Knight Crawlers

Still from The Last Days of Knight (ESPN).

In shadowed yards
he lingers where his children used to play

– Vachel Lindsay

The perpetually red, glaring figure of Coach Bobby Knight was a kind of weed in the Clinton era that combined a Popeye Doyle ‘70s with contemporary Wall Street Nasty. Strutting the college basketball court, hurling chairs, and ‘getting results’ while ratcheting up the Hoosier cash cow for the corrupt administration at Indiana U – his employers with whom he remained on theatrically strained terms until he outlived his usefulness – Knight personified the stagey violence of a decade of pension fraud, corporate raiding and cultic glitz. The same President who pardoned Iran Contra crooks could do the NYT crossword in less than 5 minutes (Golly! Jeez!), a skeevy lawyer’s compliment to Knight’s famous tantrums. In short, the President was a genius. So were Bobby Knight and Michael Milken. Clinton’s friend Jeffrey Epstein was also a genius. We are perpetually drowning in such Genius.

Knight’s ‘genius’ is well on display in ESPN’s absorbing doc, The Last Days of Knight, both a good introduction for the uninitiated and an intriguing summary of the so-called Season on the Brink. Several Sports Illustrated journalists crow over Knight’s rough and bumble profundity, his renegade yet devastatingly effective ‘style’ of coaching and – occasionally, predictably, pitifully – anecdotes showing his deep sense of care for the team. Robert Abbott’s film is no hagiography, but the insistence of several key dramatis personae is telling. Most of the guilt remains with the athletes. Everyone else seems to feel absolved. Knight appears only in flashback footage, a gusty and ghostly figure staring down scholarships. To illustrate this, the camera wanders around the empty stadium like it was Amityville.

Knight’s losing streak began around 1993, the year of his final college basketball conference championship. It is folk wisdom that his bullying, gaudy explosions had become archaic in a new age of sensitivity and equality in the Republic. Such Prussian techniques were archaic, counterproductive, a liability – as if that was the only reason Knight looked ridiculous (It should be noted that Abbott himself is agnostic about this explanation). Remember that this is while the US was starving Iraq (and bombing it by Navy), signing NAFTA, blitzkrieging both Serbia and Waco, gutting welfare and screwing Monica Lewinsky. Capital gains and junk bonds, university property grabs – the latter at least facilitated by bastards like Bobby Knight, whose winning streak at Indiana U was so wide he was able to throw its wretched President, Myles Brand, out of the gym in front of the whole basketball team. If even Knight is a model of Zen restraint when compared to Janet Reno and Secretary Albright, there is still nothing enlightened about any of them.

For a while, the louder and stupider Knight became the more Power and Money closed ranks around him. Elliot Sperber – a ‘garrulous academic’ according to the Chicago Tribune and an English Prof according to everyone else – is forced to quit and move to Canada after denouncing the Coach’s tyranny, the last straw for a teacher who had long questioned the obscene amount of money poured into sports programs[1] (and thus, IU real estate coffers). Knight’s fanboys threaten Sperber and his family with mutilation and death until he finally escapes, with no support from the hapless Brand. Only after Knight’s losses on the court – not his cruelty, which is never questioned; and there is always damage control – does Brand finally fire him. The fans who had earlier threatened to disembowel Dr Sperber line the roads surround Brand’s cottage in a Wonder Bread version of the Watts Riots. Knight shows up to talk them down, thus humiliating Brand yet again, after a mob of pissed frat boys wreck a fountain and smash a couple cars.

Knight’s demented hatred of Purdue, the college where Sperber had matriculated (then to Berkeley, which probably irked Knight almost as much), approaches the level of a classic serial killer’s. His method is compared to Full Metal Jacket (he coached at West Point in the early ‘90s), but there is a better, more cultish, analogy. As in Scientology Sea Org, the idea is to break down your subjects and rebuild them using a witches’ brew of control elements: fitness fetishism, Behaviorist strategies, Management and Game Theory, and an hysterical and literal pounding – part old school terrorism and part Pavlovian stick-and-carrot circuit. Knight wielded great influence in a comparatively small – at least in terms of worldwide sports – yet provincially powerful nexus of capital and athletics. But just as it did with Harvey Weinstein, the whims of such a great complex would finally use up Bobby Knight and the players and the faculty. Those who could stay afloat did; the unrepurposed faded off or had breakdowns or became experts for hire.

As director Robert Abbott rightly says, the rehabilitation of people like Knight takes the form of a sentimental rebranding of the brutal into the colorfully eccentric. ESPN had hired Knight in the crash year of 2008 as an analyst but failed to renew his contract 4 years later. Except when angered, he has slipped into dementia in recent years. The Last Days of Knight will probably produce unintended consequences of the nostalgic kind, alas. With time and parody and a wish on our part to be painfully entertained when contemporary kultur seems dull, Knight is prime material for resurrection dead or alive. This will probably not happen for Neil Reed however, the star witness against Coach Knight and the university forces that protected him.

