My latest column for the National Sports Journalism Center at Indiana:
They commanded our attention during countless autumns and winters.
There was Bob Knight and his red sweater. You watched because he was this mixture of brilliance and inexplicable, unpredictable anger. He could get his Indiana team to perform with precision, and yet he always seemed to be a split second away from tossing a chair across the court.
There was Lou Holtz, a short wisp of man of who had a dominating presence in the land of giants. During his days at Notre Dame, there wasn’t a coach in any sport who had more national TV time than Holtz. You watched because of his frenetic energy on the sidelines fueled by multiple six-packs of Diet Coke that were most definitely not caffeine free.
When their coaching days ended, both men joined ESPN: Knight in 2008 and Holtz in 2004. Their achievements and personas vaulted them quickly to the top of the network’s lineup of analysts. They still commanded our attention.
And now they’re gone. Did anyone notice?
A few weeks back, ESPN disclosed that it no longer will need the services of Knight and Holtz. The statements from the network were relatively the same.
“We thank Bob for his contributions to ESPN’s coverage over the last seven seasons and wish him luck in his future endeavors,” said John Wildhack, ESPN executive vice president, production and programming. “Coach Knight has left an indelible mark on the game of college basketball and he will be remembered as one of the truly great coaches and innovators the game has seen.”
“Lou brought a champion’s perspective and a legacy of accomplishment to our coverage along with his distinctive style and humor. We appreciate his contributions and wish him all the best in the future.”
The parting of the ways probably marks the last time Knight and Holtz will be spotlighted on a national stage. It seems unlikely that they will land at another network. If they do, it won’t be the same.
For all the noise and bluster their careers generated, news of their departures was eerily quiet. No big headlines. No litany of testimonials. Do a Google search. You’ll only find the perfunctory statements from ESPN and a few paragraphs on various websites.
The biggest reaction actually came from new Michigan Jim Harbaugh. Several weeks after the announcement, he issued a tweet about Holtz:
“Just heard Lou Holtz is no longer at ESPN Ridiculous! Saturday’s won’t be the same, Love Lou Holtz! Chris Fowler not on Game Day, Flummoxed.”
However, few other people were “flummoxed” about Knight’s and Holtz’s departure.
Age likely was a factor for the end of their broadcast careers. Holtz is 78 and he said in an interview last year that he wanted to spend more time playing golf and being with his family. That all sounds good, but he also might have known his time was up at ESPN. He and Mark May, his fellow Saturday analyst, haven’t been everyone’s favorites. Holtz could have been out anyway with an expected ESPN reshuffle for its college football coverage in the wake of Rece Davis being host of “GameDay.”
Meanwhile, the expiration date for the 74-year-old Knight should have occurred a few years back. It is perplexing that it didn’t work out better for him at ESPN.
When Knight was brought on board in 2008, ESPN’s Norby Williamson gushed to Sports Illustrated:
“He’s always been the type of person that if you were flipping through the channels and you saw him in a long-form interview or a press conference or during one of his games, you stopped and watched it. There are very few people like that. It was a fairly easy decision.”
Knight, though, wasn’t a must-watch as an analyst. After being showcased early on by ESPN, Knight saw his role reduced dramatically. This year, he did American Athletic Conference games as part of a three-man team. Matt Yoder of Awful Announcing wrote: “Knight is literally about the 837th most visible person at the network at the present moment.”
It is telling that Knight’s last telecast working for ESPN was the NIT championship game. Bob Knight doesn’t do NIT, right? Yet there he was at Madison Square Garden on the call for a game in the consolation (losers) tournament.
At the end of the telecast, Knight thanked everyone he worked with at ESPN. Then he added: “I appreciated having had the opportunity to visit with you fans over the past four years about this game that I have loved so much during my entire life. You fans, I appreciate you more than I could ever tell you. Thanks.”
Given his stature as a coach, Knight figured to make his farewell on a stage much bigger than the NIT. Things, though, doesn’t always go as planned.
As a reporter who covered both coaches in their heydays, something feels weird about saying good-bye to Knight and Holtz in this manner. These are men who still fill up the room with their presence. They won games, big games, memorable games.
Time marches on, for sure. Other coaches are getting their turns.
College sports, though, probably will never two coaches like Knight and Holtz. Given the scope of their careers and how they dominated the sporting landscape for so long, it seems inconceivable that barely anyone noticed when Bob Knight and Lou Holtz walked out the door, disappearing quietly into the night.