Sunday, November 12, 2006

On Bullying and Bravery: a true story in sports and coaching

Sports of The Times
Amid Rascals and Ruffians, Acts of Faith and Courage

"Hotheads on Parade" begins this weekend when teams from college basketball’s repository for bullies — the Big 12 Conference, or the Notorious B.I.G. 12 — tip off with the habitually ticked off.

You will see endless footage of Texas Tech Coach Bob Knight in pursuit of Dean Smith’s career victory record (879) for men’s basketball. Knight was perched at 869 victories, 869 tantrums — and counting — before last night’s opener.

You will see lots of Kansas State's new hire, Bob Huggins, as a transplanted bad boy in pursuit of career validation, a journey that will include a drive down the New Jersey Turnpike to play Rutgers on Wednesday. You will see the coaches rant and intimidate. The camera loves a creep. But amid the crass montages from the vaults of Huggins and Knight are abrupt breaks in the film clips. Wardrobe changes.

Knight, forever in a Hoosiers sweater. Huggins, forever a fixture in Cincinnati. Then forever ended for both. The legacies of Knight and Huggins have been perpetuated by university presidents at Texas Tech and Kansas State who knuckled under when seduced by brute-force winning, as did many enablers before them.

Who had the might to push back? A Cincinnati president named Nancy Zimpher and a pacifist freshman named Kent Harvey. Zimpher and Harvey are as important to the history lesson of Huggins and Knight as any victory because they represent two people with the courage to say enough is enough. It can be done. It can be survived.

Zimpher endured a backlash last year from the Bearcats’ faithful when she bought out the contract of Huggins, a coach defined as a renegade. She was done with his combative sideline presence, low graduation rates and an arrest on a charge of driving under the influence in 2004.

"She took an unmerciful beating, and I understood why," Big East Commissioner Mike Tranghese said at a news media day two weeks ago. "I’m one of her big fans because she’s tough and she stands up to people, and if people don’t like it, that’s O.K."

Zimpher still has her job and her dignity.

Harvey outlasted the scrutiny, too. In his case, it actually led to a spiritual liberation that has changed his life — for the better.

In September 2000, Harvey, a 19-year-old whistleblower, was introduced to Jesus after greeting Knight.

Near a doorway at Assembly Hall, on the campus of Indiana University, Knight crossed paths with Harvey on a random Thursday. Somewhat startled by the big star on campus, Harvey simply uttered a teenage salutation: "Hey, what’s up, Knight?"

By Sunday, Knight was fired for his compilation of tyranny, of chair throwing and name calling, of allegations that he had choked a player and had thrown a vase at a secretary. He had broken a zero-tolerance policy because Harvey reported his reply — an angry grab of his arm, a profane demand to be referred to respectfully as Coach or Mr. Knight — to officials.

By Monday night, Harvey was sitting alone in his father’s bedroom in Indianapolis — emotionally spent, forced to flee campus because of death threats — when he turned on the news.

A campus riot was raging in the name of Kent Harvey. An effigy with his name on it was hanged from a tree. A flag with his name on it was burned on the ground. T-shirts printed with "Wanted: Dead or Alive" also bore his face and name.

"I was in tears," Harvey said Friday. "I was beside myself. I couldn’t think. For the first time in my life, I got on my knees and said, 'God help me; save me from this mess.' "

He felt peace. In that instant, Harvey was saved from bitterness, from living his life as a victim of Knight's volatility. Imagine that: Knight emerged as the accidental broker of Harvey’s faith.

Harvey transferred colleges and completed a business degree. He lives in Indiana. He is happy, eager to start a new job, better from the perspective of his unforgettable brush with Knight.

"I think it was good for me," Harvey said. "I felt what I did was the right thing to do and the right choice, even though it was hard for me at first because of the consequences. With that said, I have nothing bad to say about him."

"Obviously, his track record is amazing; he's a great coach. I’d have to say there are different managing styles and different coaching styles. His way is his choice."

This is not diplomacy as much as reflection. Harvey isn't afraid of honest introspection, even in parsing his greeting to Knight that day at Assembly Hall.

"It’s an informal greeting that kids use, but it wasn't very discerning on my part," Harvey said. "And I'd be the first person to say that."

Career bullies are not so self-aware. It is difficult to experience an epiphany when it is considered a threat. Changing may mean losing — and that is intolerable.

Huggins is the same. So is Knight. He had no use for David Smith, the Texas Tech chancellor, after they had a confrontation at a salad bar in 2004. Knight never let it go. Two weeks ago, Knight took a jab at Smith — who exited to oversee the State University of New York Upstate Medical University — when he reportedly said that the incoming president, Kent Hance, "replaces a chancellor that had only one thing on his mind, and that was self-promotion."

Nothing says self-promotion like a reality show. In February, "Knight School," starring Bob Knight, had its premiere on ESPN.

Infamy gets plenty of air time. You'll see tons of Knight and Huggins this season as they stomp, and, very likely, win in the Big 12.

Out of camera range, two people exist as proof that not everyone has enabled their notorious streaks. Amid the montage odes to Knight and Huggins, there are wardrobe changes — and this is the reminder of those who stood up under intimidating circumstances.

Neither Zimpher nor Harvey would be bullied.



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