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Bobby Knight and Donald Trump are one and the same

Former Indiana basketball coach Bob Knight shook hands with Donald Trump during a campaign stop on Thursday in Evansville. Darron Cummings/AP

Former Indiana University basketball coach Bobby Knight’s endorsement of Donald Trump on Wednesday was the perfect presidential nod this campaign season.

After all, like Trump, Knight is abusive, misogynistic, and a bully. In the era of greater political correctness, particularly in sports, Knight has long been the great outlier — a one-man walking advertisement for boorishness, vulgarity, and insensitivity. As the Globe’s Matt Viser nicely summed it up: “If Donald Trump coached basketball, he’d be Bobby Knight. And if Bobby Knight ran for president, he’d be Donald Trump.”

To be sure, just as there’s no questioning Trump’s political success this year, there is no questioning Knight’s success as a basketball coach. He is the winning-est coach in NCAA basketball history. He won three national championships, an NIT championship, and an Olympic gold medal. But like Trump, alongside all that “winning” is an unending stream of violent and obnoxious behavior.


As a coach he slapped, punched, head-butted, choked, and kicked his own players, including his son Patrick. (He also broke the nose and separated the shoulder of his other son, Tim.) Perhaps most famously, outraged by a foul call he didn’t agree with, he took a chair from his bench and threw it across the floor.

Knight’s out-of-control behavior wasn’t limited to the basketball court. He physically threatened the school’s athletic director, threw a flower pot at a secretary, assaulted a police officer in Puerto Rico (for which he was sentenced to six months in prison in absentia), hit an assistant coach, and dumped an opposing fan into a garbage can at the Final Four in 1981. In a clear indication of Knight’s vast personal growth, 25 years later a police officer had to restrain him from going after a heckling fan.

When it comes to lack of impulse control, he makes Trump looks like a choirboy.


Like Trump he is politically incorrect, which is really just code for “says and does terribly offensive things,” like saying that if a woman is being raped she should “relax and enjoy it,” or calling a bullwhip a great “motivational” tool and pretending to use it on one of his black players.

Now, Knight and his defenders will tell you that he ran a clean program at Indiana and Texas Tech. He never had any NCAA violations and all his players graduated. They will talk about his motivational skills and his winning ways. But that’s a bit like saying Trump has run a clean campaign, simply because he’s winning and thus we shouldn’t pay much attention to the xenophobia, fear-mongering, and petulant name-calling that has defined his run for president so far.

I can think of another former college basketball coach who once called Indiana home — the Celtics head coach, Brad Stevens. Though a fan of Knight and Indiana basketball, Stevens is, as the Globe’s Baxter Holmes wrote a few years ago, “known for his measured demeanor and is more likely to say ‘golly’ or ‘son of a gun’ or ‘gee whiz’ than utter vulgarities within earshot.” Somehow, he still found a way to take Butler to back-to-back national championship games.

But of course the real appeal of Knight is not just that he’s winner (or at least used to be one), it’s that his angry man, tell-it-like-it-is personae harkens back to an era when being a politically incorrect jerk was viewed as a net positive.


When Trump talks about “Making America Great Again,’’ he’s talking, in part, about an America in which people like Bobby Knight were revered. When toughening up young people with a swat was the right way to discipline your kid; when people didn’t get so bent out of shape about foul-mouthed tirades or sexist, racist jokes. So much of Trump’s appeal is nostalgia for the way things used to be, before political correctness and before sensitivity training — when the resentful white men who form the basis of Trump’s support could do and act as they please. Knight is the embodiment of that yearning for the way things were.

On Wednesday Knight said, “There has never been a more honest politician than Donald Trump,” and he “is the most prepared man in history to step in as president,” which is so blatantly untrue it’s almost comical. But if honesty is defined as a willingness to say outrageous, offensive things, to insult and abuse people so that it toughens them up, because after all “we can’t afford to be politically incorrect” . . . then I guess Bobby Knight is right.

Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.