Thankfully, his coaching style is going away
“It’s time to do away with coaching by humiliation and fear. When college coaches choose to coach this way and win, then coaches at all levels feel they have to emulate this behaviour. This results in an environment with an enormous rippling effect with harmful social consequences … As parents and citizens, we must stop honouring this primitive and abusive behaviour that is tolerated and perpetuated in the name of ‘winning.’”
– Bill Reichardt, former football player with the University of Iowa and the Green Bay Packers
There is no question Bobby Knight was a basketball mastermind. His resume was full of coaching accomplishments, including three NCAA titles and a gold medal as coach of the American men’s basketball team.
But his coaching style was abhorrent. He constantly abused players emotionally and, on occasion, physically. He choked Neil Reid, one of his players. Another player, Todd Jadlow, said Knight would grab him by the testicles. He said Knight “would be in jail” today for some of the tactics he allegedly used on his players, including physical abuse (See “Former Indiana Player …”).
Knight once threw a chair across the court because he didn’t like a referee’s call. While in Puerto Rico, he was accused of assaulting a police officer and reportedly attempted to stuff him upside down in a trash can. In an interview with Connie Chung of NBC News, he offered this beauty: “I think if rape is inevitable, relax and enjoy it.”
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In a book by John Feinstein called A Season on the Brink, Knight is quoted as telling Daryl Thomas, one of his players, this:
You know what you are, Daryl? You are the worst f—— pussy I’ve ever seen play basketball at this school. The absolute worst pussy ever. You have more god—- ability than 95 percent of the players we’ve had here but you are a pussy from the top of your head to the bottom of your feet. An absolute f—— pussy. That’s my assessment of you after three years.
How’s that for inspiring leadership?
Indiana kept Knight and his boorish actions around as long as he was winning. As soon as the wins started to decline, they moved on from him.
That said, I will concede that he had some positive attributes. He made his players go to class and pushed them to graduate. He also did a lot of good things for players, their families and others.
But his autocratic, kick-them-in-the-butt coaching style was a terrible way to treat human beings. Moreover, he provided a terrible example for college, high school and youth coaches.
The great author James Michener, who wrote Sports in America, said coaches in the United States get away with forms of discipline that simply wouldn’t be tolerated in any other activity.
The thing is, you can be a humanistic coach, the opposite of Knight, and still have great success on the scoreboard. John Wooden was voted the greatest coach of all time – in any sport – by the Sporting News. Wooden reached that level of success by treating players with dignity, rarely raising his voice and never swearing at his players. He won 10 national championships in 12 years at UCLA without resorting to a tyrannical coaching style. Legendary North Carolina coach Dean Smith could certainly match Knight’s accomplishments as a coach, and his coaching style was similar to Wooden’s – humanistic, positive, no swearing, no emotional abuse, and certainly no physical abuse.
This has nothing to do with being a soft coach.
Frosty Westering was a former Marine. Definitely not soft. He retired as the all-time National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) wins leader in college football, with most of those wins coming at Pacific Lutheran. Westering focused on “put-ups” rather than “put-downs” when coaching his players. He built his coaching philosophy around one theme: “Be the coach you would’ve wanted to play for.” He adopted a version of the Golden Rule as his coaching philosophy.
During his high school and college playing career, Westering played for stereotypical autocratic type coaches. He didn’t enjoy playing under coaches with that leadership style and vowed to find another method if he ever became a coach.
“I always said I wanted to coach the way I would’ve wanted my sons or daughters to be coached,” said Westering.
We need many more Frosty Westerings and a lot fewer Bobby Knights in the world of coaching.
In fact, the Bobby Knight coaching style needs to become extinct sooner rather than later.
Ken Reed, sports policy director for League of Fans, a sports reform project founded by Ralph Nader. Reed’s work involves advocating for what he sees as positive changes in the sports world, focusing on issues like safety, equity, ethics and fair play. He is the author of The Sports Reformers, Ego vs. Soul in Sports, and How We Can Save Sports.
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