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Bob Knight: A Latter-Day MacArthur?

by Timothy M. Roberts on Oct 9, 2000

         On September 10, Indiana University President Myles Brand
dismissed Indiana University's men's basketball coach Bob Knight, nicknamed
"The General," for defying university officials and for violating a "zero
tolerance" policy against his angry rages. Brand was criticized for his
rash act against a national celebrity. Meanwhile, Knight complained that he
was a victim of changing expectations that ended his hard-line leadership.

         An Indiana trustee critical of Brand's action invoked a pointed
comparison: "President Truman fired General MacArthur.  President Brand
fired General Knight." Defending Knight, the trustee compared Knight's
firing to the earlier dismissal of a popular general by a chief executive
— the firing in 1951 of General Douglas MacArthur by President Harry Truman.

         But is the comparison valid? In fact there are noteworthy
coincidences between the two controversies. Both MacArthur and Knight were
admired for their success and self-confidence, and neither tolerated
ambiguity in decision-making. Their leadership style led them to defy
higher authorities. When those above them in authority risked public
criticism and punished their defiance, both tried to manipulate the public
by casting themselves as victims.

         MacArthur was arguably America's greatest military field
commander. In World War II he led the recapture of the Pacific islands from
Japan. In July 1950 the Truman administration sent him to Korea after
Communist North Korean troops launched a surprise attack on South Korea.
There he devised a daring amphibious assault behind enemy lines that
enabled United Nations forces to drive the North Koreans back. This tactic
confirmed MacArthur as a "virtuoso strategist," said one analyst.

         Like MacArthur, Knight too has been regarded as a strategic
genius. His Indiana teams were feared because of their ability to exploit
opponents' weaknesses from game to game. Like MacArthur, Knight is a severe
disciplinarian, whom subordinates regard with respect, not love. Someone
said MacArthur was "the only man in the world who could walk into a room
full of drunks and all would be stone-sober within five minutes."  What
other place but a Bob Knight locker room or press conference could have
feared such discipline?

         Yet the very nature of the success that the two men enjoyed led
each to his undoing. Both preferred to operate without supervision. After
United Nations troops occupied most of North Korea, Truman, MacArthur's
commander-in-chief, ordered preparations to negotiate peace. Instead, after
Chinese intervention forced an ignominious retreat to the south, MacArthur
tried to widen the war, pleading for American use of the atomic bomb. In an
inflammatory letter to Congress, he declared, "The Communists have elected
global conquest. We must win. There is no substitute for victory."
Accustomed to autonomy, MacArthur ignored presidential authority and
pleaded his case outside the chain of command.

         Knight also created a virtual fiefdom, free from administrative
interference. Indiana, said an opposing coach, was the one institution
where the basketball coach was larger than either the basketball program or
the university itself. Neither the university president, nor trustees, nor
alumni would accept tampering with a coach so embraced by a
basketball-loving state. They were seduced by success.
Much as MacArthur won victory in the Pacific, Knight coached Indiana to
three national titles and eleven Big Ten championships.

         But in the midst of championships, Knight was verbally and
physically abusive of fans, police, players, secretaries, referees and
reporters, and was antagonistic toward Indiana University's administration.
Within his domain he became a tyrant, and threatened the reputation of the
entire university.

         Despite MacArthur's immense popularity with the American people,
Truman recalled him from Korea in April 1951. The general's removal
provoked an uproar. Congressmen and newspapers called for Truman's
impeachment, while American people burned the president in effigy.
MacArthur addressed a joint session of Congress, whispering that he was
interested only in doing "his duty as God gave him the light to see that
duty." He visited New York City, where 7.5 million people gathered to cheer
him.

         The removal of Knight also created a firestorm, rating him a
page-one story in The New York Times and a national interview on ESPN. In
support of Knight, students rioted in Bloomington and burned Brand in
effigy. Brand's administrators and his family were harassed. Knight has
remained unrepentant, pleading that he is only a misunderstood teacher of
the game of basketball.

         Each in his day, MacArthur and Knight displayed a stubbornness
that captured the nation's imagination. During the 1950s anti-Communist
fears were widespread, and MacArthur's refusal to negotiate with an enemy
that he regarded as evil won over an American public not ready to strike
deals. Similarly, the image of Knight rebuking prima donna players,
irritating reporters and even roughing up foreign policemen struck a chord
with American fans. Both men refused to compromise their principles — even
when their principles pushed them to their self-destruction.

         What one observer said of Knight applies to both men: "He has a
potent mix of high competence with characteristics that cause him to
sabotage himself. That's a fascinating thing — in a kind of morbid way –
for people to observe."


Tim Roberts is an assistant professor of history at Western Illinois University. He is the author of Distant Revolutions: 1848 and the Challenge to American Exceptionalism (Virginia, 2009).