At Home with the CoachWritten by Reed Richardson / November, 2010
Bob Knight and his wife Karen talk about their life together, their shared love of the great outdoors, and their new Cambria kitchen.
For Bob Knight and his wife, Karen, their home is their sanctuary. Located on a quiet street on the outskirts of Lubbock, Texas, the Knights’ unassuming three-bedroom, two-and-half-bath ranch-style house offers little clue from the outside of his record-breaking career as the winningest men’s college basketball coach in NCAA Division I history and, aside from family and close friends, relatively few visitors ever set foot inside it. Those that do, however, find that the expansive layout and abundant use of natural materials such as wood, slate, Cambria, and copper bestow a warm and peaceful quality to the house. Indeed, the Knights’ home functions much like a recharging station for the busy couple, who sometimes spend up to three weeks out of every month traveling, despite his having officially retired from coaching nearly two years ago. And that’s why, when the couple isn’t on the road because of vacations or his current job as ESPN basketball analyst, Karen says they enjoy simply spending time at home.
To realize this notion of home-as-retreat, Karen has designed a house that is an intensely personalized space. It’s a look that bespeaks the couple’s shared love of the outdoors and, at almost every turn, it tells a story about them. The home’s limestone entryway, which still bears the imprint of fossilized leaves, was quarried near Bozeman, Montana, a favorite vacation spot. The black leather saddle mounted atop a barstool near the kitchen once belonged to Karen’s brother, who passed away tragically at age fourteen. And of the two rock doorknobs that open up Bob’s fishing room, one was taken from the Wyoming stream where Bob Knight first taught his wife, Karen how to fly-fish.
“I’ve always wanted to live in the mountains but since my husband doesn’t like cold weather, we’re never going to live there,” explains Karen, whose voice still bears the sweet and gentle, flatlander twang of a native Oklahoman. “So, instead I put a lot of the mountains into our house.” This gives the interior of her home more of a classic look, even though the house itself was only built in 2002, a year into Bob’s tenure as Texas Tech head coach. After a family friend introduced her to Cambria, she says it became the logical choice to use as her new home’s kitchen and bathroom countertops, as well as in a shower stall and in Bob’s infamous “fishing room.” “Since Cambria is natural quartz, from the earth, and doesn’t require a lot of chemicals for upkeep,” it fit perfectly into both their natural decor and the Knights’ active lifestyle, Karen says. “Its natural beauty appealed to me.” Her husband, who is quick to give full credit to his wife for decorating their home, agrees. “I think anybody that’s ever been in our home has been impressed by the way Karen designed everything, not the least of which is all the Cambria we have throughout the house,” he says. “People never fail to remark about how good it looks and how well it fits. It’s natural, the real thing, from nature—I like that.” That’s quite a compliment from a man who does not offer them lightly.
“When we were contacted by Bob and Karen about Cambria, says Cambria President and CEO Marty Davis, “we were excited to be a part of Karen’s vision to bring nature into her home. The Cambria had to complement all the other natural elements inside. Having gotten to know Karen, and how meticulous she is, keeping things very nice, orderly and clean—we knew our product performance would please her. When she was so complimentary of the product’s beauty, we knew we had really pleased the Knights.”
“They are great people and were a joy for all at Cambria to work with. Our field crews were especially impressed when the most successful all-time college basketball coach, the Bob Knight, personally picked them up at the airport himself, and took them out that night for a good old Texas barbecue dinner. They were just thrilled.”
“So with all that good karma, when the Knights replaced their kitchen cabinets this past spring, Cambria was a must. Karen wanted Cambria featuring a chiseled edge, Bob initially objected. “She asked me for my opinion and I told her I liked the smooth edge better,” he says. “Eventually, she divided the countertops up between the smooth and the chiseled edge and the mixture of the two looks very good. Karen wholeheartedly agrees, calling their Cambria “absolutely beautiful,” before dryly adding, “Of course, he made a lot of little, smart-aleck comments about the rough-edged countertops to the Cambria guys who installed it, just for fun.”
PLAYFUL BANTER? FLY FISHING? PUTTERING around the house? These are images of Bob Knight that don’t neatly line up with what some people may know or, more likely, think they know about him. Yes, there is the fiery and driven side of Bob Knight that, for nearly three decades, was the very public and very successful face of Indiana basketball, striding around courtside in his trademark red sweater and winning three national titles along the way. Sure, his relationship with the press and game officials during his long coaching career could often be, shall we say, spirited. (A favorite quote of his skewering the media goes something like: “All of us learn to write by the second grade, then most of us go on to other things.”)
When it comes to public figures, though, what most people really know about them doesn’t add up to much. Those who aren’t afraid to chart their own course or speak their own mind often lose the most in this transaction. For every sports highlight reel of technical fouls called on Coach Knight over the years, he has thousands of private letters from former players, students, and parents who speak highly of the huge life lessons he imparted to them, whether in the classroom, on the court, in the locker room, or in their various contacts. Bob Knight helped people grow and be better prepared for the life in front of them. A few of his off-the-cuff interview responses may have prompted a headline, but the public heard relatively little about the times he donated tens of thousands of dollars to his college’s library fund, refused his $250,000 base salary because he blamed himself for his team’s sub-par season, or visited a Bloomington hospital to help a Hoosier fan who was in need. And though Coach Knight has never shied away from openly criticizing the NCAA and its sometimes Byzantine rules governing student athletes, his unsurpassed reputation for never cutting corners when it comes to following those rules as well as his four-year player-graduation rate of 98% while at Indiana stands in stark contrast to a seemingly unending stream of college sports dropouts, recruiting violations, and vacated victories. Bob Knight is simply the most honest, ethical coach to ever coach college athletics: If there are others who are as honest, they can only equal—never surpass—him.
