BLOOMINGTON – One of 12 children in his family, Mike Woodson by his own description “grew up with nothing.”
His father died when Woodson was just 13. The family moved several times during his childhood. When Bob Knight walked into his living room to recruit Woodson, by then a star basketball player at Broad Ripple High School in Indianapolis, he offered something never available to any of Woodson’s siblings.
“He promised me that I would get an education, and that I would play for the best basketball program in the country,” Woodson said. “That’s all I needed to hear.”
Woodson spoke through halted thoughts and muted tones Thursday, about the man who acted as much his mentor as any in Woodson’s life. Knight, who coached Woodson for four years from 1976-80 and remained close with one of Indiana’s most successful ever players, died Wednesday. He was 83.
“This program will truly miss an icon,” Woodson, now in his third year coaching his alma mater, said. “It’s hard to really describe in words what he meant to me, but boy, I wouldn’t be sitting in this seat today if it wasn’t for Bob Knight.”
Tributes poured from all corners of basketball Wednesday night into Thursday, following his family’s announcement of Knight’s passing.
An undeniably polarizing figure in his sport’s history, Knight was just as successful as he was able to split opinion. Famous — in the eyes of some, infamous — for the fruits of his temper and stubbornness, Knight was also among the most successful and influential basketball coaches ever.
“Everybody, especially in the Midwest that wanted to get into coaching, that wanted to just learn the game,” Purdue coach Matt Painter told reporters following his team’s exhibition win Wednesday night. “There isn’t a book out there, a video out there that I haven’t seen that he published, that he put out. No different than those great clinicians, like Hubie Brown and Larry Brown, and those guys. They were obviously great coaches, but you kind of see that with the world now.
“They taught the world.”
Knight’s career resume stacks up next to any of his peers.
He won one national championship as a player at Ohio State (1960), and three more as Indiana’s coach (1976, 1981, 1987). His teams appeared in five Final Fours, won one NIT and 11 Big Ten regular-season titles. At the time of his retirement, Knight’s 902 career wins were the most all-time by a Division I men’s coach.
Knight never lost a national championship game.
“We were always prepared to play,” Woodson said. “You can will yourself to win, but can you really prepare yourself to win? That’s what he did when he was here. He prepared guys to play at a higher level than most of the teams that he played against and coached against.”
His fiery personality and unbending nature courted controversy, sometimes of Knight’s own doing.
It also locked him in a variety of rivalries with various coaches, few more so than Purdue hall-of-famer Gene Keady.
Yet Keady’s first memory of Knight wasn’t from the opposite side of one of college basketball’s fiercest rivalries, but instead when Keady was an assistant at Arkansas in the mid-1970s, and the Razorbacks’ staff visited Indiana to study Knight’s practices.
“He treated me like one of his own,” Keady told IndyStar.
From Keady’s hiring in 1980 until Knight’s dismissal in 2000, they battled for top honors in a basketball-mad state, and one of the country’s best conferences. In that span, Knight won seven Big Ten titles to Keady’s six, but Keady finished one win up on Knight in head-to-head matchups.
In retirement, they became good friends, Keady visiting Knight in Bloomington as recently as last year.
“You had to be sharp, or you weren’t going to be in the game. (Knight) made you better,” Keady said. “It was just special.”
Knight’s success was founded on non-negotiables like toughness, selflessness and work ethic. It was also grounded in his evolution of the motion offense, which would inspire a generation of coaches after him.
“As a rookie coach in the Big Ten,” Michigan State’s Tom Izzo told IndyStar, “I got two pieces of advice from him. First, don’t cheat, and second, graduate your players. That’s something I’ve carried with me throughout my career.”
Their success and their underpinnings lent Knight’s teams a seminal quality. Theirs became for many people a vintage brand of basketball.
Indiana teams were recognizable for style and substance in equal measure. Knight built each around the strengths of his players, but he never compromised on what he considered the foundational rules he coached by.
Even as some of Knight’s tenets, like the motion offense, have been replaced by further evolution, his innovation remains stamped on the consciousness of the sport today.
“Once you understand it and see how it works, it works miracles,” Calbert Cheaney, the Big Ten’s all-time leading scorer, said. “I just think coach is one of the smartest coaches I’ve ever been around, and I think what he taught back then was, he was ahead of his time.”
For that, among many reasons, tributes poured freely across basketball Wednesday night and Thursday.
Former players and peers paid their respects. Former Notre Dame coach Digger Phelps on X (formerly known as Twitter) calling Knight “my big brother.” Two former IU coaches, Tom Crean and Archie Miller, each offered statements of condolence. Purdue held a moment of silence before Wednesday’s exhibition, while Michigan, Knight’s alma mater Ohio State and others joined the Boilermakers in public statements honoring his passing.
Bill Self, Chris Beard, Magic Johnson and so many others around the sport paid testament to one of the most successful — and most memorable — coaches basketball has ever known.
“We send all of our thoughts and prayers to his family,” Izzo said. “College basketball has lost an icon.”
Follow IndyStar reporter Zach Osterman on Twitter: @ZachOsterman.
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Bobby Knight dies: Tom Izzo, Gene Keady, Mike Woodson remember a friend