Advertisement
  1. Archive

Knight makes immediate impact

By most accounts, Lubbock is a Texas town located approximately in the middle of nowhere. Head west out of Dallas and you'll eventually get there. Be prepared for a few winter ice storms, brutal summer heat, a mouthful of dust if the wind kicks up.

And, now, a huge helping of Bob Knight.

The deposed Indiana coach with a cultlike following in the Hoosier state has relocated to Lubbock. It's the home of Texas Tech University and a struggling basketball team that is more than willing to take on the baggage that comes with Knight's sterling on-court reputation.

Other than a few dozen university faculty members who initially protested his hiring, most in the town of 200,000 have welcomed the Hall of Fame coach, eager to see him boost the fortunes of a downtrodden program that hasn't had a winning season since 1997.

They have shown their support by buying personal seat licenses at the United Spirit Arena, joining the booster club and coming out in full force for Knight speaking engagements.

Suddenly, the university has a living legend to sell.

"I have probably been with Coach Knight on 15 fund-raising calls," said Steve Uryasz, the executive director of the Red Raider Club _ the fund-raising arm of the university. "From my perspective, he's probably the easiest person I've ever worked with in my life. Everything we've asked him to take part in he's done. He's been fantastic."

Those are words not often associated with Knight, especially among the many players, officials and fans the coach had run-ins with over the years. But Texas Tech is willing to give Knight another chance, willing to forget _ or at least put in the past _ the infamous chair-throwing incident, the alleged choking of an Indiana player and the "zero-tolerance" policy.

That policy, which Indiana president Myles Brand put in place after several incidents of misbehavior, eventually cost Knight his job after 29 years, three national championships and 11 Big Ten titles.

After 35 seasons and 764 victories, Knight, 61, was without a coaching job for the first time since the mid 1960s when he became a 20-something coach at Army.

Last spring, with Texas Tech headed for a 9-19 record and last-place finish in the Big 12 Conference, rumors began to circulate that athletic director Gerald Myers _ a longtime Knight friend and onetime Tech basketball coach _ was thinking about replacing James Dickey. Just the thought of such a move had the town buzzing, and when the school made Knight's hiring official in late March, ticket sales and interest exploded.

"I can't honestly say that I did anticipate all the excitement, the energy that he's created here in West Texas," Myers said. "All of the recognition and publicity that Texas Tech has gotten nationally since he's become our coach financially, he's probably increased our revenue some $4.5-million. He's had quite an impact all the way around. People in this community are more excited about him being here than maybe any employee we've had here."

Last year, about 4,000 season tickets were purchased and an average of 9,500 fans attended home games. The only sellout in the United Spirit Arena's two-year history occurred, ironically, when Knight brought his Hoosier team to Lubbock to open the 1999 season.

Now, about 13,000 season tickets have been sold in the 15,050-seat building. That includes the personal seat license fee that ranges from $1,400-$4,000 just for the right to buy the ticket. (The PSL program is for 10 years.) Sellouts are expected for every home game.

"It's obviously changed for the better," ticket manager Russell Warren said. "It's been most exciting for us. The early part of it was somewhat overwhelming just because it all happened so quickly. We had a lot of inventory from the previous season that was unsold. We started selling personal seat licenses and season tickets prior to him being named simply because of the rumor mill. We had tons of people in here buying.

"After he was hired, it took us about 12 hours to finish up everything in our lower levels," Warren said. "The PSLs went so fast, it was very exciting. It's all been positive. It's a great thing for us."

No doubt.

"The very first time I met him, he said, "Anything you need from me, I'm here for you,' " Warren said. "I told him, "You being on our campus is all I need.' "

Knight is so popular in Lubbock that a police officer who stopped the coach for speeding recognized the famous man and let him off with only a warning to get his Indiana driver's license changed to Texas.

The Red Raider Club has seen its membership rolls increase to some 4,000, up by more than 1,000, since Knight's arrival. That led to a Student Red Raider Club. The hope was to get 1,000 students to pay $25. More than 5,600 have joined, making it the largest student booster group in Division I athletics.

Then there are the booster gatherings. Knight, who helped raise $70,000 for the school's library, has gone on the road to generate money for the Red Raider Club, hitting places such as Dallas, San Antonio and Houston. At one gathering, he raised $30,000 _ and the function took place in the rural Southern Indiana town of Starlight. Knight had attended functions there for years as the IU coach. Now, people were paying $40 a person to hear the Texas Tech coach.

"This would be a pretty hard thing to do in most cases," said Bill Dean, who heads the Texas Tech alumni association.

"To leave a state and go to a school in another part of the country, then come back to that location and raise money for the new school. That just doesn't happen."

Stores in Indiana stock Red Raiders apparel. Uryasz said IU alumni living in Texas have purchased season tickets and turned out at Tech fundraisers throughout the state. And about 75 people from Indiana with no Texas Tech connection have joined the booster club, paying $125-$1,000 each.

"I have a lot of friends who work at Indiana," Uryasz said. "The minute we announced he was coming to Texas Tech, my phone started ringing, and they said you're going to love working with Bob Knight. Some asked if there were going to be any openings (at Tech)."

At Red Raider Outfitters, sales of Texas Tech basketball apparel have been brisk. The biggest selling item: a shirt for $14.99 that has a picture of Knight and lists his coaching accomplishments.

The store's Web site (www.redraideroutfitter.com) has seen a surge in business, especially from those loyal Knight fans back in Indiana.

"It's crazy. I thought most of the orders would come from our alumni base in Texas," said Stephen Spiegelberg, the store's vice president of retail sales. "But we broke it down and a huge number of orders are coming from Indiana.

"I had people calling me up from there asking if they could buy season tickets, if we had an airport so they could come. They're crazy about him back there. And they're starting to latch onto him here."

Now comes the hard part: building on the enthusiasm.

When Knight opens the season Friday against William & Mary, he'll do so with a rag-tag bunch that includes just 4 returning scholarship players, 5 scholarship newcomers _ 4 junior college transfers _ 2 former walk-ons and 2 freshmen walk-ons.

It's a long way removed from Quinn Buckner, Scott May, Kent Benson and the glory of old IU.

But Knight has surrounded himself with many comforts.

His son, Pat, was hired as an assistant coach, and another son, Tim, was hired to work in the athletic department and spearheaded an effort to get a regional television package sold in West Texas. The Red Raiders will see a majority of their games televised, including as many as 15 nationally on ESPN, Fox Sports Net, ABC and CBS.

Knight also brought with him Mary Ann Davis, his administrative assistant the past 24 years. He saw to it that Tech students got more access to games. He even will let them vote on what color sweater he wears on the sideline.

And face it, Texas Tech fans never have had the standards of such success.

As Warren, the ticket manager, said: "The great thing for us is we'll go into these games sold out. I'll actually get to watch because I won't have anything to do."

Up next:OBITUARIES

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

Advertisement
Advertisement