Thank You Bob Knight: Someone Finally Calls Out Wooden

My admiration for Bob Knight is no secret. On any list of my all-time favorite people in sports he’s at or near the top. When he came out and blasted the late John Wooden, the most revered basketball coach of all-time in an interview with Joe Buck that will air tonight, it had a definite effect on my perception of Knight—it made me like him more.

Let’s begin by reviewing what Knight said in context…

“I’ve never been a Wooden fan…I have a lot of respect for Wooden as a coach, how he coached. He was a good coach. But… I don’t mind saying it, I don’t respect Wooden, because he allowed Sam Gilbert to do whatever it took to recruit kids. And one time (Wooden) told me, he said, ‘I just didn’t know how to deal with Sam Gilbert.’ And I’m saying to myself, ‘I damn sure could have dealt with him.'”

“Personally, I liked John as a person, but it isn’t just John, it’s a whole UCLA approach to recruiting. I think John was called in and told he didn’t have to worry about recruiting, that they had people that would take care of that for him.”

Sam Gilbert was a UCLA booster who was notorious for what he paid out to players in terms of both goods (cars, etc) and cash.

The reaction on social media has been predictable. In a world where most people think of Wooden as a secular saint and many of those same people think Bob Knight should have to apologize for getting out of bed in the morning, the responses generally told Knight where he could stick it.

But why? Let’s consider…

*First off, the comment did not come out of nowhere. This comes at a time when there’s an FBI investigation into college basketball recruiting practices. I bring up this point to respond to those who are upset that Knight criticized a deceased person who is unable to defend himself. If these comments had truly come completely out of nowhere, this might be a fair criticism. But not in today’s context.

*Knight’s statements about Gilbert’s influence over the UCLA program and recruiting are clearly true. For readers who haven’t heard them before, it might be jarring, given Wooden’s reputation, but that reputation has come about with the help of a lot of media sanitization.

*A possible defense of Wooden and Gilbert might be that the NCAA recruiting regulations are corrupt in of themselves. That’s a topic on which books have been written, so I clearly can’t cover it all in a blog post. I’ll just say that I don’t have any problem with athletes getting a cash stipend as a part of their scholarship. What I do have a problem with is a program just going rogue and doing whatever they want.

The problem of the rogue program and booster becomes even more outrageous when that same head coach is held up to the world as the model of everything college athletics is about. The fabled John Wooden Award, given to the national Player of the Year, is supposed to incorporate more than on-court performance. When he was alive, Wooden himself, even said how much he preferred that the award go to players who stayed the full four years in college.

Cheating in recruiting might simply be an NCAA rules violation, but out-and-out hypocrisy? That’s something different. I wonder if Wooden’s rivals in the old Pac-8 conference, some of whom may have been trying to build a winning program in an honest fashion, have felt about his canonization.

Let’s compare Wooden to former UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian. “Tark The Shark” was a renowned rogue, who wore the label proudly. He detested NCAA rules, found them corrupt and made no bones about it. Whether you agreed with Tark or not, he was honest about where he was coming from. It’s worth noting that Knight has publicly said he likes Tarkanian and considers him a friend. Reasonable people can disagree, but it’s tough to deal with hypocrisy.

Finally, let’s note that Knight’s comments about Wooden are actually rather measured. He doesn’t indict Wooden’s entire life, he acknowledges that Wooden himself was probably not the instigator of the cheating. Knight’s criticism is that the UCLA legend didn’t stand up and exert control over his program—that he refused to lead.

Bob Knight’s comments about John Wooden were historically accurate, tempered and appropriate given the context. It’s time for the Knight-haters to give it a rest and for those who have exalted Wooden, to start taking a more sober look at his legacy.