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The BG News
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November 30, 2023

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Knight now displays new side to coaching

There’s no mistaking the new Bob Knight.

Looking an awful lot like the old one, there he was after Texas Tech upset Gonzaga in the Albuquerque Regional, headed to the round of 16 for the first time in 11 years, commanding the spotlight again because of his basketball smarts.

But instead of reminding everybody else how much he still knows, the first thing out of Knight’s mouth was how much he’s learned from this group of kids and how his wife, Karen, is a better coach than he is.

“She doesn’t always agree with the way I coach. She thinks that I do a lousy job with our post players,” he said, citing just one example.

Given the way the Red Raiders played in the opening half against Gonzaga’s zone, there was very little wiggle room in that assessment. With bodies stacked up in the lane, Knight’s intricate motion offense wasn’t creating enough space to score and for a while you wondered whether, like a man who’s played chess the same way his whole life, he would stubbornly try to win it his way or not at all.

“He won’t say it, but he’s a little more laid back,” his son, Pat Knight, who doubles as Tech’s assistant coach, said afterward. “Back then, he treated all the players pretty much the same. Now, with all the AAU ball and just the upbringing of kids, some kids you can’t yell at and some kids you can. He’s been really good handling that.”

The way Knight handled it Saturday was to calmly pass along to the big men the advice that Karen Knight, a pretty fair high school coach back in Oklahoma, had given her husband, and to let his guards play one-on-one in hopes of luring the Zags out of their zone. The changes cut into Gonzaga’s big rebounding edge and with backcourt mates Ronald Ross and Jarius Jackson combing for 42 points, Tech squeezed out a 71-69 win.

It couldn’t have been easy for Knight, the ultimate control freak, to let go with so much on the line. After all, he spent much of the week cutting off reporters, railing about his practice time and even complaining at one point that he was forced to drink out of a paper cup provided by NCAA officials instead of the cup bearing the logo of an auto-parts sponsor that he prefers.

Yet when it mattered most, Knight did the least coaching. He watched Ross drill the game-deciding 3-pointer with just over a minute left and said, “If we had lost today and I was fishing next week, I’d think back over this season and I’d think about what a wonderful experience it was for me to be with these kids, this team.

“It’s as enjoyable a team to watch and to be around,” Knight said, “as any I’ve ever had.”

Few people would have believed that when Knight skulked off to Lubbock, which may not be the end of the basketball map, but it was close. In hindsight, it’s clear how ready Knight was for a change in both his personal and professional life. Pat Knight said the townspeople aren’t “really Basketball Bennys. They’re just happy when you compete,” and that his father, in turn, is “more mellow, in a sense.”

What he means is that the old man has learned to listen to counsel besides his own, to trust ballplayers with responsibilities in ways he rarely did before.

“I’ve never had a player that I would have had more admiration for than Ronald Ross,” Knight said in a rare moment of candor, then added for laughs, “particularly when he hit that 3.”

That basket was good enough to send everybody back to the record books for research, and without having to remind us himself, revealed exactly how much Knight still really knows. His 45th tourney win means Knight trails only Mike Krzyzewski (66), Dean Smith (65) and John Wooden (47) in career victories and only the first two in Sweet 16 appearances.

Texas Tech faces West Virginia next with a chance to add a few more lines to Knight’s legacy. Either way, the perception has already shifted, no matter how subtly. Someone asked Ross in the postgame news conference what he thought about Knight. The one-time walk-on was going on about hard work and his attention to detail, when the coach leaned over and whispered in his ear.

Ross looked back at his white-haired coach, then proceeded to describe him in terms you never thought you’d hear from one of Knight’s players:

“He,” Ross said, “is a latter-day Santa Claus.”

And his holidays are just beginning.

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