Knight’s errors raise debate on coaches’ roles

Published 12:00 am Sunday, October 1, 2000

You know, wisdom can come from the strangest places. I was reminded of that the other night as I watched Larry King interview former Indiana University basketball coach Bobby Knight.

For those who don’t follow such things, Knight, who is a legendary coach with 763 victories in 29 seasons at IU, was fired Sept. 10 for violating a &uot;zero tolerance&uot; policy relating to his temper. School president Myles Brand instituted the policy in May after videotape was released of Knight grabbing a player by the throat.

Brand fired him, saying he violated the policy during a Sept. 7 incident in which he grabbed IU student Kent Harvey and attempted to give him a manners lesson after Harvey allegedly addressed Knight by saying, &uot;Hey, what’s up, Knight?&uot;

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Since then, Knight has played a word game with the term &uot;zero tolerance&uot; rivaled only by Bill Clinton’s courtship, pardon the pun, with the definition of the word &uot;is.&uot;

I am glad Knight was fired. He obviously stepped over the line a number of times in a number of ways. And he taunted Indiana University officials, perhaps damaged the reputation of the university and alienated would-be college basketball fans.

But there is a larger debate coming out of all of this that, with the focus of the national media, was bound to happen. The question is whether coaches at high school and college levels ought to be able to touch their players; i.e. pat them on the back or kick them wherever they might need to be kicked.

Call it the &uot;corporal punishment&uot; debate of amateur sport. Knight made a passionate argument on the Larry King show on why a coach needs the latitude to get in a player’s face and get his attention. Some young athletes need discipline, need to be taught to respect their elders, he argued.

He was right on target. It’s just too bad he took things too far and didn’t really practice what he preaches.

I remember those hot August afternoons of two-a-day football practice in high school. And, I remember a particular afternoon scrimmage. The temperature was in the 90s and the air was thick with humidity. It was hard to breathe. We were in full pads wrapping up our second practice session of the day with a scrimmage. We had been working on defensive drills all day. As a defensive tackle, I had spent a lot of time working on &uot;splitting the double-team&uot; which basically means dealing with two blockers while you figure out where the football is, then making a tackle.

&uot;Keep your #%$! heads up, your center of gravity low and your feet wide and on the ground!&uot; Coach Murphy must have yelled about a hundred times.

And it was time for us to practice what he preached in a live scrimmage. The whistle blew, the ball was snapped and I hit the offensive tackle. Hard. But my feet were too close together and the pulling offensive guard hit me in the shins and took my legs right out from under me. I landed on my back. The running back ran right past.

The next thing I knew Coach Murphy was picking me up by my facemask, literally, until we were face- to-face and he let out a string of four-letter words that must have lasted two or three minutes. Then he pushed me back by my facemask so that I finished where I started, on my back. He was mad.

I blew it. He knew I could do better and he was right. I never forgot the &uot;coaching&uot; I received that day. And I worked harder as a result.

Football and basketball are tough, physical games that need tough, physical, players and coaches. Those players need coaches who will push them to be better than they thought they could be. And sometimes the coach is going to have to get in a player’s face to get the point across, perhaps even demonstrate what happens when a fellow stands with his feet to close together as Coach Murphy did me.

There is a fine line between aggressive and abusive, I know. Knight crossed it. Let’s just hope he didn’t mess things up for the rest of us.

Todd Carpenter is publisher of The Democrat. You can contact him by calling 446-5172, ext. 218 or by e-mail at