Newsday – May 9, 2008 – John Jeansonne – Now that Bob Knight apparently has left the coaching scene for the last time, the sports world again is mulling an existential debate not unlike a central question in the nation’s lively presidential campaigns: Whether it is better (as Machiavelli himself asked) to be feared or loved.
Knight clearly put himself in the former camp of pre-emptive strikes and non-negotiable policy-making. His enormous success in producing winning college basketball teams was matched only by a conviction that he was surrounded by enemies — game officials, fans, reporters, Puerto Rican policemen and various minions to be intimidated at his whim — forever plotting imminent attacks.
Many colleagues and a few sycophants insist that Knight’s private displays of a caring nature and basic respect for fair play balanced the many occasions when he publicly weirded out. But the collateral damage he inflicted by taking his in-your-face, disciplinarian, my-way act beyond the locker room prompt a provocative discussion.
Is winning the only thing in sports? And, even if it is, is dictatorial bullying the only means to the end?
Florida-based sports psychologist John Murray acknowledged that he is “definitely of the view that a coach needs to make the calls and be strong,” recalling the style of former Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula. “My point, as a psychologist, is that there are many ways to win and you have to be sophisticated and tap into the individuality of players. But you do have to have a unified message to the team, and you have to have authority, though you don’t need to be a tyrant.”
Every successful coach, argued sports author and commentator John Feinstein, “is a control freak. To me, the question is, what’s authoritarian? When [North Carolina’s] Dean Smith blew his whistle to start practice, every player ran to the circle and stood with his toe on the line. But Dean Smith didn’t curse, didn’t raise his voice hardly ever. His methods of authority were very different.”
Feinstein, whose in-depth 1986 study of Knight, “A Season on the Brink,” is one of 23 books he has written on sports, concluded that “all great coaches are authoritative. That’s not the same as authoritarian. To be successful, when you say the sun will rise in the west in the morning, you want your players all getting up and looking west.
“But the only guy in sports I’ve ever met who I’d compare to Knight is John McEnroe. A tormented genius who, in his heart of hearts, wanted to do the right thing. Funny thing: I ran into McEnroe when I was working on ‘Season on the Brink,’ and when I told him I was writing a book on Bobby Knight, McEnroe looked at me and said, ‘Isn’t he kind of crazy?'”
Indiana University professor emeritus Murray Sperber, who has authored several books about the excess of college sports and who received death threats for speaking out against Knight’s behavior at his school prior to Knight’s 2001 firing there, allowed that “all sports sort of fail people” in their “black and white” nature.
“Much of sports comes out of the military. Really, that’s one of the attractions of sports in our society, that it has a sort of clarity in a very complex world. Economists with Nobel Prizes can’t decide if we’re in a recession or not, so I think people love sports for the black and white, as opposed to gray and nuance. And people attracted to sports have that attitude.”
Still, Sperber said he easily could cite a number of fabulously successful coaches who “believed in discipline but never intimidated anyone,” starting with UCLA’s John Wooden. Notre Dame’s Knute Rockne, subject of another Sperber book, “didn’t believe that might is right; he was a short guy, in a time of football line plunges, who believed in speed and deception.”
Harvard University business professor Scott Snook, in challenging his students to think about assumptions of motivation and leadership style, has had them examine the divergent approaches of Knight compared with Knight’s former player and longtime Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski.
“If you believe people are fundamentally good,” Snook wrote, leadership will aim at “empowering them, getting obstacles out of the way and setting high goals while maintaining standards … If you believe people are fundamentally bad,” management will be “built primarily around rewards and punishments” and entail a “tight supervision, a controlling … style characterized by a great deal of social distance between leaders and led.”
At St. John’s College of Minnesota, a Division III school, still-active 81-year-old John Gagliardi has coached more college football victories than any other man — including Eddie Robinson, Bobby Bowden, Joe Paterno and Bear Bryant — using a decidedly civil system in which players call him by his first name, face no compulsory weightlifting sessions, no tackling in practice and no whistles ever being blown.
Just this month, a point of emphasis to the Giants’ surprising Super Bowl success was how head coach Tom Coughlin extracted better performances from his players by softening his authoritarian style, though Feinstein was among the observers who “don’t buy into the idea, all of a sudden, that Tom Coughlin has become Weeb Ewbank,” the famously casual leader of the Jets’ 1969 Super Bowl champions.
Sperber said it “didn’t seem like [Coughlin had become more tolerant of imperfection] when that guy Tynes missed the field goal [in Green Bay]. That’s a kind of key moment, and to ream the guy out on national TV doesn’t exactly build his confidence.”
Then there is Bill Belichick, victory-obsessed victim of the Giants. “What’s that disease Dustin Hoffman had in ‘Rain Man’?” asked Feinstein, who has known Belichick’s father for years. “That’s Belichick; he’s a genius.”
Although, as Charles Pierce, in an essay for the online magazine Slate, described it, Belichick’s post-Super Bowl lack of social skills produced “a series of public interviews so grim and boorish that they made the collected oeuvre of Bob Knight look like Mardi Gras.”
In six months of “essentially spending day and night” with him in researching “A Season on the Brink,” Feinstein found Knight to be “brilliant. He was often caring, he was a great storyteller, a great dinner companion. He was also a bully, had a hair-trigger temper and was intollerant of anybody who did not see things his way. He loved his players and he abused his players — not physically — but emotionally abused them.
“He was a dictator. The last of the great dictators.”
So now, even as we begin the Year of the Rat, it might be possible to believe, as sports psychologist Murray said, that “Bobby Knight’s style wasn’t very appropriate,” and that the time may have come when the obvious need for discipline and leadership no longer legitimizes what Murray called “a kind of cartoon character.”
Sperber, who debunks what he called the “PR machine” that praised Knight for a high graduation rate — “It was about 44 percent of his players,” Sperber said, “and about 11 percent of his black players” — recalled an accidental, revealing meeting with attendees at a Nike basketball camp in 2000.
Sperber had been in the news for questioning Knight’s priorities at the time and was invited, by a small group of coaches, officials and referees, to hear their stories of Knight: How he was “always on my case;” how, at a banquet, he “called me the most foul-mouthed things, with my kids there;” how he “went out of his way to make fun of me.”
“Remember the movie, ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ where they think Jimmy Stewart is gone and talk about what his life meant to all of them?” Sperber said. “This was kind of ‘Anti-Wonderful Life.’ It was more like, ‘It’s a Horrible Life,’ and I was just the catalyst for them to tell their stories.”
That Knight at last appears gone from coaching, having moonwalked away from an ordinary Texas Tech team in mid-season, is not what Sperber would consider a victory over the quintessential bully. “I’m a professor,” he said. “I see it as gray. It’s a historical fact.
“For a segment of the population, he will remain a hero. But ESPN had one of those online things where you can vote: ‘Would you want your son to play for Bobby Knight?’
“I voted ‘no.’ But I’m definitely in the minority.”
Dr. John F. Murray is a sports psychologist and clinical psychologist providing sports psychology and counseling services based in Palm Beach, Florida.