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Hall of Fame basketball coach Bobby Knight has died at 83

Indiana coach Bobby Knight, here in the 1987 semi-finals, led his Hoosiers to the NCAA men's basketball championship that year.
Bob Jordan
Indiana coach Bobby Knight, here in the 1987 semi-finals, led his Hoosiers to the NCAA men's basketball championship that year.

Basketball Hall of Famer Bobby Knight, whose unapologetic style earned legions of fans and critics alike, died Wednesday at his home in Bloomington, Ind., according to a statement released by his family. He was 83.

Knight was a legendary figure in college basketball. His record earned many admirers and nicknames. To his fans, he was called "the General." Knight was one of the United States' winningest college coaches, with more than 900 wins by the end of his career.

He also had a reputation for being blunt and profane, with an explosive temper that often led to volatile behavior that marred his achievements.

All that made for a complicated legacy.

Sports writer John Feinstein, who profiled Knight and the Hoosiers in his book A Season on the Brink, spoke with NPR in 2008, after Knight had retired.

"When he was good, there was no one better than Bob Knight. He was generous. He cared about his players. He graduated his players. He was the best," said Feinstein. "When he was bad, there were few worse."

Yet Knight was loved by many of his former players and by plenty of fans — especially in basketball-loving Indiana, where he spent most of his coaching career.

He was born Robert Montgomery Knight on Oct. 25, 1940, in Massillon, Ohio, and he grew up in Orrville — both small towns about 20 to 30 miles outside Akron. Knight played basketball in high school and college; he played for Ohio State University under eventual Hall of Fame coach Fred Taylor when the Buckeyes won the NCAA championship in 1960.

Knight's own head coaching career began at West Point. At age 24, he was the youngest varsity coach in NCAA history. In 1971, Indiana University hired him, and he worked there for 29 years.

Knight was noted for his disciplined, hard-nosed approach and for teaching the team his motion offense — a game philosophy where players reacted to the defense, set screens and passed the ball until a teammate was open, instead of relying on set plays.

He also emphasized academics, making sure his players studied and went to class. Nearly 80% of them graduated during Knight's time at Indiana, almost double the national average for Division I schools.

Indiana's current head coach, Mike Woodson, played for Knight in the 1970s. Woodson also played and coached in the NBA and says he wouldn't be where he is today without Knight.

"He taught me how to play the game of basketball from a fundamental standpoint," said Woodson. "He taught me how to be a man on and off the floor, and that was huge for me coming out of the inner cities of Indianapolis."

Knight coached Indiana to three NCAA championships — in 1976, 1981 and 1987. The team won one NIT championship in 1979 and 11 Big Ten Conference championships. In addition to his college coaching, Knight was the leader of the U.S. teams that won gold medals at the 1979 Pan American Games and the 1984 Olympics. As a result of all those wins, he received numerous awards, including National Coach of the Year four times.

In 1991, Knight was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. During his speech, Knight said his accomplishments were not his doing alone, and he credited the work of his assistant coaches and basketball players.

"I've never felt comfortable with the award 'Coach of the Year' or coach of anything," said Knight. "I think there's a much more appropriate nomenclature that could be used, and that would be 'Team of the Year.'"

Later, in 2006, Knight was also inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame.

Former Indiana University basketball coach Bob Knight speaks at a fund-raising dinner for the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame in Indianapolis on Thursday, Dec. 17, 2009. (AP Photo/Tom Strickland)
Tom Strickland / AP
Former Indiana University basketball coach Bobby Knight speaks at a fundraising dinner for the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame in Indianapolis on Dec. 17, 2009.

Although Knight's teams won consistently, he was controversial on and off the court. He often berated officials and players during games.

In 1979, he was charged with assaulting a police officer in Puerto Rico during a practice at the Pan American Games. In 1985, he hurled a chair across the court during a game against Indiana's archrival, Purdue University.

During a 1988 interview on NBC, when he was asked about bad calls and handling stress, he said, "If rape is inevitable, relax and enjoy it." He'd go on to say he was just using an old term and not talking about the actual act of rape. The comment caused a furor among women's groups.

Several years later, the CNN/Sports Illustrated network reported that a former player on the Indiana team alleged that Knight had choked him during a practice in 1997. Knight denied the charge, but a video seemed to show otherwise. The university adopted a "zero-tolerance policy" regarding the coach's behavior. Indiana fired Knight in 2000 for violating the policy after an Indiana University student claimed the coach grabbed him by the arm and lectured him about respect after he said, "Hey, Knight, what's up?"

In a 1985, Indiana's  basketball coach, Bob Knight, winds up and pitches a chair across the floor during a 72-63 loss to rival Purdue.
/ AP
In 1985, Indiana University basketball coach Bobby Knight winds up and pitches a chair across the floor during a 72-63 loss to rival Purdue University.

During Knight's time at Indiana, the Hoosiers won 662 games and lost 239. Following his dismissal, Knight would go on to coach at Texas Tech University for almost seven seasons before retiring in 2008. Afterward, he worked as a college basketball analyst for ESPN until his contract was not renewed in 2015.

The former Hoosier coach was estranged from Indiana University for nearly two decades, but in declining health, he returned to Bloomington, Ind., in 2019. The following year, at halftime during a game between Indiana and Purdue, Knight walked on the court at Indiana's Assembly Hall to a standing ovation. He didn't speak but led the crowd in his signature chant: "Defense, defense, defense."

In his book, The Power of Negative Thinking, Knight wrote about his philosophy on coaching and how it can apply to life. He offered advice during an interview on NPR, saying people had to not just hope but work for success or a better day. "I think the more that we believe in doing things better, doing the right thing rather than hoping that that's going to happen, let's make it happen. And that's kind of how I looked at coaching in all the years that I coached."

This past April, Knight was released from an Indiana hospital after dealing with an undisclosed illness. On Wednesday, the family thanked people for their support and prayers and said services would be private.

"We will continue to celebrate his life and remember him, today and forever as a beloved Husband, Father, Coach, and Friend," the statement said.

In lieu of flowers, the family asked supporters to consider a memorial contribution to the Alzheimer's Association or Marian University.

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Cheryl Corley is a Chicago-based NPR correspondent who works for the National Desk. She primarily covers criminal justice issues as well as breaking news in the Midwest and across the country.
Patrick Beane