THE LAST WORD: Knight’s return to IU touches many
Former Indiana University basketball coach Bob Knight’s return to what is now called Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall for the game against Purdue on Feb. 8 was an event that deeply moved many people emotionally associated with Hoosier basketball.
It moved me. And my association is not nearly as deep as those who played and coached under Knight through his 29 years in Bloomington.
Knight became coach of the Hoosiers in 1971, just in time for the opening of the brand new state-of-the-art Assembly Hall. It was the same year I received my journalism degree from Indiana, so he started just after I left. However, my first job at The News-Sentinel that same year was as a sportswriter, and thus began an exciting career of my own, partially connected to Indiana basketball.
Through my years in the sports department I had the privilege of attending many IU games at Assembly Hall and elsewhere to chronicle some of the highlights of those early years when Knight led his teams to national titles. I got to interview “The General,” as he came to be known, and some of his players through the years.
I was on press row on Feb. 7, 1976, at Assembly Hall, floor level, in the season of Knight’s first national championship when Kent Benson’s tip-in at the buzzer against Michigan sent the game into overtime to keep alive the Hoosiers’ march toward what was the last undefeated season in Division I basketball history.
It was the greatest game I ever saw. Indiana was the No. 1-rated team in the country, facing a ninth-ranked Wolverines team it had already beaten in their first meeting. But Indiana trailed most of the game and had to come from behind to win it.
Here was part of my account in The News-Sentinel about what happened in the final 10 seconds of regulation time:
“[Guard Quinn] Buckner ended up with the shot. His previous basket was the first in nine attempts. And he missed again. But [Jim] Crews sailed through the air to grab the rebound and heave the orange ball back up toward the hoop in one hurried motion. It bounced away from the mark with practically no time left. A forest of arms stretched for the bounding ball, and Indiana’s 6-11 giant Kent Benson took control enough to send it back at the basket one last time.
“The buzzer blared for a final decision with the ball in the air, and pandemonium flooded the Assembly Hall crowd of 17,743 when it dropped through the net and referee Bob Burson signaled it good to tie the score at 60-all.”
The overtime was anticlimactic as Indiana won 72-67.
Indiana faced Michigan for a third time in the NCAA title game March 29 in Philadelphia. The Wolverines were No. 9 at that point as well, but that game had little of the excitement of the February meeting as the Hoosiers won 86-68.
Knight, of course, led IU to two more national titles in 1981 and 1987. He won 11 Big Ten titles and an NIT championship. In 1984, he coached the USA men’s Olympic team to a gold medal. So following my alma mater’s team through those years was special.
We all know the unfortunate end of Knight’s tenure as he was fired in 2000. After he was accused of choking player Neil Reid during practice, the university instituted a “zero tolerance” policy against the volatile coach. So when he had a run-in with a student on campus, university president Myles Brand fired Knight. And his bitterness toward the university led to his rejection of attempts to patch relations or to return to Assembly Hall for games or even his own Indiana Hall of Fame induction.
But when he ultimately returned to Bloomington to live last year, hopes rose among the Hoosier faithful that perhaps the aging and ailing coach might at last bury the hatchet and show up at the site of his premier coaching successes.
So, yes, I was choked up when I saw him, now 79, walking onto the court with former players at his side, many of them teary-eyed like Knight himself. It was a surreal moment in the celebration of an historic era.
And while everybody and his brother has had something to write about the event, I knew I had to do the same, because Knight was a significant part of my own life in a way I know I can never fully explain. I may not have always approved of his actions through the years, but I always respected him as the greatest coach I ever knew.
– Kerry Hubartt is former editor, sports editor and sportswriter of The News-Sentinel.