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In Defense of Bobby Knight

ESPN’s 30 for 30 recently aired “The Last Days of [Bobby] Knight,” about the brilliant, successful, but now much-maligned former basketball coach of Indiana University, for verbally and physically abusing some of his players. While no doubt historically accurate, the film I believe, over-accentuated the negative at the expense of the many positive things Bobby

ESPN’s 30 for 30 recently aired “The Last Days of [Bobby] Knight,” about the brilliant, successful, but now much-maligned former basketball coach of Indiana University, for verbally and physically abusing some of his players. While no doubt historically accurate, the film I believe, over-accentuated the negative at the expense of the many positive things Bobby Knight brought to the University and to the game itself. As a former player and Coach, in no way do I condone such abuse, but I have to wonder if today, we have not let the pendulum swing too far the other way. When teams come out for warm-ups or during a game disheveled, unorganized and undisciplined, I can’t help but wonder if this is a result of an understandable concern that someone might construe even “appropriate constructive discipline” as over the line. So there is often little, or none. A Coach once told me you don’t understand; kids today are different. Are they? I really don’t think so. I believe that most kids, while they initially bristle at being scolded or corrected (didn’t you), accept it, hopefully, learn from it and move on. Life lessons, right? Maybe not till years after their playing days will they get the life lesson part, and come to understand that their Coach did really care about them and wanted them to excel in the sport yes, but more importantly in life, after sports.

Coaches have a difficult and, if not winning, oftentimes a thankless job. “Coaching should be much more than about the Xs and Os, and more about the Jimmys and the Joes,” a fellow long-time coach once imparted to me as I began my coaching career. Because of the understandable but often overreaction to the crimes of the few the majority, unfortunately, suffer, and I fear we are severely curtailing a coach’s ability to, yes — use “appropriate discipline” — to guide the player to success both on and off the court.

Toward the end of his career Bobby Knight did definitely cross the line, but he, by virtue of his forceful character and style, also molded and positively influenced countless players to become successful men. Most of his players, from various accounts, despite his demeanor, loved playing for him. ESPN’s quick scroll down an intentionally blurred list of names of players who left the University while he was coaching — auspiciously because of his style — was disingenuous at best. One of the first names that jumped out at me was Isaiah Thomas. Well yes, he did leave after his sophomore year, after winning a National Title, to make a million dollars in the NBA. I’m sure many of the other names on that list left for similar reasons.

The old adage is still true; sports are a microcosm and training ground for life. As long as not taken to the extreme getting yelled at and paying some consequences (like getting benched or not starting) for mistakes made or lack of hustle, can be a great incentive to work to get better, to stop slacking and to develop a sense of values — a hard days work for a good days pay — or hopefully a win! As a coach, I definitely did get frustrated, but a well-timed glare, a seat on the bench, a game suspension, or in the extreme — getting booted from the team — seemed to send the appropriate message and more often than not got the desired results.

I would have loved to play for Bobby Knight! Wait I did — for a similar style coach — who we feared, respected, loved, and won a State Championship with!

Paul Petcavage
Paul Petcavage
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