSU basketball. I’ve spent a good chunk of my life in St. John Arena and other conference venues, just as Knight has, and I’ve witnessed both the intrigue and vitriol that seems to accompany him when in pitched hardcourt battle.
I was a student at OSU in the 1980s – the Bobby Knight heyday – and covered men’s basketball with regularity throughout the 1990s. I saw him booed, T’ed up, kicked out of a game, dress down reporters, and, more often than not, completely outthink and outcoach his counterparts.
I was a partial-season ticketholder for OSU basketball while in high school and developed a quick hatred for IU’s teams – the candystriped warm-ups, the moving screens and the silver-haired volcano on the sideline.
In the winter of 1983, I landed a modest gig as a cable-puller for a few OSU games and was right under the hoop nearest the Indiana bench when the Hoosiers and Uwe Blab visited. (I know, I know. You’re dating yourself once again, Rapper.)
I watched, just as seemingly everyone else did, the every movement of Knight. What was he going to do next? What intimidation ploy was he going to utilize on an unsuspecting ref? What brilliant adjustment would he make next?
Few people – I mean very few people – command a room or an arena the moment they walk in the way Bob Knight does. It’s the presence of a president or a dictator; Tiger Woods on the back nine of The Masters.
First of all, Knight is a big guy – every bit of 6-4 – and has steely eyes that say, “stay the hell away from me.” He’s about as approachable as Buckingham Palace.
Even so, I once found myself face-to-face with him in a darkened room – a 15-minute sliver of my life I won’t soon forget.
More than Meets the Eye
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My senior year at Ohio State, I landed the men’s basketball beat for The Lantern, the university newspaper. I wanted my required 40-inch story for the corresponding journalism class to be a thorough – and undeniably printable – feature on John Havlicek. I was able to track down Havlicek, Larry Siegfried, Fred Taylor and even Red Auerbach for the piece.
I just needed one more source to put the story over the top. I wanted to talk to Knight.
So I left the interview request with the Indiana basketball office, and when I didn’t hear back I left another message; and another message and another message.
I covered the Ohio State-IU game in Bloomington – another win for the Crimson and Cream at Assembly Hall, as was almost always the case.
When Knight was finished with his postgame address, I popped up and angled over to him as he strode out the interview room with a security guard and an assistant coach. The Hoosiers were the defending NCAA champions, but the program was still on the heels of John Feinsteins’s bestseller, “A Season On The Brink,” and let’s just say Knight was even less fond of sportswriters after that.
Still, I summoned the courage to introduce myself and told the coach about the sure-to-be-wonderful story I was doing on Havlicek.
He looked at me and said, “Are you the kid who keeps calling my secretary and bugging the hell out of her?”
“Yes,” I said. “That’s me.”
“OK, come with me.”
I’m convinced he only gave me the time of day because he was impressed with my nerve. But he also liked the topic. He loved to talk about the development, selflessness and defensive wizardry of Havlicek while they played for coach Fred Taylor from 1959-62.
Knight led me down the lower concourse of Assembly and made sure to stop to say hello to the wheelchair-bound IU fans who likely were hanging around just to see him. The group was assembled by disabled former Hoosier Landon Turner, and Knight asked the ticket director to arrange for them to sit courtside.
I couldn’t believe what I was witnessing. The rugged façade had been stripped away. The churlish aura was now vapor.
Knight was pleasant and warm. He took time to shake hands and asked the fans if they had enjoyed the game, if their seating area was OK. He was genuinely interested in their replies. He was gracious.
After a few minutes, he looked my way and motioned for me to follow him to his dressing room. Lightbulbs around the mirror. An adjacent bathroom. A few chairs. He pointed to a seat and, of course, I took it. I then re-explained my project and he jumped into several terrific quotes about Havlicek.
After he went on and on about his former teammate and espoused the virtues of Taylor, his face tightened up and he looked me dead in the eye.
“All right,” he said. “Christ, that should be more than enough. Time to head back to Columbus.”
In the years after, I saw Knight continue to win at an alarming rate but also become ever more bombastic. The chair-throwing incident of 1985 was just a warm-up. Just two months after our sitdown, he told NBC’s Connie Chung, “I think that if rape is inevitable, relax and enjoy it.”
He also infamously berated an NCAA Tournament staffer in 1995 – which was quite hilarious, I have to say – and then was accused of choking former player – and the recently deceased – Neil Reed in 1997, which led to his eventual ouster at IU after 29 years.
However, Knight’s accomplishments as a coach are astounding. Before landing in Bloomington, he made a name for himself at Army, where he coached Mike Krzyzewski.
Building the Bridge Home
His coaching afterlife at Texas Tech also had its share of highlights.
