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Tuesday, November 14, 2006
Updated: November 16, 1:20 AM ET
Knight's reputation turned minor incident into big deal

By Gene Wojciechowski
ESPN.com

This time it was a small whack to a player's jaw. Before that it was a "Hey, what's up, Knight?" incident. And before that, a throat massage to Neil Reed. A chair stomp. And don't even mention the infamous bootleg video of Knight co-hosting a golf show.

Knight is always on the verge of breaking something: the rules of common sense, the all-time victories record held by Dean Smith, a jaw. He is a human matchstick, always scraping his phosphorus-coated personality against the rough surface, igniting yet another brush fire of controversy.

You've seen the video. Texas Tech sophomore forward Michael Prince comes to the sideline, head sagging, and Knight pops it back up for him. My first reaction: Probably not a fun moment for Prince, but I don't think we'll need the Rev. Jesse Jackson to mediate a truce between player and coach.

But then the aftershocks arrived. The more I watched the incident, the more it became apparent that Knight still doesn't understand this is 2006, not 1976. The times have changed, but Knight clings to the past like a basketball Archie Bunker.

Knight didn't hurt Prince. Not even close. But that isn't the issue. Knight, more than anybody, should know by now that the nanosecond you place a finger on a player for anything other than a back pat or a handshake, you open yourself to this type of Zapruder film scrutiny, frame by frame.

Prince said it was no big deal. Prince's parents said it was no big deal. Texas Tech athletic director Gerald Myers, a former coach, said it was no big deal. Knight said it was no big deal. But it is a medium-sized deal because Knight remains incapable of understanding that he is held to a different standard. And the standard is a creation of his own past.

Chairs flung across courts. Puerto Rican cops assaulted. Chairs kicked -- with his own son still in it. Players throats grabbed. NCAA Tournament volunteers berated. Students' arms tightly gripped. And now jaws raised. These moments have become as much a part of Knight's resume as his 871 (and counting) career victories. And it's nobody's fault but his own.

I don't doubt that Knight meant zero physical harm against Prince. I don't doubt that he sincerely thought he was teaching Prince a lesson in body language and attitude. And I don't doubt that he could have taught the same lesson without forcing Prince's chin up.

Knight could get away with this sort of thing at Cuyahoga Falls (Ohio) High School in 1963, at Army in 1966, and at Indiana in 1976. There were different sensibilities and players then. And nobody had a TV camera trained on you during an early season game against Gardner-Webb.

But here in 2006, for better or for worse, Knight has to quit with the macho sideline routine. We get it: you're an old-school hard ass. Congratulations. But unless you want to spend the remainder of your career doing the stop-drop-and-roll routine after every fire storm, then maybe it's time to adjust.

Rule No. 1: Enough already with the hands. Stick them in your pocket. Duct tape them to your red sweater. Use them to count to 10. Or better yet, to nine -- that's how many wins you need to pass the stately Dean Smith of North Carolina.

And speaking of Smith, I don't recall anyone ever accusing him of poking, choking or nudging a player to make a point. Smith understood the power of a look, a word, a tone. To resort to anything else, like a tiny pop to a player's chin, would have meant he failed as a coach.

Rule No. 2: Remember, you're not only passing Smith's record, you're passing his legacy ... and leaving your own for the next guy. It's probably too late to erase the infamous career footnotes, but at least you can do something about them always being in boldface.

Rule No. 3: Never forget Rules No. 1 and No. 2.

Knight and his Texas Tech wingman Myers were right about this latest incident: Knight doesn't have to apologize for a thing. This wasn't even a misdemeanor.

But Knight's problem isn't what he did this time, it's what he might do the next time. It's always what he might do the next time.

Right now, Knight's legacy has less to do with chasing down Smith's record and more to do with his hands and feet. Maybe it's time for Knight to try something different, like keeping them to himself.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.