"The way those kids learned to compete in basketball, what better training was there for an officer who had to go into combat and had the lives of other people at stake?" says Knight, who stayed six years as head coach and a total of eight seasons at Army. "I thought it was really important there. And when I went on, that stuck with me. I want a kid to think back that the best class he had in college was playing basketball. I don't worry about how I accomplish it."
People think he's overly tough? Imperious? A bully? They grumble that he crossed the line of proper behavior yet again when he gave Texas Tech sophomore Michael Prince a bop to the chin during a timeout two weeks ago? Knight cares little.
Not a star player
Knight wasn't a great player himself but was good enough to make an Ohio State team that reached three NCAA title games and won one. He has absorbed a lifetime of coaching lessons from fellow Hall of Famers Joe Lapchick, Clair Bee, Fred Taylor and Pete Newell, among others. And he is supreme in his self-belief.
A voracious reader, Knight's attention to one detail of David Halberstam's best-selling account of the country's descent into the Vietnam quagmire, The Best and the Brightest, is telling.
"That was a frightening thing for me to read," he says, "because the Kennedys, every decision they made, was based on polls and how they thought it would affect the next election.
"Do what's right and do what you think you have to do and don't worry about what somebody says. That would be about as simply put as my philosophy could be. If I've felt I needed to get on some kid's ass during a game rather than after the game ... I think I've kind of exposed myself (to critics). But it's never bothered me, because I've thought that's the thing I had to do."
Texas Tech athletics director Gerald Myers, the Red Raiders' former coach, paints his old friend as misunderstood: "I think a lot of people who don't know him make judgments about him (based) on what they've heard or what they've read or what they've seen. You know, none of us are perfect. His good qualities far outweigh his bad."
It is the credo of Knight's allies.
He clashed with Tech's chancellor during a happenstance meeting at a lunchtime salad bar early in 2004, drawing a reprimand from the school. Since then, his famous temper has been in abeyance. (Knight ascribed his exchange with Prince during the Nov. 13 win vs. Gardner-Webb to motivational technique, not anger, and Meyers and the player backed him up.)
Knight nonetheless waves off any suggestion that, at age 66, he has mellowed. Yes, things have been a little quieter here in West Texas but, "I don't think I do things any differently," he says. "I think what happens here is you're a little more removed from things. People don't come out here as much."
Approaching a record
The game, he says, is much the same as it was when he broke in. You prepare kids; you try to get them to compete. What was it the Army used to preach? Be all you can be. Basketball is about that, too.
And Knight is as obsessively about that as any individual the sport has seen.
It may be interesting to gauge the reaction outside of Lubbock to his impending record-setting 880th win. Knight always has had a prickly relationship with the media, and he hardly gets — and refuses to court — the unconditional love accorded a Wooden and a Smith.
Pat Knight, who played for his father at Indiana and, like his dad, is starting his sixth season at Texas Tech, sees the mark as "redemption in a way from all the negative publicity he's gotten over the years. ...
"It's not warm and fuzzy love (that matters). I think it's respect. Even the guys who don't like him, they're going to have to respect him for what he's done."
His dad will take that. Knight's well-known idol was baseball great Ted Williams, who aspired, he told a friend, "that when I walk down the street, folks will say, 'There goes the greatest hitter that ever lived.' "
Knight has his own version of that wish. Twenty-some years ago, he says, he was being courted to coach the NBA's Phoenix Suns and called Newell, his friend and mentor and, at 91, still an esteemed basketball consultant. "He asked me, 'What do you want to get out of coaching?' "
Knight recalls. "And I told him, 'I want to be thought of by (other) coaches in the same vein that you're thought of by coaches.'
"That," he says, "is the most important thing I could ask for in terms of a legacy in basketball."
For everybody else — the writers who wonder if the end justifies Knight's means, the dads who debate whether they'd put their kids in his coaching care — there is indifference.
"You're sitting there ... and you say, 'Boy, I wouldn't want my son to play for him,' " Knight says. "Well, if you want your kid to be a goddamn success, you probably ought to want him to play for me."