Welcome back to #TrumpWatch, where Tablet presents the daily low-lights of Donald Trump’s attempt to use the dark forces of bigotry to become President of the United States. Today, on the eve of the Indiana primaries, we turn our attention to the second most-winning coach in Division 1 college basketball history—Bobby Knight—who has joined The Donald’s cause.
At a campaign event in Indianapolis last week, Knight, the celebrated hothead who led the Indiana Hoosiers to three national championships as head coach, exhorted voters to back Trump in the state’s May 3 primary. “What you people, what you did to give us Donald Trump,” he said, in reference to future generations’ gratefulness for putting the real estate magnate in the White House, “they’re gonna take you and put you right next to our founding fathers and George Washington, that’s what they hell they’re gonna do with you people!”
A man in a “Hillary for Prison” shirt applauded in the near background.
Knight was fired as Indiana’s basketball coach in 2000, amid several credible accusations that he had verbally and even physically abused his players. He embodies two radically opposite tendencies, traits that only appear to be at cross-purposes.
First, there’s Knight’s reputation as a staunch disciplinarian: a coach who could break players down and the build them back up again, someone who could mould raw talent through sheer basketball brilliance and battering will. Knight demanded loyalty and earned it; he made five final fours and won three national championships without being penalized for any recruitment violations, and graduated some 98% of his players.
Then there’s Knight, geyser of unquenchable rage. The iconic Bobby Knight meltdowns should be familiar to even the casual basketball fan: the blistering halftime rants, the chair-throwing, the strangulation.
But the most revelatory Knight incident involves no violence whatsoever, and is too obscure—and perhaps too embarrassing, or maybe too pathetic—to warrant inclusion into the lengthy “criticism and controversy” section of the great man’s Wikipedia entry, where the confirmed and alleged misdeeds are voluminous enough to merit division by decade. In an unforgettably Nabokovian episode in 2004, then-Texas Tech coach Knight found himself at a salad bar at an upscale grocery store in Lubbock, Texas, where he was approached by a man who turned out to be David Smith, the chancellor of Texas Tech University—still the only school to employ Knight after his firing at Indiana. Smith told Knight that he liked the job Knight had been doing lately, or possibly over “the past few weeks.” The coach, whose Red Raiders were ranked 18th in the nation at the time, took Smith’s statement as a dig at his earlier behavior. Jettisoning any remaining sense of irony, Knight began loudly and angrily berating one of his bosses in public.
At the time, New York Times sports columnist George Vecsey teasingly blamed Smith for failing to anticipate Knight’s volcanic rage, or to accommodate his colleague’s infamously fragile ego. “Just about everybody in North America knows you do not casually make comments to Robert Montgomery Knight,” Vecsey wrote, noting the basketball deity’s “public rap sheet of strangers who regretted their brief brushes with him: the police officer he dissed in Puerto Rico, the fan he stuffed into a garbage can at the Final Four, the kid he cussed in Indiana, to say nothing of players, referees and school officials he savaged.”
This is all kind of standard-issue nudnik behavior (y’know, relatively speaking), but there’s something poignant about the image of the legend in twilight, bellowing in defense of his essential dignity to an obscure college administrator in the modern-day agora that is the upscale grocery store salad bar, onlookers (which apparently included the Texas Tech athletic director) and consequences (none, in this case) be damned. It epitomizes Knight: His permanently aggrieved genius, his towering pride feeding his deficit of self-control. Who else, but Trump, could Knight possibly endorse?
Related: Trump Watch [Tablet series]
Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet Magazine.