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Warts And All
on 4 January 2010
Bob Knight had a long, if controversial, career as a basketball coach. His coaching was based on his early coaching career in the army and one wonders if the discipline which was expected of soldiers was really suitable for the Indiana Hoosiers. That Knight achieved success is beyond question, whether it was because of his coaching, or despite it, remains an open question. His supporters would regard him as firm but fair, his detractors as debilitating and unfeeling.
One of the myths about collective team sports is that they thrive on aggression characterised by foul language. However, individual sports persons require individual treatment while avoiding favouritism. Professionals are often excused loutish behaviour on the field with the suggestion that taking the fire out of their temperament would reduce their effectiveness. It's a myth. The late Derek Dougan made this point when he denounced the idea of the "professional foul" while Joe Royle made a similar point when he said of one of his players, "he needs an arm round his shoulder".
Feinstein makes no concessions in describing Knight's approach. Hard, uncompromising and "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger" which one would expect from a coach who enjoyed belittling players as if to hide his own weaknesses. Total emotional involvement is a poor way of succeeding if such success diminishes one's own humanity. Knight's approach demanded discipline from his players while he showed little restraint in his behaviour towards officials. His one year of success was followed by constant failure which leads one to ask whether another approach would have been better.
In fairness to Knight he was always loyal to his players. When Landon Turner was paralysed for life in a car crash Knight spent most of his waking hours raising money for a fund which soon reached $400,000. Turner, "had a motorised wheelchair and a van. His parents' home was redone with ramps throughout so he could get around and a condominium was purchased for him to live in. When he was ready to return to school, his scholarship was waiting; Knight named him captain of the 1982 team he would never play for." Such generosity during coaching practice was unknown, not because Knight lacked it but because he was unable to express it in a coaching philosophy which did not allow for failure of any kind. This created an ability to hurt and cause pain to everyone who knew him, including himself.
Knight had three weaknesses "losses, grudges and tantrums." He found wealth and fame, the latter resulting in a capacity for intimidating officials. Over a period of thirty years Knight's tantrums were regularly reported and frowned upon until he was finally asked to resign. What comes over in the book is the intensity of the college basketball scene in the United States where money plays a major role. Other reviewers have found Feinstein's book to their taste. It's not an enthusiasm I can enjoy. Knight's approach reminds me of the weakness of many managers in team games - an inability to maintain their detachment in times of crisis. Personally I hope we've seen the last of the Bob Knights in sport and their replacement by more emotionally balanced coaches who display the discipline and professionalism they demand from their players.
I found this book difficult to rate. On a personal level I found Bob Knight's attitude to coaching at odds with my own coaching philosophy but then I've never coached a team sport. In his own terms Knight's ultimate successes were meagre and one wonders whether he ever learned anything from his failures. On another level, of course, the writer's aim was to provide a "warts and all" picture of what happened during his year with the Indiana Hoosiers. In that he succeeds and deserves no less than four stars for achieving that objective.