Star player Reed, who quit Knight’s program because of years of calculated abuse, was the first real college sports celebrity to speak out. Even after the coach strangled him during practice, the reluctant Reed went public only after Knight launched a preemptive smear campaign against him. Then someone conveniently mailed CNN a tape showing the attack (the relationship between media outlets and state educational power is very curious and forms an integral part of Abbott’s film), which probably sealed Knight’s well-deserved fate. Reed quit the sport altogether soon afterward, later becoming a beloved Phys Ed coach at a small California High School in 2007. He is thoughtful and kindly in home movie footage, watching his students rather than locking onto them like a vulture – just the opposite of Knight’s cheap Dirty Dozen patina. Five years later, Reed was dead of a heart attack at age 36. It is hard not to read its origin years earlier under Bobby Knight’s predatory regimen, crawling its way down from behind tightroped eyes.

There is some reason to suspect that under the bluster, Knight did actually know his place and was more careful than anyone cares to admit. Ineptitude and overreach did him in, not some hyperreal affront to wimps who couldn’t play tough or a bleeding-heart public. His recent support of Donald Trump – that wussy pen-pusher from NYC – is garish pattern recognition in the American Academy of Ancient and Accepted Fraud, from master to acolyte. As the learned old friend who recommended this film to me opined, with her usual penetration: Trump seems to have copied much of his bluster from Bob Knight, whom he can’t have missed at the time, insulting the press and shoving his finger around, sucking up the scenery like a bloated loach. After all, Trump’s earlier personality was far more a pranking Studio 54 bit – vocally arrogant but basically nasal; essentially devious, rather than brash. Trump’s avant-reaction is atavistic in MO, invoking the past with TV syndicate tropes and the occasional mannered Varsity sneer. He gets Knight and Knight gets him.

A few questions linger, closer to suspicions or hunches: that perhaps the IU administrative corps were not quite Knight’s lapdogs; that it pleased certain parties to let the General – a telling epithet for the Coach, indicating brass far away from anything truly hazardous – run wild. If he was able to abuse them in public, it was because they found it in their best interests to act so. Perhaps the Brand establishment and the market forces behind it were not as craven as it appears; perhaps this is why a venal, self-pitying and still vitriolic Knight wished them all dead as late as 2017 on Fox Sports. His last stand in front of his fans – who are either juvenile morons or wasteoids with a three-car garage – may have been another act to conceal his own surrender in 2000. The Knight-type who ‘tells it like it is’ usually tells what other people think it should be (i.e., influential people, people with money). So he gets to save face while his bosses agree to stay indoors, making Knight a kind of weird amalgam of Khomeini and Kent State faculty marshal Glenn Frank.

Summer must have felt evil to the kids who waited for Knight’s torrential bile after losing a game, lost far more because of the atmosphere of paranoia the Coach fostered and the fact that fear produces suicide when it loses its power. In a particularly harsh close-up pan, a wild-eyed and trembling team watches the enemy score increase. Purdue is triumphant! Knight is on the edge of an abyss of hypermasculine loathing, a fat nightmare bristling past his opposite, the customary handshake more a fist. But it’s always his own team he detests most. After all, he once emerged post-game from a bathroom stall with his pants around his ankles, one hand extended holding a shit-dripping wad of toilet paper to represent his critique of the Hoosier’s play. Cloacal Knight is both a literalist and an infantilist. His more infamous rape analogy in an interview with Connie Chung – that is, one must lie back and enjoy any inevitable situation – is more repulsive and more pedestrian. Funny how these sorts of people always worry about their ‘legacy’…

The old schoolyard – I mean grammar and high – is where pregame sadism begins before gym period. Inside, the coach divides the kids into teams to practice dilemma and terror. After years of running the gauntlet and suffering the dreams of failed fathers, colleges pick among them the best and brightest after these brightest and best have competed to be seen. Knight’s psychological operations are the result of processes beyond his cruelty; he’s added a grimly personal stamp to be sure, but the machine is already there to poison anything that ever truly loved the game. Knight’s discharges can be seen finally as a ruthless dependency on his own increasingly addled players, an alternating current of confession and judgment that is a part of the greater nihilism of a Higher Education which produces only debt and neuroses.

The player as a surplus value of the game must produce more than the game, both of which are out of his hands (the promise of a high salary is irrelevant; anyway, it is negligible when compared to the totality of funds and cache involved). Despite the intrinsic socialism of sports, games are played with an alienated violence which has taken the place of cooperation and the tension between self and other. Entertainment demands more imaginative violence and more personalities – all the more fake because it can kill, all the more real because there can be no game outside of it. What creatures like Bobby Knight reveal in the very heart of competition, in an adolescence that time has destroyed in order to make men, is that the slightest joy in movement will from now on be built on an embarrassment of tears.


1) Sperber’s published works are highly regarded and popular books on sports. He was both a knowledgeable essayist and a true enthusiast (he also wrote on the Spanish Civil War and Arthur Koestler). A good interview here covers most of the bases, and gives some moving instances of working class Hoosier solidarity with this gutsy guy. 


Martin Billheimer is the author of Mother Chicago: Truant Dreams and Specters of the Gilded Age. He lives in Chicago.