One is going and the other isn’t going anywhere, yet there’s plenty Bill Belichick can learn from Bob Knight’s departure.
Knight completed the last perfect season in college basketball more than three decades ago, when his 1976 Indiana team went 32-0 and beat Michigan in the championship game. It came a year after an even better Hoosiers squad went into the tournament undefeated and lost a regional final to Kentucky.
If nothing else, that example should provide some encouragement to Belichick as he goes back to work in the wake of the Giants’ giant upset of the previously unbeaten Patriots in Super Bowl. But the lessons better not stop there.
“It takes a lot to get to this point,” Belichick said in a conference call with reporters Tuesday afternoon, “but now it’s starting over, into the ’08 season. It’s already time to move on.
“We’re into the offseason and that’s just the way it is,” he added. “We’ll start moving ahead toward next year.”
There won’t be a next year for Knight, of course. He walked away from his job at Texas Tech in the middle of the season, ostensibly so his son and chosen successor, Pat, could get a running start on the next one.
“I’m not saying I’ve always been right, but I’ve been right more than I’ve been wrong over the years,” Knight said in an interview aired later the same day on ESPN. “And this just felt like the right thing to do at the right moment.”
If that sounds familiar, it should. When Knight won his 880th game to overtake North Carolina’s Dean Smith and become the winningest coach in Division I, he arranged to have Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” playing over the public address system in the arena. It was a fitting tribute, but not just in the way the 67-year-old Knight envisioned it.
As the testimonials to his career over the last two days reminded us, all those stellar accomplishments were undermined to some degree by his methods. He ran exemplary programs at Army, Indiana and Texas Tech and essentially changed the way the game was played. He graduated nearly every kid he didn’t scare off and took an abiding interest in how every one of them turned out. He raised a hellacious amount of money at every stop, too, often reaching deep into his own pocket for donations.
But the three championships and 42 largely successful seasons were pockmarked by one episode of bullying after another against a rotating cast of victims. He picked on kids who played for him, reporters who wrote about him, sometimes the very same administrators who covered his back, even the secretary who sat outside his office for years.
When Knight said later in the same interview, “I was kind of tired,” he wasn’t talking about his passion for teaching the game, but for just about everything else that happened outside the lines of the court. Even if Knight left when he wanted to — “A lot of coaches quit on somebody else’s thinking. and I think it’s fortunate when you can quit on your own,” Knight said — the sad truth is how few people noticed and that ever fewer seemed to care.
The end came at a basketball backwater far away and long removed from the place where Knight had achieved and mattered so much. He fell off the map even before he walked off under his own power, and if that’s his version of “My Way,” it’s a strange, muted way for one of the greatest coaches ever to leave the stage.
Belichick, who is a dozen years younger, isn’t worn out and he isn’t dragging a strong of embarrassing incidents behind him. But the sideline spying scandal that erupted after the season opener against the Jets may have legs and his caustic personality has earned him way more foes than friends the farther you venture away from New England.
His decision to duck out of the Super Bowl with one second left on the clock Sunday night only added to that number. Belichick had already congratulated Giants coach Tom Coughlin, a friend dating back to their days on Bill Parcells’ staff in New York, and the final play was nothing more than a formality. But so was Belichick’s explanation for his early exit.
“There really wasn’t much left at that point,” he said.
Not for him, anyway. But the day will come when Belichick will be forced to realize, the way Knight was, that the game no longer revolves around him. And that, ultimately, the way he piled up all those trophies and all those wins will be just as important a part of his legacy as the fact that he got them at all.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitkeap.org