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Sunday, November 19, 2006

Knight not as classy as, say, Paterno

Texas Tech coach's gifts to university seen as penance more than generous acts

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It was something less than a punch, but something more than a nudge. The perpetrator being Bobby Knight, again, the force of the blow pales beside the farce of the explanation.

Texas Tech's bully basketball coach says he "flipped" the chin of Michael Prince during last week's game against Gardner-Webb.

Judging by the video, his account is more fabrication than fact. It involved, at minimum, a firm pop with a closed fist; at maximum, a swift uppercut to the jaw. If Knight held himself to the same accountability he demands of his players, he might admit as much.

Knight said he was "trying to help a kid, and I think I did."

Knight obviously should know better than to put his hands on his players when witnesses are present and his intent might be open to interpretation. But this is a lesson he has never learned, despite repeated reminders; a lesson Texas Tech appears disinclined to teach its most famous employee.

That Knight's extraordinary success - he's about to become basketball's all-time winningest coach - has exacerbated his failings is a sad story of distorted values. College administrators have repeatedly excused Knight's excesses and thus have encouraged him to continue to push the envelope of outrage.

The tragedy, however, is that the useful parts of Knight's message - parts about sacrifice and striving, loyalty and charity, physical and academic rigor - have often been garbled by their dysfunctional messenger. The tragedy is that if Knight had taken as much care with his personal conduct as he does in his professional capacity, he could have been just as revered as he is reviled.

He could have been basketball's answer to Joe Paterno, an exemplar of excellence. An inspiration.

Paterno, 79, returned to practice Tuesday at Penn State for the first time since a shinbone-shattering sideline collision Nov. 4 at Wisconsin. He assured his players he will continue to coach them throughout their careers and, therefore, continue to chase Florida State's Bobby Bowden for the distinction of being college football's winningest coach.

But if Knight's wins are seen as vindication of his harsh methods, Paterno's success seems almost a byproduct of a larger mission. One of Penn State's libraries bears Paterno's name. The coach's donations and the school's scholarship programs exceed $4 million.

Knight, too, has made significant financial contributions to his university's library, and has also donated hundreds of his own books. But where Paterno's gifts are generally seen as generosity, Knight's are portrayed almost as penance.

Some of this is a matter of salesmanship. With its unadorned helmets and understated athletes, Penn State's football team has become synonymous with substance in an age of style. Paterno's program has stayed so "on-

message" for so long that observers have had difficulty reconciling that image with the sight of a septuagenarian coach chasing officials across the field in order to berate them.

But if Penn State fans fear JoePa may be forced into retirement by a reckless senior moment, many Knight watchers are already resigned to an ugly exit. There's too much history and too little contrition to see anything else.

No less an authority on self-destruction than Woody Hayes once warned Knight about career-ending mistakes. Ten years after Hayes died, Knight punctuated an Indiana practice by grabbing one of his players, Neil Reed, by the throat.

Though the Indiana athletic department went to shameful lengths to discredit Reed, taped evidence forced the administration to impose a zero-tolerance policy that Knight, inevitably, violated.

When Texas Tech hired Knight, it did so with its eyes open. Officials knew what they were getting with Knight, and they went along willingly. They knew Knight would put their basketball program on the map, and they were prepared to absorb the collateral damage he causes. When you hire Bobby Knight, you take him for better and for worse. In time, you're bound to get both.

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