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Penn State did Knight a favor

February 6, 2008
The Altoona Mirror
What would have happened had Penn State hired Bob Knight as its basketball coach in 1968?

Suffice to say Knight would not be relaxing this morning, in day two of his retirement, as the winningest coach in college basketball history.

Knight was interested in the Penn State job after John Egli stepped down. Knight was three seasons into a six-year tenure at Army, where he went 102-50 and stamped his greatness early.

Dick Pencek was Penn State’s lacrosse coach at the time and Knight’s former roommate while the two were assistant coaches at Army. They remained in touch over the years, and in fact Pencek got a Texas Tech coaching shirt in the mail the other day, a Knight gesture after Pencek sent a note congratulating the General on his 900th coaching victory.

It was Pencek, among others, who steered Knight away from Happy Valley before a formal interview took place.

“I don’t think he would have fit well with us,” Pencek said Tuesday, a day after Knight announced his resignation from Texas Tech.

The Nittany Lions wound up selecting Johnny Bach from Fordham. The built-in challenges at PSU eventually took their toll and did in Bach just as they burdened all of his successors — Dick Harter, Bruce Parkhill, Jerry Dunn and, his victory over No. 8 Michigan State on Saturday night aside, Ed DeChellis.

Would Knight, despite his greatness, have been different? No, and there would have been casualties.

Sometimes the environment, existing or cultivated, is the biggest reason for a coach’s success or failure.

There’s no question Joe Paterno has raised — driven — Penn State’s appreciation and commitment for what football could do for the university. Would there have been room for an equal giant down the hall?

Pencek knew the answer, and so do you: Since Harter, Penn State repeatedly has settled for a lower profile, lower maintenance basketball coach in part because of its football shadow.

And Bob Knight isn’t low maintenance.

He was much better off going to Indiana, where football barely registers on the radar. Knight became a legend there before his personality eventually wore everybody out, and he alertly jumped to Texas Tech, which provided a soft landing to end his career and pass the torch to his son Patrick.

Knight’s sudden, in-season move will make Penn State fans wonder if Paterno, 14 years older than the General, will contemplate a similar exit.

A couple of points: Paterno also has said he doesn’t want ‘‘another trip around the track,’’ meaning he would disdain a farewell tour so the abruptness might be appealing.

At the same time, basketball, with its travel, is more taxing than football. In the identical tenure length — 42 years, ironically — Knight has coached 1,273 games, way more than double Paterno’s 500.

Further, Knight has a life beyond the game; he likes to hunt and fish, and he’s been spotted at St. Louis Cardinals games with his friend, Tony LaRussa. Paterno won’t walk across the street to a Spikes game.

But they are more alike than not: Both won their last national title in 1987, though Paterno should have won at least a share of it in ’94. Like Paterno, Knight stressed academics, didn’t cheat and, in a college-sports world that disappoints every other week, clearly stood for something positive.

‘‘Bobby was so principled,’’ Pencek said. ‘‘He had rules, and you abided by them. If you missed a class, you didn’t play that night.’’

Was he at times his own worst enemy? Sure, but that’s what made us watch.

Knight lived for the moment. No matter where he coached, he didn’t make his grand entrance — whether at Assembly Hall, the Jordan Center or Rec Hall — until the last possible second. It added to his theatre.

But had he gotten the Penn State job in ’68, this week’s curtain call would not be celebrating 40-plus years of a JoePa-like legend.

Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or nrudel@altoonamirror.com.
 
 

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