DAVID GOLD, host of a talk-radio show in Dallas, was genuinely perplexed last week by the press of media attention generated by Indiana University basketball coach Bobby Knight's firing.
Gold, a conservative, felt the media should have been covering more important issues - including Vice President Al Gore's pressuring Immigration and Naturalization Services officials to bypass guidelines that allowed immigrant criminals to become citizens. Still, for conservatives, Knight's firing was an important issue. It reflects, once again, declining values in America, which is the moral of Knight's sojourn at IU, whether you revered or despised the man.
One view could be that Knight's continued employment, despite his boorish conduct over the years, reflected a "win-at-any-cost" mentality that afflicts college and professional sports. Commentators in both print and electronic media have suggested Knight should have been fired years ago. (Oddly, few have suggested Major League Baseball should censure Atlanta Braves owner Ted Turner, who has made comments every bit as nasty as those that made his employee, relief pitcher John Rocker, the poster boy for bigotry. Knight and Rocker made good money, but when it comes to owners, who make real money, the standards somehow vanish.)
Knight won three National Collegiate Athletic Association basketball championships at Indiana. But his teams haven't won the big one since 1987. If IU officials were only keeping him around because of a passion for winning, he would have been canned years ago. In Knight's favor were his passion for education - nearly all of his players graduated - and his reputation as a strict disciplinarian.
The negatives were Knight's penchant for a "hands-on" style of coaching - and confrontation. Judging from several reported incidents, he wasn't against deviating a septum or two, performing a knuckular rhinoplasty, if you will, on occasion. And his critics rehashed the day he hurled a chair onto the basketball court to protest the officiating. (I've seen basketball officiating so downright awful I felt like hurling a chair on the court myself to see if officials caught it. That way, I would know if they were visually impaired or simply incompetent.)
But it's odd - his critics would call it poetic justice - that Knight was fired not for doing something wrong but for doing something very right. The man had the gall to tell a student that he should respect his elders, especially those in positions of authority.
When fall semester opened at IU, 19-year-old student Kent Harvey reportedly said, "Hey, what's up, Knight?" as the two crossed paths at Assembly Hall. Harvey happened to be the stepson of Mark Shaw, a former radio talk show host whom Knight later called his "most vitriolic critic" over the years. Shaw said Knight took Harvey by the arm, spun him around, and cursed him.
Knight, quite correctly, grabbed the guy by the arm and explained to him what his parents obviously failed to make clear: "The name is Mr. Knight or Coach Knight to you, whippersnapper."
That action did not violate the "zero tolerance" policy IU officials imposed on Knight in May as a condition of his continued employment. It was something Knight, and any other faculty member at IU, should have done.
Bob Wade, director of athletics for Baltimore's public schools, commanded such respect when he was the gym teacher at then-Harlem Park Junior High School and later football and basketball coach at Dunbar High.
"They always called me Mr. Wade or Coach Wade," he remembered of Dunbar's students. "It was just the respect that the kids had for me."
Knight's coaching style is familiar to Wade. He recalled when one of his best players, Reggie Williams, was being recruited by Toby Wright, then an IU assistant basketball coach, in the 1980s.
"Reggie chose not to have IU continue to recruit him," Wade said, "because he was uncomfortable with Knight's aggressiveness."
Over the years, other players, like Williams, no doubt voted with their feet and chose to attend colleges other than IU. The result was an Indiana basketball team that annually failed to make it to the NCAA finals, much less win a championship. That, for many, is the appropriate punishment for both Knight and the university.
As teachers nationwide continue to decry the lack of discipline in the classroom and claim that disrespectful students threaten the very foundation of learning, all Americans should look back at that deposed Indiana University basketball coach and realize the act that got him fired was one worthy of praise, not condemnation.