Two weeks ago, I flew to Lubbock, Texas, with a TV crew tasked with shooting a fishing-show promo for ESPN. The idea was to have the infamous coach Bob Knight motivate three professional anglers before this month’s Bassmaster Classic. Leading this mission was Jerry McKinnis, a superior of mine, a longtime fishing-show host, and perhaps Knight’s best friend. Before we drove to the Texas Tech campus to pester the coach, McKinnis told us to tread lightly. Knight had won his 900th career game the previous week, against then-ninth-ranked Texas A&M, only to watch his Red Raiders blow a late lead against Oklahoma days later. His mood was suspect, and McKinnis was prepared to fly home without footage if Knight flaked or detonated. “What we’re doing,” he said, “is his worst nightmare.”
We arrived at the arena loaded for grouch. Instead, Knight shuffled onto the court and gamely offered a pep talk to the troops. With cameras rolling, he spent an hour calmly, graciously, and almost wistfully talking about fishing and coaching. I shot close to 200 photos on the court and didn’t get one of Knight looking like Knight the throat-grabbing, reporter-eating firebrand. The General didn’t sneer, his elbows stayed below his shoulders, and he swore only in moderation, using his indoor voice to do so. He wore a sweater, jeans with an elastic-banded waist, and loafers, one of which, I noticed, was untied. He dandled a fishing rod as he spoke. He looked all of his 67 years.
When Knight quit on Monday, he said it was because he was tired. For once, that rationale didn’t sound like hooey. Knight owned the victories record at 880; once his odometer turned over at 900, he hung up the sweater. (Coaches, as much as fans, must recognize the appeal of round numbers. Witness Eddie Sutton’s self-exhumation to stagger after career win number 800.) Near the end of our visit, Knight compared himself to Penn State football coach Joe Paterno—who, as one of the two winningest coaches in major college football history, is a figure perpendicular to Knight. The old coach marveled at the fanfare Paterno recently received for coaching his 500th football game. “Hell,” Knight said, “I coached my 500th game 25 years ago.”
Turned out he had only three more games in him. Many coaches last plenty past 67 years old—hell, Paterno passed his 67th year 14 years ago. But that slog must be harder for those who rule by force. Basketball, the most freeform of sports, resists micromanagement. Knight’s ball-control motion offense is based on the idea that the game can be controlled. This fundamental contrast can lead to some, shall we say, unhappy moments. Two weeks ago, the coach fumed about a player who took an open shot instead of waiting until Tech’s offense had made four passes, the minimum Knight had assigned. Sixty-seven isn’t ancient, but it is awfully old to be getting apoplectic every time a 20-year-old forgets to make the extra pass. After Knight’s retirement, McKinnis told me that his friend looked as bad as he’d ever seen him: “He was beat down into the ground.” Knight blamed that on the refs and writers. I’d say it’s probably just damn hard to demand so much of people for so many years.
Knight always liked McKinnis because he took the coach fishing. When they went out together, the stresses of the court melted away, at least for a few hours. Now Knight is free to cast himself into that sport, and to search for a version of perfection that, for the first time since 1968, doesn’t depend on the whims of teenagers. His Sisyphean burden of coaching has been lifted. One may not imagine Knight happy, but at least he’ll be free of the standards of lesser mortals. On the water, you can cuss only yourself.
McKinnis, an old baseball hand, once arranged to take the General and Ted Williams, a boyhood hero of Knight’s, on a salmon-fishing trip to the Soviet Union. They sat beside each other on the flight over, two exacting military buffs debating their personal lists of great 20th-century Americans. The trip meant enough to Knight that he mentions it in the first chapter of his 2002 autobiography, Knight: My Story. The coach omits a version of the story I’ve heard around McKinnis’ office. Apparently, when Knight first invited Williams to go out on the lake, the old ballplayer felt out Knight’s knowledge for about 10 minutes. Williams then declined flatly, saying Knight wasn’t the caliber of fisherman that he typically palled around with.
In the book, Knight describes at length his admiration for Williams. He especially respected the way Teddy Ballgame ended his career:
Williams quit playing after the 1960 season—after he homered in his last time at bat and gave John Updike the material for what may be the greatest sports story I’ve ever read. … Updike also said Williams, by declining to go with the team to New York for a meaningless three-game series closing out the season, “knew how to do even that, the hardest thing. Quit.”
Like his hero, Knight walked away with games still left on the schedule. A seven-point win over Oklahoma State will have to serve as his last at-bat homer. It was another great coach, Vince Lombardi, who said that fatigue makes cowards of us all. While some writers stopped just shy of calling Knight’s exit cowardly, the coach’s decision seemed more pragmatic than gutless. He knew he was winding down, and in leaving now, Knight assured his son Pat, an erstwhile assistant coach at Tech and his father’s anointed successor, a chance to prove himself over the final third of the season. Knight’s terms as usual, even if he did, for once, go quietly.