A [long-ago] Season on the Brink

February 2, 2013

I just read A Season on the Brink, John Feinstein’s chronicle of Bob Knight’s 1985-86 season coaching the Indiana Hoosiers basketball team. I was appalled.

Admittedly, my perspective is that of an outsider, both sports-wise and time-wise. I’ve had limited immersion in big-time college athletics; my cross country and track experiences at an NCAA Division III school of 2,000 students hardly seem relevant. Meanwhile, the culture of sports has changed over the past 27 years, and it’s questionable whether the events of the ’80s can be judged by the standards of today.

I couldn’t help myself, though. The farther I got into this book, the more I wanted to yell at the protagonist: “You insufferable, self-righteous, disingenuous prick! What right do you have to subject these students to incessant bullying, verbal abuse, and mind games? Do you really think that the goal of winning basketball games justifies such tactics? Do you? Huh? You’re the worst coach I’ve ever encountered! You make me sick!”

Such rhetoric would be an oversimplification of the truth, not entirely fair, and unnecessarily mean-spirited. But that’s exactly how Knight sounds in talking to his players much of the time. Thanks to the author’s thorough reporting, there is no doubt about this. Here’s just one example of a post-game harangue, typical except for a paucity of profanities, after a valient Indiana comeback falls short in a road game against Michigan State.

“Don’t even hang your heads,” Knight said angrily. “Don’t bother, because you don’t care. Don’t even try to tell me that you care. Every time you make a mistake you just nod your head. I told you at the half about those six points that we gave them. Ricky, you foul on the rebound with the score tied. Jesus. Harris and Jadlow, I’ve never had two more disappointing people here in my life. You two haven’t contributed two ounces to what we’re trying to do. You don’t improve or change from one day to the next.

“Boys, I want to tell you how long a season you’re in for if you don’t compete any harder than that.” He paused. His voice was almost choked now. “I never thought I would see the day when Indiana basketball was in the state it’s in right now.”

They went home dreading what was to come. The assistant coaches were genuinely frightened about what might happen next.

Feinstein provides numerous anecdotes like this, yet the book is not intended as a hatchet job. It begins with an unabashedly pro-Bob introduction from Knight’s friend Al McGuire, and ends with the following comments from the author.

As I finish this, I am reminded of an incident that took place in January. After the Indiana-Illinois game during which Bob kicked and slammed a chair, and kicked a cheerleader’s megaphone, Dave Kindred, the superb columnist for The Altanta Constitution, wrote that he was disappointed to see Knight acting this way again. Kindred, a longtime friend of Knight’s, ended the column by writing, “Once again I find myself wondering when it comes to Bob Knight if the end justifies the means.”

A few days later, Knight called Kindred. “You needed one more line for that damn column,” Knight said. “You should have finished by saying, ‘And one more time, I realize that it does.'”

Kindred thought for a moment and then said, “Bob, you’re right.”

I agree.

Feinstein provides evidence throughout the book that Knight cares deeply about his players, despite outward appearances to the contrary; that he occasionally gives them heartfelt praise; that he sticks up for them and helps them out after they graduate; and that he picks mostly on those who can handle it the best. But I just can’t get beyond Knight’s basic attitude, which I could paraphase as, “Winning is the most important thing in the world, and I’m willing to say and do almost anything to get my players to crave winning as much as I do.” That’s not an approach I can accept.

[Related: my review on amazon.com]


  1. So we know how Knight talks to his players, but how do you talk to yourself as a “self coach” when you are running a bad race?

    • I suppose I can be a bit harsh at times. Is that hypocritical?

      • A more accurate comparison might be how you would tallk to a group of runners that you were coaching. Is it all positive?

  2. I try not to make the mistake of coaching anyone — it’s not really my thing. When I engage in coach-like behavior, though, I do try to keep it positive.

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