The Bob Knight I Knew

Bob Knight standing with two basketball players
Bob Knight, center, chats with Quinn Buckner, BS'76, left, and Scott May, BS'76. Knight coached the IU men's basketball team from 1971 to 2000 and delivered three NCAA championships, one NIT championship, and 11 Big Ten championships.

Dennis Royalty, BS’71, is a retired reporter, editor, and columnist who covered the Indiana Hoosiers in the early 1970s. As a student, Royalty worked for the Indiana Daily Student as a reporter and sports/news editor. Following graduation, he was a sports writer for the former Courier-Tribune in Bloomington, Ind. His extensive reporting and writing career included 27 years with The Indianapolis Star.

Headshot of Dennis Royalty
Dennis Royalty, BS’71, is a retired reporter and editor who covered the Hoosiers in the early 1970s.

In 2015, he retired from Eli Lilly and Company where he worked in internal communications. Royalty and his wife, Ginger, live in Prescott Valley, Ariz. 

Below is an excerpt from Royalty’s unpublished memoir of his time as a reporter, specifically his coverage of the Hoosiers and his relationship with former IU men’s basketball head coach, Bob Knight. 

I was at my desk when the phone rang. It was the early 1970s in the sports department of the Bloomington Courier-Tribune, my first full-time job after college.

The caller? Bob Knight, IU basketball coach.

The same Bob Knight known for humiliating or ignoring most sportswriters.

I’d become acquainted while covering the IU basketball beat, but this was a surprise. Knight calling me?

The conversation began something like, “Dennis, I don’t know what to do about Bob Owens. What do I need to do to get on the same page with this guy?”

Owens was the Courier-Tribune’s sports editor. He’d spent many years covering the Hurryin’ Hoosiers. Knight’s contrasting style was a taste yet to be acquired by the veteran sports editor.

I remember Owens cackling when one headline blared, “Hoosiers Snatch Defeat from Jaws of Victory.”

So here was Knight asking Mr. Young Pup Sportswriter how to build a better relationship. Flustered, I managed, “He’s sitting about 10 feet away. I’ll transfer you.”

Knight said OK, so I did. Listening to Owens’ side of the conversation, it became clear the ice was melting. Knight and Owens made not just a truce, but over time, a friendship.

If you’re among the millions who cast Knight aside years ago as a profane bully, you might be surprised to read this. While he always had a handful of media favorites, he earned a reputation for belittling journalists or refusing their presence altogether.

Old newspaper clippings about Bob Knight
One of Royalty’s articles for Courier-Tribune, Feb. 25, 1973.

But this wasn’t the Bob Knight I knew when I covered his arrival and his first two-plus seasons with the Hoosiers. Oh, he was a disciplinarian, prone to bursts of temper and foul language. But was he a strident, off-putting tyrant? Not then.

I introduced myself in late summer/early fall of 1971. Knight wasn’t quite 31 when he arrived in Bloomington. I wasn’t yet 22, having graduated from IU in May.

He smiled and was cordial. Knight said he’d help me however he could. Our coach/writer relationship continued until late 1973, when it came to a jarring end.

Knight kept his promise. But then, in a fit of anger, he fired a basketball at me.

Here’s what happened. I was given access to team practices, which was a very big deal in learning how Bob Knight basketball was played.

If you’ve seen [the movie] Hoosiers, you’ll remember Coach Norman Dale excluding Hickory residents from practice because he tolerated no interference. Dale was created as Knight-like in many respects.

This was one of them. Class was in session when IU practiced. Knight demanded concentration and quiet. If not for sneaker-squeaking, player-panting and calling out screens, you could have been sitting in a library.

Except for one thing: Knight’s teachings, often followed by “Do it again until we get it right.”

Rebukes stung when he reached exasperation. There was no mistaking his standards.

It’s easiest to remember those outbursts, but they seldom dominated practice. Knight mostly coached in a way reminiscent of my best teachers.

Only a privileged few were allowed to observe from the stands. I painstakingly abided by his demand for silence.

But one day, as I sat 30 or so rows up, I found myself greeted—out loud, to my horror—by a new employee from the sports information department. He had somehow made it past “Practice is Closed” signs, unaware of Knight’s rule.

