Bob Knight pumped his fist and yelled “Defense!” You couldn’t take the smile off his face if you tried. He hugged, smiled and joked with former players and even went over to the ESPN table and wrestled with Dick Vitale.
This was a moment that most thought they would never see. More than 19 years after his firing in September 2000, the winningest coach in Indiana history was back.
“This was a great day for me,” former Hoosier Randy Wittman said. “This was one of the best highs I’ve had in a long time.”
In 2017, Knight appeared on the Dan Patrick Show, where Patrick prodded at Knight, asking if he would ever come back to Bloomington. Knight was appreciative of the fans and said he would never forget how great the Indiana fans were.
It was a different tone for the administration. Knight was fired amidst allegations in 2000, and it was not a well-received break-up. He has had hatred toward Indiana University ever since.
“As far as the hierarchy at Indiana University at that time, I have absolutely no respect whatsoever for those people,” Knight said in that 2017 interview with Patrick. “With that in mind, I have absolutely no interest in ever going back to that university.”
That changed last spring when Knight showed up at a baseball game. He also moved back to Bloomington, and according to Wittman, he’s as happy as ever to be back. The final step was to return to Assembly Hall.
Everyone is focused on the “why.” Why did Bob Knight choose now to return? Why didn’t he come back for any other team reunion?
“I’d like to not focus on the whys, but he’s here.” Wittman said.
The fact that a man who made public comments just three years ago wishing the Indiana administration dead returned is historic. This will forever be a “where were you when,” moment.
Knight won 902 games in his career, 662 at Indiana. His teams won 11 Big Ten regular season championships and most importantly, three national championships.
He had all that success with his own unique way of coaching, a way that focused on player development and defense. His emphasis on player development may not work well in 2020, but his emphasis on defensive toughness will never grow old. He returned to the locker room today to give Indiana a pregame speech.
“I was standing there, and he was Coach Knight again,” Wittman said. “It was like he hasn’t left that locker room.”
Indiana may have lost to Purdue again, 74-62. Indiana may not have any wins over Purdue in the last three seasons, but that doesn’t come close to the nearly 20-year absence of Knight from Assembly Hall.
Vitale has clamored for years to get him back to Bloomington. On several occasions, rumor had it he would return. And then he didn’t. That continued for years until last night, when Vitale hinted at the return on social media, and several organizations such as Bleacher Report and Sports Illustrated jumped on it, breaking the news that Knight would return against Purdue.
Indiana has had this hung over its head for years. One of the best coaches in college basketball history never wanted to return to his former school. This appearance Saturday was a the metaphorical “monkey off the back” of Indiana University athletics.
“I said, ‘You’re back here for a reason because this is where you belong,’” Wittman said in a phone call to Knight. “You need to come back with us.”
He followed through, not necessarily for the Indiana administration, but for his former players and for the fans. Indiana honored the 1980 Big Ten championship team as well as Hoosiers from both the 1970s and ‘80s, players such as Isiah Thomas and Mike Woodson. At the end of the ceremony, Knight was surrounded by former players with a huge smile on his face.
And the fans? He went up to the student section, fists pumping in the air, and he yelled, “Defense! Defense!”
Why did Knight come back now? Indiana basketball is in one of its longest periods of struggle. The Hoosiers haven’t been to the tournament in three years and haven’t been past the Sweet 16 since 2002.
That doesn’t matter. Appreciate the fact that a legendary figure in Indiana athletics history was back in the building he called home for nearly 30 years. Appreciate the fact that even after almost 20 years, the fans, young and old, welcomed him back with open arms. And appreciate that he welcomed their love with open arms too.
Now that he’s been back once, will he be back again?
“That’s up to him,” Wittman said. “I wouldn’t be surprised.
“I hope so,” Mike Woodson said.