May 8, 2006

Hot, August Knight

I'm going to talk about race. I'm telling you this now so that those of you who aren't interested in sports, and are even less interested in sports broadcasting, will either hang around or, at the very least, skip down to the good stuff. Now then...

I don't like it any better than you do. In fact, I probably like it a whole lot less. Some time ago, some empty-headed executive at ESPN decided that being the best sports information network in the world just wasn't enough. I don't remember exactly when it started, but the trend is irrefutable and irreversible: From movies to morning shows, ESPN is branching out-- diversifying their programming. In other words, they are watering down the drinks, dammit. For a little while there, they even had their own weekly, one-hour drama series called "Playmakers," until NFL commissioner Paul "The Godfather" Tagliabue had it whacked for ratting out the organization.

One of ESPN's latest sins against nature is a reality show called "Knight School," featuring basketball coach Bobby Knight. Knight, of course, is best known for being the former head coach at Indiana University. In 29 season at Indiana, Knight's Hoosiers won 11 Big Ten Championships, five NCAA Regional titles and three National Championships. His 1975-76 squad was undefeated in 32 regular- and post-season games. But Knight's tenure at Indiana was marred by a seemingly endless string of controversial incidents, virtually all of them stemming directly from the fact that Robert Montgomery Knight is a pinch-faced nexus of volatility-- a steaming and sulphuric volcano with a chip on its shoulder.

By the late summer of 2000, Indiana University had had enough of Bobby Knight. They fired him. Knight scurried off into the west Texas desert like a wounded armadillo, where an old friend (who knew he had any?) offered him One Last Chance-- to make something out of the Texas Tech basketball program. Indiana, meanwhile, replaced him with a mild-mannered man named Mike Davis, whose greatest claim to fame at that point was that he was a mild-mannered man named Mike Davis. Oh, and he's black. Indiana had never had a black head coach.

For a while, everything worked well. In his first season, Davis guided the Hoosiers all the way to the National Championship game. It looked like the hits were gonna keep on comin' at Indiana. By the beginning of 2006, however, there were low grumblings in the Hoosier State that maybe Mike Davis wasn't the man for the job after all. Those gumblings were kept pretty much on the down-low for much of the season, until Davis himself let it slip that he felt his tenure might be nearing its end. What Davis said was that he thought Indiana might feel better served if they had "one of their own" coaching the team. Publicly, everyone chose to believe the phrase "one of their own" was an allusion to University of Iowa head coach Steve Alford, a former star player at Indiana under the Knight regime. Privately, of course, no one could be faulted for wondering if "one of their own" might also have certain racial undertones in the state that --to this day-- has the nation's largest enrollment of the Ku Klux Klan. (I know, I know! But don't feel bad: Almost everybody else thinks the answer to that trivia question is "Mississippi," too.)

Then: Wouldn't you know it? Within just a day or two of Davis' comment, Bobby Knight was on the set of ESPN's "Cold Pizza" to promote his new show. Anchorwoman Dana Jacobsen drew the short straw. Naturally, she asked Knight about the situation at Indiana. True to his hair-trigger nature, Knight immediately over-reacted. Raising his voice to the point of distortion, he yelled, "I have absolutely no interest in talking about Indiana what's your next question!" Jacobsen calmly tried to explain that she valued Knight's unique insights into the situation... But Knight never let her finish. He stormed off the set.

*sigh* It's rare moments like this that almost make me wish I was still in broadcasting. (Hey, Sparky! Run that one labelled "Dream Sequence Music," will ya...?)

Knight: I have absolutely no interest in talking about Indiana what's your next question!
Killre: Well, Bobby... (He hates it when you call him "Bobby.") Well, Bobby, I guess my next question would be this: Since you're the Emperor of the Known Universe and the rest of us are a bunch of peons and whipping boys to be pushed and kicked around according to your mood and whim, why is it that you don't just walk around in a big red toga all the time, cracker? And don't threaten me with not ever granting another interview, either. You'd be doing me a favor. Hell, I didn't want to interview your sorry [mule] this time. Why don't you do us all a favor: Go crawl back into that black hole that is Lubbock, Texas, and don't come out for about twenty years. It was bad enough when I was just sick of listening to you, but now I'm sick of looking at you, too. Oh, but hey, good luck with your show.

Okay, now let's talk about Mike Davis. Not long after his "one of their own" comment, Davis held a press conference and formally resigned as Indiana's head basketball coach, effective at the end of the season. Who knows? He may even have done it semi-voluntarily-- seeking to relieve his team of the stressful uncertainty and also affording the university as much time as possible to search for his replacement. That's the kind of guy he is. Davis is honest and honorable, hard-working and intelligent. And one heck of a basketball coach.

He does, however, at times, slip into a dialect that makes you wonder why he didn't recruit better in the inner city... which is just the sort of thing to get under the skin of the Hoosier fan base. It is entirely fitting, you see, that Indiana University's school colors are red and white, because those two colors perfectly describe the State of Indiana politically and demographically: Staunchly Red, and a pasty little hue that I like to call "1950s White."

Now, make no mistake: Indiana University did not fire --yes, technically he resigned but, let's face it, they fired him-- Indiana University did not fire Mike Davis because he's black. They didn't even fire him because he's "too" black. They fired him because of pressure from their alumni and fans, a significant percentage of whom probably never liked Mike Davis... mainly because he's black. But Indiana is a basketball crazy state and if Davis' winning percentage had been high enough, they probably would have left him alone. Unfortunately for Davis, Bobby Knight set the winning percentage bar awfully, awfully high, and when Davis couldn't quite measure up to the shadow of Knight, the fans and alumni turned on him with perhaps a bit more fervor than they would have someone else.

I'm happy to report that Mike Davis landed on his feet. He is now the new head basketball coach at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). Hopefully, he will beat Indiana in the second round of next year's NCAA Tournament. Even better: Here's hoping he beats Texas Tech in the first round.
P.S... Bud "I Shop At Goodwill-4-Millionaires" Selig must go.

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