Panicked, I shushed. Too late. Coach glanced our way, seething.

For a moment practice resumed. But more chatting by my oblivious pal led to a volcanic eruption. Roaring disapproval, Knight showed off a pretty amazing arm.

His throw caromed off a seat nearly five rows away. We were then ordered out of the arena.

My friend was miffed. He couldn’t understand how a few hushed words could offend. I, on the other hand, was mortified. Not so much by the thrown ball, which probably was more of a warning shot.

I was mortified because what would I tell Owens if it turned out I was permanently banned?

So I stuck around in a hallway. I waited until Knight emerged from the dressing room to explain what happened.

And then I accepted his apology.

Yes, an apology from the same Bob Knight who phoned me at the C-T office on a peace-making mission. This was a Knight who could admit fault and realize he’d gone too far.

Dec. 1, 1971, was a big day in the history of Indiana basketball. Knight’s Hoosiers won their first game in Assembly Hall over Ball State.

Dec. 3, 1971, was a big day in my life. I reported to Fort Knox, Ky., for basic training. I had enlisted in the Indiana Army National Guard.

Others covered for me as I missed much of Knight’s first season at Indiana.

I completed basic training and proceeded to Army clerk school. At last, weekend passes were granted. So I phoned Owens to see if he’d let me cover IU’s visit to arch-rival Purdue on Saturday, Feb. 26, 1972.

A crowd of 14,123 at Mackey Arena didn’t have a lot to cheer about much of the game. IU charged to a 10-point halftime lead and was still in front late. But the Hoosiers missed several scoring opportunities and fell, 70–69. Tough, tough loss.

Bob Knight nevertheless turned up for postgame remarks. Aware that I was away at military training, he got a surprise—me. Here I was on weekend pass, using my free time to drive 220 miles and cover IU basketball.

Knight was impressed by my reporting about the Hoosiers at Purdue, but I didn’t understand how much until the fall of ’72.

That’s when the Big Ten held its seventh annual preseason press conference at Chicago. Knight represented IU. I covered for the C-T.

By today’s standards, the gathering was modest. What has turned into a made-for-TV event was then held in a relatively small ballroom.

To give an idea of how informal things were, I’d invited my dad. We sat at our own small table roughly 50 feet from the stage.

The Big Ten was really 10 [schools] those days (now 14 teams). But even just 10 coaches speaking for 15 minutes each meant a lot of notebook-scribbling.

I was so busy catching up after the final speaker that I didn’t even look up to see Knight standing at our table. It was his first stop before conducting additional interviews.

“Den,” my dad said. I looked up, surprised, and rose to say hello.

But Knight hadn’t come for me. He’d figured out that this older lookalike was my father. For the next several minutes, I listened awkwardly while he told dad how much he liked my reporting and how he admired the fact that I spent my weekend pass covering IU-Purdue.

The years that followed turned Knight into not just an IU legend, but a college basketball coaching legend. During and after his first season, he recruited players who, over the next four years, would anchor teams finishing 22–6, 23–5, 31–1, and 32–0. Twice Indiana would reach the Final Four, winning it all in ’76 as an undefeated champion. There hasn’t been another undefeated NCAA champ since.

As good as those players were, Knight’s role as motivator and strategist made it work.

I’m not breaking news when I say that Knight’s drive for perfection had a regrettable side. Even as the team won, his language in public and bench behavior too often ranged from unfortunate to shameful, depending on the beholder.

I was in position to see even worse up close. Knight’s temper erupted after a disappointing defeat at Columbia, S.C., three days before Christmas in 1972.

I’ll never forget how he raged afterward, a fury that continued as he loudly excoriated forward John Ritter, BS’73, for much of the flight home. He expected better leadership from the senior, holding him up as an example for others. Knight continued this tirade for what seemed like hours while the rest of us turned to duck and cover. No one else spoke.

Hurtful as this seemed, I believed it wasn’t intended to be personal because Knight respected Ritter. The coach simply couldn’t accept how his team lost and was taking steps to ensure it wouldn’t happen that way again.

