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College Hoops: Should we really care about this bully named Bobby?

By Tim Dahlberg

Associated Press

OK, let’s get this out of the way before we go any further.

Bob Knight is a bully. Always has been. Still is.

A big sweater-wearing bully, the kind of guy you would run from in grade school if you still had some lunch money in your pocket.

He swears like a drunken sailor, can’t control his temper, and isn’t above getting physical with a player — or student — to get his attention.

None of that comes as much surprise to anyone who follows college basketball, of course. Knight has been doing it for four decades now, and his oafish behavior becomes more legendary with each television replay of him throwing a chair or allegedly trying to choke a kid in practice.

The fact that he’s not mellowing with age shouldn’t surprise anyone, either. He’s old enough to collect Social Security, but just the other day he was caught on camera giving a love tap to one of his players when things weren’t going his way.

Kind of a hard guy to root for. Then again, most bullies are.

*

But that’s exactly what we’ll be expected to do today when Knight’s Texas Tech team plays Stanford in the Pete Newell Challenge. And sometime this month we’ll be expected to cheer even more.

Because there’s history at stake — and plenty of it. With one more win, Knight ties the legendary Adolph Rupp for second place among college coaches for most wins with 876. Four more after that and he passes Dean Smith to become the winningiest college coach.

The numbers leave little doubt that Knight, for all his faults, is one great coach.

There are other numbers, too, that add up to greatness, like 41 years as a head coach, three national championships and never a whiff of NCAA scandal around any of his programs.

*

But if he doesn’t care about his place in history — and he swears he doesn’t — why should we?

Knight was on a conference call Friday to discuss the game against Stanford and what win No. 876 means to him. Not much, apparently, because to hear Knight talk you would think he wasn’t even aware of his place on the all-time list.

“I’ve never given that any thought,” Knight said. “I simply have done things the way I think they should be done.”

My fellow ink-stained wretches on the call and I didn’t get a chance to explore Knight’s feelings much deeper because I had the audacity to ask Knight if he thought he would be remembered more for winning more games than anyone or for the temper tantrums that have come as easily as the wins.

“What you might think doesn’t bother me in the slightest,” replied Knight. “How’s that for an answer?”

Actually, coach, it wasn’t my feelings I was asking about.

Click went the phone.

*

Now I’ve been hung up on by people before, so my feelings weren’t exactly hurt. But I did feel a bit sorry for my fellow scribes who might have been waiting to ask a question about the effectiveness of Stanford’s zone defense.

Typical, though, that the bully in Knight took over.

And the temper followed right behind.

Not that the fans in Texas care. If Knight ran over a group of writers on a Lubbock street with his SUV, the biggest worry might be whether we scratched the front bumper.

But, at a time when he should be enjoying — no, make that reveling — in doing something no coach has accomplished, you have to wonder just what it is inside Knight that makes him incapable of even acknowledging there is such a moment.

I’ve said it already, but I’ll say it again: Knight is a great coach, arguably one of the greatest ever. He wins games, graduates kids and molds young lives.

He’s right up there with Rupp and Smith, both of whom have arenas named after them. And he has the respect of his fellow coaches, who talk about his ability to instill discipline in his teams and to teach players how to play without the ball.

*

Today a former coach — the 91-year-old Newell himself — will honor him at his tournament with a career achievement award.

“He’s had as big an impact on the game of basketball — regardless what level — than anyone ever has,” Stanford’s Trent Johnson said.

That’s debatable, but what isn’t debatable is that Knight will never be spoken about by the average fan with the same reverence that’s reserved for coaches like Smith, Newell or the great John Wooden.

Because the dichotomy with Knight is that while he can control his players he can’t control himself. And I’m not talking about the latest incident, which might have even gained him some sympathy because ESPN replayed it incessantly even though it wasn’t really a big deal.

My guess, though, is Knight wouldn’t have done the same thing to the president of Texas Tech if his paycheck was late as he did to get his player’s attention.

*

Knight’s trail is littered with tantrums that range from chair throwing to berating secretaries or anyone smaller than him. But his failure to move beyond them is what is most troubling.

He’s at an age now where he should have grown up long ago. He doesn’t need to be the bully anymore.

Still, he can’t stop himself. And that’s the real shame.

Even for someone who doesn’t care about what anyone thinks about him.

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