“I got along with Coach as well as you could get along with Coach,” said Buckner, 58, now vice president of communications for the Indiana Pacers. “That wasn’t the intent. The intent was, simply, that was the person I was responsible to.
“Over the years we’ve developed a relationship that’s still coach-player. It evolves. You’d like it to evolve more as you get older, but it’s still coach-player. It’s interesting when I talk to Coach, I still have a sense of being 18 to 22, even at this late stage.”
Getting along with Knight was mostly a matter of executing an offensive set with atomic-clock precision and playing defense with the tenacity of a starving wolf. Just be perfect, and everyone will get along fine.
Except for those times when perfect wasn’t good enough. Even as that ’75-’76 team was in the process of going unbeaten, “(Knight) pushed us pretty good,” former Hoosiers forward Tom Abernethy (1972-76) said. “You would have thought we were around a .500 team during the early part of the season. I think he saw what potential we had, and he worked hard. He kept a game face throughout.”
He smiled broadly at the end of the perfect season, there is photographic evidence. But there is little record of Knight ever actually telling his team it had earned his unqualified approval. “We’re still waiting on him to say something,” chuckled Buckner 37 years later.
The caricature of the coach’s own creation — that of chair-throwing bully — often obscured the purity of what he created on the court. At the height of his influence, back when he was routinely going deep into the NCAA tournament (five Final Four appearances between 1973-92), Knight and his teams gave life to the idealized view of hoops in the heartland. Indiana was the state where there was a backboard nailed to every barn door, where Hollywood came to celebrate the roots of the game with the movie “Hoosiers” and where Bobby Knight turned boys into men in a style as unyielding as a plowshare.
“People take a great deal of pride in athletics — particularly basketball — in this state,” Buckner said. And Knight, for all controversies he stirred, was revered in his own backyard as the keeper of the Midwestern basketball ethic.
No mistaking that The General, as Knight was called by his followers, was all about the college game, his game.
“If the NBA was on Channel 5 and a bunch of frogs making love were on Channel 4, I’d watch the frogs, even if they were coming in fuzzy,” he once said, in typically rough-hewn fashion.
Knight, after being fired at Indiana in 2000 after a confrontation with a student, finished his coaching career in semi-exile, in Lubbock (Texas Tech). Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, Knight’s former player at Army, surpassed his mentor’s record win total of 902 last season. Knight, 72, is currently the grumpy sounding fellow on ESPN telecasts who is still coaching, only the players can’t hear him.
History often is conflicted by Knight time in college basketball, as he demanded and received the type of discipline from his players that he so often failed to display himself.
His teams won titles in various guises, with three distinct classes of players.
The 1975-76 bunch was a hefty collection of talent — Buckner, Bobby Wilkerson, Scott May, Kent Benson — that bonded behind Knight’s vision of a selfless team. Buckner and Wilkerson were taken within the top 11 picks of the 1976 draft, yet neither averaged double figures in scoring that season.
The world still awaits the next unbeaten college champion. “No question, it’s much harder now,” said Buckner, pointing to the increased turnover in college rosters with modern players rushing to the NBA after a season or two.
“We’re still the last ones standing,” Abernethy said. “As a group we don’t get together and celebrate (whenever the last unbeaten serious challenger loses its first game). But it’s been sort of a running joke in my family about who’s going to be the last one to lose and we sort of act like it’s a big deal when they do.”
The Hoosiers began the 1980-81 season losing five non-conference games, including one to Texas-Pan American. Yet, then, as always, the finish mattered much more than the beginning in the marathon that is a college basketball season. Led by point guard Isiah Thomas, Indiana defeated North Carolina when it mattered most — in the national championship game.
For his last title in 1987, Knight guided his team through one of the great tournament grinds, the Hoosiers’ average margin of victory in the final four games a skinny three points. He did not run the gauntlet quietly, fined $10,000 by the NCAA for slamming the scorer’s table during a close game against LSU. Keith Smart made a 16-foot baseline runner to secure one last one-point victory, over Syracuse, in the title game.
Regardless of any season’s changing themes, there were certain givens with all of Knight’s teams. They played defense (even in Knight’s early days at Army, his teams led the nation in scoring defense three times). Certainly, they were tough, because there would be nothing Michigan or Ohio State could hurl at the Hoosiers that would be any more challenging than what they met in their own practices.
“You learned to pay attention to details. Every little thing was stressed and gone over again and again,” Abernethy said.
“He was definitive with what he wanted done, that’s why he had a hard time with people who did not understand what he said,” Buckner said. “He was never ambivalent. When he said something, he was adamant.”
Among the host of teams to hold the No. 1 ranking this season, Indiana showed signs that under Tom Crean it might return to a kind of sustained success not seen since Knight departed.
“We knew for a couple coaches after coach Knight it was going to be difficult,” said Smart, coach of the Sacramento Kings. “It was going to take time. You’re trying to fill a giant void. But over time, I think you got the right coach in there.”
Yet Knight’s relationship with the program he personified for decades remains strained, distant. Last year he auctioned off much of his Indiana memorabilia. Other than passing through as a TV analyst, he has had no contact with the Hoosiers, even as Crean has reached out to him. The fire he created was all-consuming.