After what I saw and heard on the plane, I began to question whether the coaching end justifies the means.

The 1972–73 season built to an amazing climax. The Hoosiers won the Big Ten, which meant that Knight was taking them to the NCAA tournament in just his second season as Indiana coach.

Indiana defeated Marquette and rival Kentucky in the Nashville regional. So we were on to St. Louis, and the Final Four.

I say “we,” because Owens and I represented the C-T on press row. Indiana lost its first-round game to UCLA, but only after a stirring comeback that left Coach John Wooden gripping the rolled-up program in his hands, tighter and tighter.

Old newspaper clipping
One of Royalty’s articles (Courier-Tribune, November 1973) from his time covering the Hoosiers.

When the next season began in December, I had no idea that my full-time sports writing career wouldn’t last the month.

Two days after Christmas, C-T staffers learned they had published the final issue of the newspaper. The business side wasn’t pulling in enough revenue, so we were an early casualty in the demise of many newspapers.

Irony of ironies, my final coverage for the Courier-Tribune came three days before Christmas at Assembly Hall, when IU hosted a return match with South Carolina. Indiana won, 84–71. Knight visited the losers’ dressing room after the game to wish them well. What a difference from a year earlier.

I was among the lucky ones who quickly found a new job. In the next few days, I landed a reporting slot in news writing with the state’s largest newspaper, The Indianapolis Star. I was hired to fill a one-person news bureau in West Lafayette, Ind., of all places. (The location of Indiana’s greatest rival, Purdue.)

Transitioning to a new job kept me from saying goodbye to Knight and the players. But it wasn’t my last interaction with the coach.

I followed the Hoosiers with great interest from afar. By year-end 1974, Indiana was 11–0 and had dominated all but one opponent, winning by double figures except for an overtime escape at Kansas.

I wrote a letter to Knight, congratulating him. He responded on Jan. 14, 1975, thanking me for writing. “If you get a chance to come down, don’t hesitate to give me a call,” he wrote, adding that he greatly appreciated hearing from me. He also said this:

“The team has been doing well in most games, but there are some things we need to improve.”

That sentence pretty much sums up Bob Knight’s standard of excellence. His letter was dated the day after IU improved to 15–0 by overwhelming Minnesota, 79–59.

The next season, of course, was when the Hoosiers celebrated a 32–0 record and their first national championship under Knight. It was fun to watch players I’d covered win it all.

Many star players graduated, so the 1976–77 team understandably had a tough time. Indiana slipped from 32–0 to 16–11.

Losing was tough on fans accustomed to winning. When IU rebounded to 21–8 the next year, advancing once again to the NCAA tournament, things looked rosy once again.

But Bob Knight made a significant change, one that I was disappointed to learn.

In late 1977, I read that Knight had decided to no longer speak to reporters in postgame news conferences. This was contrary to the Knight I knew, who saw it as his obligation to meet with reporters—even in circumstances like the loss I’d covered at South Carolina.

So I wrote another letter, dated Dec. 29, 1977. After complimenting the team on recent play, I wrote:

“This regards your policy of not speaking to reporters after games. I realize you have your own reason for this, undoubtedly a good and sensible one. But it bothers me somewhat, nevertheless.”

I went on to explain that with his talents at the top of the profession, “only you can give the best insight as to this style of coaching….you are most qualified to comment on Indiana’s basketball successes and failures.”

I told him that he was depriving Hoosier fans of his insights. “One might argue that difficulties with reporters involving accuracy or editorial bias is sufficient reason to discontinue talking to all reporters. But I hate to see that happen. I remember being a young reporter who had some difficulty communicating at times with a young coach, but neither of us let that stand in the way of getting the job done. I know I learned much from the experience, and I’m just dumb enough to think there were thousands of people out there who ate up every word of every interview concerning IU basketball at the time.”

Indiana defeated Iowa on Jan. 5, 1978. In a letter dated the next day, Knight responded:

“Many thanks for taking the time to drop me a note. I greatly appreciate your thoughtfulness in doing so as well as your thoughts on the press. I have made some changes in a number of things relative to the use of my time, with the press only being a part of the overall picture. What I have done has been a result of a lot of thought on what I think is best for our basketball program. However, I do appreciate what you had to say.”

