If you’re still waiting to see the kind statement former Indiana University basketball coach Bob Knight releases about
the late John Wooden, you can probably cease the vigil.
Knight and Wooden were giants of the sport, and no two men advanced the game, and quite frankly, advanced the business of the game, more than these two.
But the truth is, they didn't like each other.
Knight has publicly stated that Wooden let the likes of Sam Gilbert, a notorious booster who allegedly provided some UCLA players with gifts in violation of NCAA rules, remain far too close to the Bruins’ program.
Knight was even quoted as saying you won’t find anyone like Gilbert loitering around the IU program while he was coach. Clearly, Knight thought Wooden turned a blind eye to things he shouldn’t have, allowing UCLA alums to buy talent that fueled the school's magical hoops run of the 1960s and 1970s.
Wooden respected Knight’s coaching ability, but quite frankly, didn’t like the way he went about it. And he wasn’t shy about saying so publicly.
“I wouldn’t want anybody I love to play for Bob Knight,” Wooden once said.
Wooden did soften somewhat.
“People think I don't like him,” Wooden said of Knight more recently. “I don’t think there's ever been a better coach than Bobby Knight. Do I like the way he teaches? No, I don’t. I never cared for it, but nevertheless.”
Not exactly a resounding compliment, but Knight was never effusive in his praise of Wooden either—despite the 10 national championships he compiled at UCLA.
Knight, ever respectful of the men who walked his career path before him and the history of the game, often lavishes praises on the likes of Henry Iba and Clair Bee, but rarely, if ever, on the so-called Wizard of Westwood, a deity in the sport of college basketball, especially in Indiana, where Knight most notably plied his trade and won three NCAA national titles.
Maybe part of the rift was merely competitive juices flowing in opposite directions. Their teams collided more than once on the hardwood in the 1970s.
Despite their differences, the on-court wars and their different approaches, the two actually have some very important similarities.
First, neither one came anywhere close to maximizing their own personal fortune in the sport of college basketball.
Wooden, amazingly, never made more than $32,500 annually. Least you think this was just a product of Wooden’s era, remember, there were no shortage of coaches knocking down $150,000 or more in the mid and late 1970s.
Unthinkable that some coach somewhere during the same era in college basketball would make four or five times as much as Wooden. But he never complained about it.
Knight too lived on a relatively small salary. Sure he knocked down five to 10 times what Wooden did, but only half of some of his Big Ten counterparts. Again, to think Knight’s pay wouldn’t be tops in the Big Ten year-in and year-our is kind of crazy. But that’s the way it was, and IU didn’t have to enter the arms race until Knight’s departure. Now, IU pays coach Tom Crean in excess of $2 million annually.
Knight and Wooden certainly helped commercialize what we now know as March Madness, but neither imbibed much in the fruits of their own labor.
Money clearly never moved these two titans.
Two things did move this complex duo; winning and principle.
And it was those two things that likely drove a wedge between them. Both men wanted to win so bad, maybe they never quite got over their on-court run-ins, or the inevitable comparisons that dogged them.
You think Knight still doesn’t dream about Steven Downing’s fifth foul in the 1973 NCAA tournament game against UCLA. Think again.
For both men, living by principle meant doing things their way—and only their way. Knight wasn’t the only one of the two to tell players my way or the highway. Ask Bill Walton—and his beard—about that.
Problem was, their ways were far different. Wooden was a golly doggone kinda guy, while Knight never met a swear word he couldn’t make good use of in a practice or game-time huddle.
Wooden liked to philosophize, Knight preferred to intimidate.
Though their teaching styles were vastly different, both valued education on and off the court, with graduation rates that far exceeded NCAA mandates.
Both were seen as mavericks, even radicals, in their coaching styles.
Both got results.
Both thought they played it straight by the book.
In the end, both were fiercely loyal to the players who stayed loyal to them, and to the game they loved without reservation.
They were both madly possessed with winning and doing things right, and Knight and Wooden both thought they chose the correct path to that end.
And who am I to say otherwise?