Coach Bob Knight: 1940–2023

Coach Bob Knight stands with two players
Coach Bob Knight, right, confers with players Scott May, BS’76, left, and Quinn Buckner, BS’76, during the 1975–76 season. The team won the national championship in undefeated fashion. “It was a special opportunity to have been coached by him, and an equally special opportunity to have him as a friend,” Buckner, current chair of the IU Board of Trustees, said soon after Knight’s death. Photo courtesy of IU Archives (P0020272).

Bob Knight, the legendary and often controversial former Hoosier men’s basketball head coach, died Nov. 1. He was 83.

Born Oct. 25, 1940, in Orrville, Ohio, Knight was a multi-sport standout in high school, where he played football, basketball, and baseball. He went on to play basketball for Ohio State and was a member of its 1960 national championship team.

Following his graduation from OSU, Knight enlisted in the Army in 1963 as a private in the 1st Battalion, 1st Infantry Regiment. He served two years of active duty and then was in the Army Reserves until 1969. While on active duty at West Point, he was an assistant coach for the basketball team. Then in 1965, when he was 24 years old, Knight was promoted to the program’s head coach—making him the youngest in Division I history.

His six seasons with the Black Knights yielded a 102–50 record and paved the way for his nickname “The General,” because of his intense coaching style and Army service. While at Army, Knight coached his most notable mentee, Mike Krzyzewski, former Duke University head coach and the current most winningest coach in college basketball history (1,202 wins).

In 1971, Knight came to Bloomington to lead the Hoosiers. He brought with him his iconic motion offense and preference for man-to-man defense. The 1971–72 team was not only Knight’s debut into Indiana basketball but also the season opener for the newly constructed Assembly Hall.

Coach Knight stands with two players, reviewing a play
Coach Knight at Assembly Hall in 1971, the year he took over the Hoosier men’s basketball program. Photo courtesy of IU Archives (P0021302).

The 1975–76 season put the Hoosiers in the record books for two unique reasons: the team is the last men’s Division I team to go undefeated (32–0) for an entire season; and Knight, who was 35 years old, became the third youngest coach to be a national collegiate basketball champion. At the time, the two coaches who had been younger were his own coach at Ohio State (Fred Taylor, 33 years old) and IU’s former coach Branch McCracken (32 years old in 1940).

In the final game of the NCAA tournament—in Philadelphia against Michigan—the Hoosiers were down six points at halftime. In the locker room, Knight gave his team a simple challenge.

Standout player Scott May, BS’76, recalls Knight’s words: “He said something like, ‘If you want to make history, you’ve got 20 minutes. There [are] no adjustments we need to make. It’s just whether you want to go undefeated or get beat by Michigan.’ I think we played our finest half of basketball.”

The Hoosiers ran away from the Wolverines, winning 86–68.

IU’s next banner came in 1981 when the Hoosiers defeated the North Carolina Tar Heels in the NCAA championship game, also in Philadelphia. At the time, this championship run—led by guard Isiah Thomas, BA’87—was considered by some to be Knight’s greatest achievement, because of the season’s rocky start. In fact, the 1980–81 team became the “losingest” team to win the NCAA tournament.

Sportswriter Bob Hammel, ’57, told the Indianapolis Star: “By the time they were cutting down the nets in Philadelphia, I think they could’ve played that ’76 [Hoosiers] team better than anybody I can recall.”

Coach Knight addresses a crowd
Knight—in his plaid jacket, a signature look for him in that era—addresses the Assembly Hall crowd in 1981. The 1980–81 team won the national championship led by Isiah Thomas, BA’87. Photo courtesy of IU Archives (P0028865).

Six years later, in 1987, Knight brought home a third national championship. This one came in dramatic fashion.

In the championship game—in New Orleans against Syracuse—the Orange were up a point with less than 30 seconds remaining.

Junior guard Keith Smart, BGS’95, takes it from there: “When it got to 10 seconds and Steve [Alford, BS’87] was covered, I had to penetrate and try to get the ball to Daryl [Thomas,’87]. When he was covered, he kicked it back to me. I never looked at the clock. I just shot.”

The 18-footer was good, and the Hoosiers were champions again.

“This was a team that three seasons ago could not hold a lead and was always vulnerable,” Knight said after the game. “These kids have come a long way to get here. I’m really not sure yet if we’re that good a team. But I could not be happier for them.”

On top of the three national championships, Knight’s tenure at IU included one NIT championship in 1979, five Final Four appearances, and 11 Big Ten regular season championships.

Individual accolades were also plentiful. He was a four-time National Coach of the Year, a five-time Big Ten Coach of the Year, and an inductee into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, the College Basketball Hall of Fame, and the IU Athletics Hall of Fame.

Knight’s preference, however, was to keep the focus on the team and his players: “I’ve never felt comfortable with the award ‘Coach of the Year’ or coach of anything,” he said of his honors. “I think there’s a much more appropriate nomenclature that could be used, and that would be ‘Team of the Year.’”

In addition to collegiate basketball, Knight’s coaching excelled on the global court. His team won gold at the 1979 Pan American Games in Puerto Rico with a number of Hoosiers on the roster: Isiah Thomas; Ray Tolbert BS’81; and Mike Woodson, BS’80, the current Hoosier men’s basketball head coach. And, in 1984, Knight coached Team USA to gold at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles with leading scorer Michael Jordan.

Coach Knight with two players during a game
Hoosier players, including Steve Alford, BS’87, center, consult with Knight, right, during a loss against Louisville on Dec. 18, 1985. The Hoosiers finished the 1985–86 season with an overall record of 21–8 and a conference record of 13–5, finishing second in the Big Ten. The following season, 1986–87, Alford led the Hoosiers to the national championship.
Photo courtesy of IU Archives (P0044669).

Knight’s departure from IU in 2000 was bitter. After years of inappropriate conduct and allegations—both on and off the court— dating back to the 1970s, IU instituted a “zero-tolerance” policy for Knight. The guidelines prohibited inappropriate physical contact and required proper behavior in public when representing the university. Ultimately, an interaction with a student at Assembly Hall triggered a policy violation. Knight was offered the opportunity to resign but declined.

Following his firing from IU, he went on to coach at Texas Tech University for seven seasons before retiring in 2008. He finished his coaching career as the most winningest coach in college basketball with 902 wins. He now ranks sixth.

Many, seemingly himself included, thought Knight would never return to campus; however, in 2020 he took the court again at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall during halftime of the Purdue game on Feb. 8. He was escorted by former players, including Quinn Buckner, BS’76; Steve Green, BA’78, DDS’84; Scott May; and his son, Pat Knight, BS’95—and received a spirited reception from the Hoosier crowd.

Coach Knight celebrating with former basketball players
Knight, center, salutes the crowd at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall, flanked by former players, including Isiah Thomas, BA’87, right of Knight. Former player and current Hoosier men’s basketball head coach Mike Woodson, BS’80, said: “I am grateful that he was able to come to our practices after I came back [to IU as head coach]. His presence meant so much to me, our staff, and our players.”
Photo courtesy of IU Athletics.

“I don’t think anything meant more to Coach Knight than the relationships he developed with his players,” said Fred Glass, BA’81, JD’84, former IU vice president and director of athletics, following Knight’s return. “It’s great that he is able to enjoy this moment with so many of them, and we are very pleased to welcome him back.”

Written By
Lacy Nowling Whitaker
Lacy, a Bloomington native, earned two degrees from IU Bloomington (BA'08, MA'14) and is the Director of Content with the IU Alumni Association.