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After salad, serve Knight some humble pie

WashPost: Volatile coach caught up in what was just dumb incident
Texas Tech coach Bobby Knight reacts to his team's play against Texas A&M during their first-round game of the Big 12 Conference tournament March 7, 2002, at Kemper Arena in Kansas City, Mo.Reed Hoffman / AP
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

There are probably two dozen times over the last 25 years when I thought Bob Knight should have been fired . . . either that or taken out back in the alley by the father of some distraught kid or the husband of some quivering athletic department secretary. But this isn't one of those times. Anybody who reads this column regularly probably already knows I think Knight is the worst kind of bully, one that abuses his position and his power regularly.

But this time, probably the first time, I'm going to defend Knight, well, kinda, sorta. At least this time Knight sparred with a worthy adversary: his boss. At least this time he picked on somebody who could fight back, either with words or a good right hook or by taking disciplinary action. This time Knight didn't take advantage of the power dynamic the way he usually does. And this time Knight's biggest problem is being Knight, of having behaved so boorishly over so many years.

Knight got into it with the chancellor of his school, David Smith. From all accounts Knight, Smith and Gerald Myers, the Texas Tech athletic director, were hanging around a salad bar near campus (personally, I thought Knight was strictly a meat eater) when Smith told Myers he liked the way Knight was behaving himself "lately." Myers told Smith he should tell Knight himself.

I don't know what in the world Myers was thinking, because most of us would cringe at the notion of seeing a lit match tossed onto a pile of rags soaked in gasoline. But Smith did tell Knight; the chancellor thought he was delivering a compliment, but Knight didn't see it that way. If you believe Smith's version of the story, Knight took exception to the word "lately" and went nuts right there near the croutons and began shouting. If you believe Knight, who talked to my friend Jay Bilas of ESPN yesterday, Knight said essentially, "I think I've done a good job since I've been here," and things deteriorated from there.

Now, this isn't much of a story, and it certainly wouldn't lead the national sports news if it was, say, Jim Calhoun of Connecticut or John Chaney of Temple. Without Knight, there's no firestorm, no checking the news wires every few minutes to see if the coach would be suspended or fired, or resign. But this is what happens when you're as successful and as colossal a figure as Knight, when you demand discipline yet defy authority to the degree that your last employer, Indiana, fired you after instituting a zero-tolerance behavior policy. You watch Knight for the same reason you watch auto racing: to see a wreck. Thing is, this is probably just a fender bender.

When Texas Tech hired Knight two years ago it was made clear to him that he would have to behave himself. No choking players, no nose-to-nose tirades directed at secretaries. In short, Knight could come aboard if he could resist doing the things he had done over the last 20 years or so to make himself look bad and make his university look worse.

And for a while, it was fairly quiet down in Lubbock — if you don't count Knight's vile cursing of a fellow coach-turned-interviewer Fran Fraschilla during a sit-down interview a few weeks back. But anybody who has followed Knight had to know it couldn't stay quiet long, and it didn't. Monday night, while most of us had our attention turned toward Janet Jackson, Knight had this dust-up with his boss.

It's important to know that Smith didn't hire Knight — he wasn't the chancellor when Knight came aboard — and though the two men don't particularly see eye to eye on a lot of stuff, they haven't had any previous confrontations. And who knows if Smith is one of those college administrators — you know the type — who would love nothing more than all of a sudden being recognized. Myles Brand was nobody. He threw Knight out at Indiana, and — presto! — before you know it, he's president of the NCAA.

Most of us would have just taken the compliment, back-handed or not, and rolled our eyes when he left. But you know Knight wouldn't stop at that, and I'm not sure I blame him. He has put together a good team this season. His players are doing well academically. He hadn't done anything egregious, not yet anyway.

Sadly, it's necessary to grade on the curve with Knight, and if we do that, this incident doesn't even make it into the Top 10 on the Knight Bad Behavior list.

Remember, we're talking about a man who in 1988 told Connie Chung during an interview, "If rape is inevitable, relax and enjoy it," then tried to claim the comment was taken out of context, as if there were an acceptable context for it. In 1981 at the Final Four he shoved an LSU fan into a garbage can. Knight choked Neil Reed, a player on his 1997 Indiana team, though he says the video we all saw is a lie. I could go on and on, but won't. He has done lots of bad stuff over the years.

But this incident was just dumb, not repugnant. The chancellor, instead of engaging Knight, should have called him into his office and reprimanded him. Knight shouldn't be fired. He shouldn't resign. He shouldn't be suspended. The people who run Texas Tech need to appreciate Knight, the teacher and coach, and keep close watch on Knight the bully. It's not necessary to exaggerate Knight's minor indiscretions because something worthy of censure is always just around the corner.