In some ways, it is a bit surprising, but less so perhaps when you think about it, that as a child, Knight chose to idolize legendary Boston Red Sox slugger Ted Williams. It’s surprising, because Knight, who grew up in a small town in northeast Ohio as a devoted Cleveland Indians fan, rarely saw his hero and, when he did, Williams was always sitting in the visitor’s dugout. It’s fitting, though, because the supremely talented Williams embodied many of the same personal characteristics that Knight later became known for: uncompromising work ethic, unquestioned honesty, unfailing loyalty, and a deep-seated patriotism. To be sure, there was also that similar sense of not suffering fools gladly, which could manifest itself as an arm’s-length relationship with fans and the press. But there was also one other thing they came to share as well: a love of fly-fishing.
“Nothing I’ve ever done or been exposed to has provided me with more enjoyment than fly-fishing has,” Knight pointedly wrote in his autobiography. And his reasons for liking it run the gamut: “I just like the whole aspect of it, beginning with being outdoors, and the pristine quality of the places where you fish, the serenity, the scenery, and that you’re kind of playing a game with the fish. You catch a fish just like you’re trying to beat another team.”
As proof of his dedication, he notes that, since making his first fly cast in 1972, he has yet to skip a year in his annual sojourn to the trout streams of Wyoming or Montana. It was thanks to this demonstrated passion for the sport, along with a valued introduction from a mutual friend, Sid Hartmann, the legendary, nationally renowned sports columnist from Minneapolis, that Knight was able to meet and become friends and fishing buddies with his childhood hero, Ted Williams. Since then, Knight has had occasion to fish, hunt, and golf with many other famous figures, everyone from astronaut Neil Armstrong to former President George H.W. Bush to King Juan Carlos I of Spain, but perhaps his best and most oft-told fishing story involves his wife, Karen:
“[TV sportscaster] Curt Gowdy and I were going to go fishing in Wyoming, but Curt called me up and told me it wouldn’t be possible for him to make the trip. So I decided to call a few other people to see if anyone wanted to meet me in Cheyenne. After I called about three or four different people, I started looking over at Karen, who was sitting nearby. After about the seventh try, with no luck, I finally said, ‘Well, Karen, how would you like to go fishing with me?’ She said ‘You know, I’m getting to the point where I think I might. I’ve watched you fly fish and I think I might really enjoy trying it.’ So I said ‘Would you like to go with me on this trip to Wyoming?’ and she said, ‘I would, and it really pleases me that I’m the first person you asked to go.’”
Nearly two decades later, Bob still chuckles at his wife’s not so subtle way of puncturing any “Husband of the Year” pretensions he might have been harboring with his D-list invitation. Now married for 22 years, Bob clearly relishes the spark that Karen brings to their relationship. “Karen is simply the best person I know,” says Bob “she is just a wonderful person.” But they share more than just compatible personalities and a love of the outdoors; they also have similar resumes.
Like Bob, Karen grew up playing sports and was bitten by the basketball bug in high school. And like Bob, after college, she funneled this energy into becoming a highly successful coach. In fact, theirs may very well be the only home in Texas, probably in the country, that is home to two Hall-of-Fame basketball coaches, husband and wife. That’s because before she met and married Bob, Karen coached the Lomega High girls’ basketball team to three state championships in the 1980s (which also included an undefeated season) and was subsequently inducted into the Oklahoma Girls’ Basketball Hall of Fame.
“Because of that athletic ability and her tremendous desire to do things well as a coach, she took to fly-fishing right away,” Bob explains. “The most enjoyable part of all of it is that now Karen is involved with it alongside me. She likes it, she’s good at it, and it’s something that we can do together and we have, all over the world.”
“It’s one of the best things he’s ever done for me,” Karen says, echoing her husband and pointing out that they now schedule two, 10-day fly-fishing trips together each year. “We have a great time fishing together. It’s good exercise and it’s almost always beautiful scenery.”
Blessed by a relationship filled with shared interests, mutual respect, and lots of love, it is clear that the Knights are in a contented, happy wonderful place in their life. So, when Bob, 70, is asked about whether he’s open to coaching again, the idea of uprooting himself and Karen prompts him to wax a bit philosophical.
“I know for sure that I’d like to fish again,” he says, chuckling. “If an opportunity for coaching came up, I’d have to weigh what kind of opportunity I thought it was. If I thought it was an opportunity that I would enjoy that has the right ingredients in it, then that might be something that I would do. It’s kind of like fishing. If a guy says I’d like to take you fishing in so-and-so creek, well I don’t want to go there, so I don’t go. Someone else might say ‘I’d like to take you fishing at such-and-such stream,’ and I say, ‘Yeah, that’d be good,’ because I know something about it and I’m not going to go there and cast lines for three days and get nothing. So, it’s the same thing with coaching. It has to be a situation where there’s some part of it that I would really enjoy, an opportunity to win, and be in a place where I would enjoy living.”
Of course, everyone at Cambria is enormously proud of how much the Knights enjoy living right where they are in the present, in some small part due to the Cambria that adorns their home. That striking Cambria is of a piece with the many natural objects in the Knights’ home that surround them and remind them of who they are. Perhaps nothing exemplifies this better than their massive, dining room table. Built from a single rough slab of a 150-year-old Juniper tree trunk, the rugged piece of furniture exudes simplicity and solidity. For Bob, the table is a favorite because of its natural beauty and the careful craftsmanship that went into building it. Karen is very fond of the table as well, but sees something else to love about it. “You know, I think people are basically imperfect, so I like that it has holes and knots and imperfections in it and places where it’s not totally symmetrical,” she says. “I could have had it finished, but I didn’t want to. I just left it like that because I like the naturalness of it.” When you’re home, in other words, what you see is what you get, which is exactly how Bob and Karen Knight like it.