Flaming Out

updated 09/25/2000 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/25/2000 AT 01:00 AM EDT

It was an unlikely lesson in manners, and it came from the unlikeliest source. On the afternoon of Sept. 7, 19-year-old freshman Kent Harvey spotted basketball coach Bobby Knight outside Indiana University's Assembly Hall and shouted flippantly, "Hey, what's up, Knight?" What was up, as it too often has been, was Knight's storied temper. According to witnesses, Knight, 59, grabbed Harvey by the arm—hard enough that his nails dug into Harvey's skin, said the freshman—and gave him a small piece of his mind. "Son," he advised, "my name is not Knight to you. It's Coach Knight or it's Mr. Knight."

Three days later it was Coach Knight no longer. And after three controversial decades marked by both stellar achievements and boorish embarrassments, the other sneaker dropped on Sept. 10 when IU's president, Myles Brand—citing a "pattern of uncivil, defiant and unacceptable behavior"—fired the Vesuvian-tempered, red-sweatered high priest of Hoosier basketball. Though polls indicated most students supported the firing, the move set off angry protests on IU's Bloomington campus, with students burning effigies of Harvey (who also received death threats) and Knight, lacking contrition as always, appearing at a rally and promising "to tell you my side of this thing."

While Knight's firing struck many as long overdue, others, including Harvey's father, felt that the final offense, compared with previous ones, didn't justify his removal. "This incident is entirely overblown," says Jerry Harvey, an Indianapolis car-dealership owner who confirms his son had visible marks on his arm. "It bothers me that the university picked this as the final straw." In fact, a Knight's 29-year tenure at Indiana—highlighted by three national championships—includes a slew of more spectacular outbursts: the coach hitting a policeman in Puerto Rico during the 1979 Pan-American Games; hurling a chair across the court during a game in 1985; throwing a vase close to a female secretary in 1988; headbutting a player in 1994; and even kicking his son Pat when he was on the team in 1993. "The trustees knew all about Knight for many years, and they looked the other way," says Murray Sperber, an IU English and American Studies professor and a vocal Knight critic. "The university had two sets of rules, one for Bob Knight and another for others in authority."

That double standard might have continued, were it not for a smoking gun: the videotape that surfaced last April showing Knight seizing Neil Reed, a sophomore guard, by the throat at a 1997 practice. The tape prompted Brand to announce a "zero-tolerance" policy, allowing Knight to keep his job provided he cleaned up his act. But not even that futile sanction—like putting John Goodman on a no-pastries warning—could make the man called the General change his Pattonesque ways. "I've always been confrontational," Knight noted in an unapologetic public apology following the appearance of the tape, "especially when I know I'm right."

Raised in rural Orrville, Ohio, the only child of Carroll Knight, a railroad laborer, and his wife, Hazel, a third-grade teacher, Robert Montgomery Knight excelled in several sports before focusing on basketball at Orrville High. Known for his intensity—he took basketballs along on dates in case he got the chance to practice—Knight was a reserve on the powerful Ohio State teams of the early '60s. He went on to become head coach at Army before arriving in 1971 at Indiana and establishing himself as a demanding father figure to players. "He's a perfectionist," says Indiana talk show host Jerry Bales, a longtime friend. "If you do a good job, he pats you on the head or the butt. If you don't, you better figure out what you did wrong."

The father of two sons—Tim, 36, who runs a marketing company, and Pat, 30, an assistant coach at IU who has talked of resigning in the wake of the firing—Knight was divorced in 1986 from his first wife, Nancy; he then married Karen, 53, a former high school basketball coach, in 1988. Whatever his temperamental excesses, he is widely respected both as a basketball tactician and, in the ethically muddied waters of big-time college athletics, for running a clean program. Nearly all Knight's players have graduated, and he has never been involved in a recruiting scandal. Moreover, he was one of the first public figures to support AIDS victim Ryan White, inviting him to sit behind the bench at games, and he threw himself into fund-raising for Landon Turner, a player on his 1981 national championship team who was paralyzed in a car crash. Dr. Gene Ress, a family practitioner whose teenage son was stricken with leukemia, recalls a visit his son's idol paid the boy in 1988. "His kindness and genuine love was obvious," says Ress. "It's difficult to see where there's real evil in a man like him."

But evil was never the issue. In the end it was Knight's seething anger and defiant insubordination that cost him his job. Provoked by being placed under the zero-tolerance policy, Knight shunned IU officials during the summer, refusing to pay a fine imposed by the university and allegedly verbally abusing a high-ranking female official. "He was getting more embittered by what was happening," says Stephen Backer, an IU trustee. "It was almost like he was taunting and daring the university's president to do something."

Then came the Kent Harvey incident, which brought to a head a situation the university had come to see as intolerable. When Knight refused to postpone a fishing trip to discuss the matter with Brand, he was offered the chance to resign but declined. After the firing, Knight met with his shaken players, several of whom have threatened to transfer from IU. "It was very emotional," says freshman A J. Moye, 18. "He started to cry but left because he didn't want to."(Assistant Mike Davis was named interim head coach.) Knight also told The Sporting News, "We're going to move," referring to his plans to leave Bloomington and maybe take a coaching job, under former Hoosier Isiah Thomas, with a the NBA's Indiana Pacers.

Yet Knight refused to do the 3 very thing that might have saved his IU job had he done it earlier—examine his own behavior in the same unforgiving m light in which he chose so often to view the conduct of others. Finally, it seems, Knight's demise "was inevitable because he couldn't admit he had a problem," says John Feinstein, author of the 1986 book A Season on the Brink, an account of Indiana basketball under the General. "Bob Knight was a great coach who did great things, but he was brought down by his inability to handle the small things."

Alex Tresniowski
Barbara Sandler and Champ Clark in Chicago and Lorna Grisby and Mary Green in Bloomington

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