A letter written on Indiana University stationary
The reply letter from Coach Knight after Royalty wrote to share his disappointment about the change in post-game procedures.

Again, the response was a disappointment. It also was my last communication with the coach. My life changed dramatically over the next few years, as I married Ginger and we were blessed with son Andrew and daughter Kelsey. In 1982, I was promoted to city editor at The Star, responsible for a staff of about 50.

I made time to follow the Hoosiers closely, celebrating national championships in 1981 and 1987 and watching as Knight coached the USA team to a gold medal in 1984. He was inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in 1991.

On the court he had been a big winner. But in the game of life, he had become increasingly rude, crude, disrespectful, and at times so ugly in public behaviors I was ashamed for him.

How could a man lose his temper to the point where he would throw a chair during a Purdue game, or angrily lay his hands on Neil Reed, ’97, at practice, prompting a firestorm of controversy and outrage? Reed, for heaven’s sake, was a player who gave everything he had.

How do you explain the coaching excesses reported by John Feinstein, author of the best-selling A Season on the Brink?

These are but a sampling of the things that stained a coaching icon and cost him his job at IU.

I tried to make sense of all this for readers on May 23, 2000. I was then chief of a news bureau for The Star, and wrote a weekly column.

Knight had recently been disciplined by IU President Myles Brand, who warned that there was now a zero tolerance policy for poor conduct. As it turned out, this was Brand’s last step before firing the coach.

In my column I mentioned the relationship of mutual respect I’d had with Knight. I then lamented what his behaviors had caused.

“I believe his only hope of surviving IU’s zero tolerance mandate is to start caring about other people again: his players, his family, fishing buddies, and the rest of us—secretaries, athletic directors, even those in the media who dare to disagree with him. He should treat others as he’d like to be treated himself.”

Alas, Knight didn’t or wouldn’t understand. This from a well-read man who not only changed the way the college game was played in the 1970s, but was a vigorous supporter of the IU library, and, as I’ve said, a man who could do incredibly nice things.

One of those was helping Bob Owens find work after the Courier-Tribune folded. I tried to confirm this myself, unsuccessfully. But in John Laskowski’s, BS’75, book, Tales from the Indiana Hoosiers Locker Room, he reveals that Knight first used his contacts to help Owens land a job in Lincoln, Neb. And he did it again, when that newspaper also went under, helping Bob find work at The Columbus Dispatch in Ohio, Laskowski wrote.

Many of Knight’s former players not only remain loyal to him, but love him. So do thousands if not tens of thousands of fans who flocked to his speaking engagements and appreciated his final coaching years at Texas Tech.

As for the coach himself, here are telling quotes from a Chicago Tribune article. Staff Writer Skip Myslenski had interviewed Knight in a story that also appeared in May of 2000.

Knight told Myslenski that people would remember two things of his time at Indiana. One was that he was honest. The second? “I can’t mold myself to what other people want me to be … There has to be in each one of us, in order to be successful, a willingness not just to accept those things that we feel are inadequate, but to do something about them. That is often misconstrued as temperament.

“I’ve always felt that it is necessary, when trying to reach a particular end, to be emphatic about the means that are to be used to reach that end.”

To that point, coach, it’s a matter of how emphatic. Too much so is where we part ways.

What is it about exceptional people that can, for some, lead to erratic or surprisingly objectionable behavior? I have no answer. What I do know is I was privileged to watch up close as one of the greatest strategists in the game’s history practiced his craft.

The Bob Knight I knew did expose his temper, but largely in private surroundings, like practice. His coaching style was strategic, I believed—designed so his charges would “play to their potential.”

The Bob Knight I knew was a man who would apologize for his excesses.

How I wish the Bob Knight I knew could have left the school I loved on good terms, respected by all. It was nice to see him finally return to Assembly Hall last season. Congratulations to former players for making that happen and for their love and loyalty to him.

If only everyone could still feel that way.

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Dennis Royalty
Dennis, BS’71, is a retired reporter and editor who covered the Hoosiers in the early 1970s.