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Bobby Knight’s Success In The Unacceptable

Bob Knight had an extraordinarily checkered career as a head coach. With his death, former players came out in support of him. As a kid growing up in Chicago, Knight was looked at as an unyielding disciplinarian who had an unwavering commitment to winning. However, there is another side to Knight that people sometimes don’t speak on. His tactics at times were unnecessary. In today’s world of basketball, those tactics would not be accepted, even if the result was winning. The question is when does coaching become bullying and what is the lasting impact on basketball players?



There is no question that Knight’s coaching won basketball games. His coaching career at Indiana University made him a historically great coach. Taking over the Hoosiers’ basketball program in 1971, Knight transformed it into a powerhouse. His crowning achievement came in 1976 when Indiana went undefeated (32-0) and captured the NCAA National Championship.

In 2000, after nearly three decades at Indiana, Knight’s tenure ended due to his erratic behavior. Despite the end of his time there, both his impact on the sport and the lives of countless players remains undeniable. Knight continued his coaching career at Texas Tech University from 2001 to 2008, showcasing his ability to mentor and lead.


The Cost of Winning

Knight’s behavior was abusive and unacceptable, simple and plain. However, “winning cures all” in the world of sport. Any coach who goes a season without losing a game will be given a long leash. What’s the cost though? Stories of him grabbing players’ jerseys, headbutting players, breaking players’ noses, etc. can be found with a simple Google search. Standing around 6’7” in height, Knight was able to intimidate opposing coaches. 


Bobby Knight coached the 1984 United States men’s Olympic basketball team which included Michael Jordan and Patrick Ewing. 

Art by Eric Nelson (instagram @e.nelsii)

I’m convinced that a combination of midwestern upbringing and  Knight then enlisted in the U.S. Army and served on active duty from June 1963 to June 1965 and in the U.S. Army Reserves from June 1965 to May 1969.  This was a time in the U.S. military when physical and verbal abuse was cadets was commonplace. He was abused verbally for sure, probably physically as well. According to Warwick Middleton in the article The Abused and The Abuser: Victim – Perpetrator Dynamics it states “Many abusers live among us hiding in plain sight, never publicly identified, despite abusing multiple victims over decades.” 

The media also felt the wrath of Knight. One could see the hearts pounding in journalists before asking him ignorant questions. Knight wasn’t afraid to challenge questions and tell media folk they weren’t good at their jobs (I agree with him on this practice, but that’s not the point lol). Lastly, university officials had better not come to the practices to challenge him on his transgressions because that would often lead to him displaying a lack of respect and at times engaging in physically threatening behavior. These actions created a hostile and intimidating environment that extended beyond the basketball court, holding the entire university hostage.

Knight’s coaching tactics ultimately led to multiple controversies and, eventually, his dismissal from Indiana University in 2000 due to a pattern of behavior that violated the school’s code of conduct.


"Many abusers live among us hiding in plain sight, never publicly identified, despite abusing multiple victims over decades."
-Warwick Middleton

The Lasting Effect on Coaching

Some players speak highly of the lessons they learned under his guidance, praising his ability to instill discipline and determination. However, for others, the psychological toll of Knight’s aggressive coaching tactics left lasting scars. Bobby Knight’s lasting effect on coaching needs to be taken seriously.

Globally, the tone and tenor of coaching around the world is that basketball coaches must scream at players to drive their points home. Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia are all countries that are breeding grounds for basketball coaches internationally. All of them believe in berating players to get them to perform. Spanish basketball coaches are much the same. These ideas, one can say, started with Bobby Knight.


Regionally, midwestern basketball is rooted mainly behind the idea of long-ended offenses and a tough defense. The state of Indiana is known as the basketball state of the United States of America. With Bobby Knight as the head coach of Indiana University, he was the beacon for most coaches to look to when developing their teams. Growing up in Illinois just one state over, we took our cues from coaches just like him. By chance, I was talking to a group of coaches on Clubhouse the audio app. One of those coaches, their son plays at the University of Massachusetts, and there was a viral clip of him being berated by the head coach Frank Martin.  Being from the state of Michigan, a Midwestern state, the coach was raised in a culture of screaming and berating players, thus their son was raised to accept that kind of behavior. Frank Martin isn’t the only coach who uses foul language and “in your face” antics to get through to players. Mick Cronin at UCLA is much the same. So, it seems if they are winning, no one seems to care about the lasting effect that happens to the player involved. Oftentimes players don’t know that they’re being abused, and neither does their family. Great coaches are great teachers. Screaming has never been a way to teach. All in all, most coaches today are a lot more relaxed in their approach. Yet there are still a lot that draws on the idea that you need to be able to yell and lend quote “tough love” to players to get them to play at their very best.

Basketball was invented to create balance among young people in society. Basketball players today cannot function in society. Every so often we hear of another basketball player who has gone off the rails. Most can’t manage relationships, money, or time, although there are some outliers. For all the tough love, and discipline that coaches like Bob Knight say they instill, socially, basketball players continue to struggle proving that berating players doesn’t work. We’ve made changes in every workplace. Mental health is at the forefront of society. The LGBTQ and women’s communities have spoken out against behaviors that can cause a hostile work or domestic environment. Yet at so-called amateur levels some college programs, AAU programs, and High school programs continue to operate using the tactics from generations from before. The irony is that at the NBA level, coaches don’t berate players. Players are deemed more valuable because of the lucrative contracts they sign. Bobby Knight’s coaching style, while successful in terms of on-court achievements, was marred by instances of bullying behavior. His aggressive approach, verbal tirades, and confrontational demeanor created an environment that, for some, went beyond motivation and discipline, leading to feelings of fear, intimidation, and emotional distress among players and those around him. Players who are abused are predisposed to abusing players when they become coaches, no different than a husband who watched his father beat his mother is predisposed to the same behavior. Or they choose relationships where they don’t believe they are loved until they are screamed at. Basketball players fighting in night clubs or arguing with lovers is a learned behavior that comes from the household but also the institutions and groups they are a part of. Basketball is the institution. Basketball teams are the groups. If we thought in those terms Frank Martin’s behavior would be less acceptable in today’s game.


Randy Holcomb

Randy Holcomb

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