When Knight brought Tech to town on Jan. 4, 2004, his return creating a stir and sellout at The Schott. After the Red Raiders posted an 80-72 victory behind 27 points from Andre Emmett, Knight spoke so glowingly about his Ohio State ties that he sounded like he was campaigning for Jim O’Brien’s job.
As it turned out, O’Brien was fired that summer, but then-athletic director Andy Geiger didn’t pursue Knight, which reportedly miffed the Hall of Fame coach. Knight also was put off when school officials decided to hire barely-known Eldon Miller to replace Taylor in 1976 instead of him with the Hoosiers coming off of their perfecto.
Knight mellowed a bit during his retirement. He was on hand to congratulate Krzyzewski when his protégé bested his all-time wins record. He even took part in a commercial where he made fun of his famous temper.
After taking a job as an ESPN analyst in 2008, Knight, who grew up in Orrville, Ohio, seemed to strike up a rapport with current Ohio State head coach Thad Matta, who grew up in tiny Hoopeston, Ill., and always had fantasized of playing for Knight.
In later life, Knight was more accessible to Ohio State reporters and was on hand for the dedication of Fred Taylor Drive while Taylor was battling illness and in a wheelchair. He spun stories and even talked about the good, old days at OSU.
Still, one was left to wonder if Knight would ever be fully accepted as a true Buckeye, especially considering all the times he passionately defeated his alma mater as a coach.
Much of that doubt was erased when Knight was honored at halftime of the Lamar-OSU basketball game on Dec. 20 of last year. Why Lamar? Knight’s son, Pat Knight, is the head coach.
The ceremony included a lengthy listing of accomplishments by PA announcer Matt McCoy, an introduction from Archie Griffin, and a tribute video that included congratulatory comments from Krzyzewski and others.
“You learned it well from Coach Taylor,” Krzyzewski said in the video. “I can tell you that I’ve learned so much from you. No one has had more of an influence on me than you.”
Standing just a few feet away when Knight was presented the University Ambassador medal, I could see the grizzled coach was extremely moved, especially as the crowd on hand bellowed out an accompanying roar.
Earlier in the week, Matta hinted at the moment.
“Being an alum of this university is something,” Matta said. “I try to look at all of our alumni and people that have made an impact – and there’s so many. But I think you’ve got maybe the greatest coach, one of the greatest coaches of all time. And you also couple that with what he accomplished here, albeit he was a sixth man but he played on a national championship team.
“And he took his Ohio State degree and he utilized that to become one of the most prominent people in the profession of college basketball. Getting to know him now as I have, his passion for this university still holds strong. That to me is what this university is all about.”
Matta later added, “You spend time with him and, number one, you learn a lot about basketball, you learn a ton about American history, and you laugh, because he’s one of the funniest human beings I’ve ever talked to. And probably the last thing is you see a side of him compassion-wise of what he does for people, but he never wants anybody to know that he’s doing it.”
His Greatest Honor
Like I did for a glimpse, Matta has seen Knight’s soft underbelly and profound feelings for his university.
Matta clearly has helped Knight rebuild that bridge home and, I’m told, was highly instrumental in paving the way for the Varsity ‘O’ to grant him lifetime achievement status in OSU’s Hall of Fame.
Varsity ‘O’ board member Tony White, a former Buckeye forward who once was recruited by Knight, made the phone call to inform the coach of the honor. White told WTVN (610 AM) radio that Knight “got emotional” upon hearing the news and told White it was his greatest honor.
Former OSU football player Jeff Logan, who will emcee the induction dinner on Friday, said many others have responded the same way when he made that call.
But few – OK, none – have the resumé of Knight, who is already enshrined in the prestigious Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., along with Taylor, Havlicek and Jerry Lucas. He also entered the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame last year.
Knight is one of only three coaches to lead a team to NCAA and NIT titles (1979), along with an Olympic gold medal (1984). He finished his 41-year coaching career with a 902-371 record. His career wins total currently ranks second all-time.
Knight lettered three seasons at Ohio State, serving as a reserve forward on the Buckeyes’ 1960 national championship team and helping them make appearances in the NCAA title game in both 1961 and ‘62. He played in 74 games over the course of his career, averaging 3.8 points and 2.1 rebounds per game. He earned his degree in history and government in 1962, then ventured straight into coaching.
When he coached, Knight always seemed to have a wicked demeanor. But in studying him over the years, I’ve come to realize that there is still humility in the man. He often attributes his success to the teachings of Taylor, whom he loved like a father, and he still believes there is no greater learning environment that a dedicated university.
Upon receiving the University Ambassador medal last year, Knight said the following: