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Bob Valvano can’t discuss the Bobby Knight saga the way any other sports radio MC would. When it comes to investigating coaches in general and Knight specifically, Valvano, to paraphrase Spi¬nal Tap, has too much perspective.
From 1989 to 1992, Valvano was coach of Catholic University’s basketball team. He had come to D.C. after a stint at St. Francis in New York, which hired Valvano when he was just 26 and made him the youngest coach in the NCAA. He guided Catholic to a 21-6 record in the 1991-92 season. No other team in the 80-odd year history of Catholic’s basketball program had ever won so many games. He was named coach of the year for the Capital Athletic Conference.
“From the start, there was never anything that compared to the buzz I got coaching a college basketball game,” says Valvano, whose late-night show, syndicated by ESPN Radio, can be heard on WTEM.
But Valvano, now 43, didn’t get much time to celebrate his banner season. A parent of one of the players began to complain about the way his son was being used. The parent had enough clout with school officials to generate a wholesale investigation. Compared to Knight’s violent travails, Valvano’s transgressions seem positively quaint: He let players of legal drinking age purchase beer on a single 1989 road trip; he used tampons as a prop during one locker room pep talk; and he occasionally used profanity at practice.
“The tampon incident was just stupid of me, but it was also about two years old by then, and I’d already apologized to the players long before it came out,” he says. “And yes, I let the older players drink on my first road trip, but after that, I put a no-drinking rule in place, and it never happened again.”
As for the cursing, well, Valvano offered no defense other than he meant no harm by it.
But when Valvano’s representatives met with administrators to discuss the investigation’s rather paltry findings, they were told right away that the Cardinals coach was finished. On March 13, 1992, Catholic fired him.
He should have seen it coming. Less than two years earlier, he’d watched his much higher-profile coaching sibling, Jim Valvano, get drummed out of his job at North Carolina State. Jim had won an NCAA title in just his fourth year at the Raleigh school. A video clip of him dashing around the court in search of somebody to hug at the end of the Wolfpack’s 1984 tournament triumph over a powerhouse Houston team that featured Clyde Drexler and (then) Akeem Olajuwon defined the thrill of victory for a generation of hoop fans.
But Jim’s celebrity also made him a target. The beginning of the end of his tenure at N.C. State came with the publication of Personal Fouls, a book alleging widespread corruption, drug use, grade-fixing, and even game-fixing within the school’s basketball program. The book spawned a lengthy investigation beginning in 1989, which proved only that N.C. State players had indeed profited from sales of free shoes and basketball tickets. Not exactly drugs or gambling, but NCAA violations nonetheless. By the time he was forced out a year later, Jim Valvano (who died of cancer in April 1993) had few defenders in the press or even the coaching ranks. One of his loudest detractors, in fact, was Bobby Knight, then viewed as a paragon of athletic virtue.
“He was getting it from all sides,” says Bob Valvano. “One of the worst parts came when [New York sports columnist] Mike Lupica went to Bobby Knight to get him to rip my brother. And, man, he ripped him good. A whole column of Bobby Knight, the spokesman for what a good basketball program should be, saying how Jimmy should leave, how Jimmy was bad for college basketball, how the worst thing that ever happened to Jimmy was winning the national championship. I know that hurt.
“I’m not saying Jimmy didn’t deserve to lose his job, because there clearly were some very real problems at N.C. State,” the younger brother continues. “But the investigation didn’t deal with real issues, with the parts of the process within the school and the basketball program that led to what was going on there. Universities are just reactionary. In my case, it was reaction to a parent; with Jimmy, it was the book that got things going. But at some point, it all just became this quest to get Jimmy. Now, I know that’s what these investigations always come down to.”
Bob Valvano protested his own firing to Catholic General Counsel Craig Parker. To the administration’s credit, Parker never insinuated after the appeal that the investigation had uncovered more than one drinking incident, one tampon incident, and the occasional foul language. Even so, Parker upheld the dismissal. “The information considered supports the conclusion that Mr. Valvano’s coaching methods are incompatible with the university’s standards,” Parker said.
Valvano then prepared a lawsuit seeking reinstatement on the grounds that his termination was unjust. In July 1992, four months after the coach was let go, the parties came to an odd settlement under which Valvano would be rehired and paid a sum equal to one season’s salary, in exchange for an agreement to drop his lawsuit and turn in his resignation immediately. He didn’t leave Catholic feeling much like a winner.
“This ruined my life for months,” Valvano says. “I couldn’t sleep or eat, until one day it hit me that no matter how big a deal this was for me, to the president of the school, it was really just a small thing on his schedule: ‘Okay, today I’ll fire Bob at 9 a.m., talk about building the new field house at 10, see if we should get into intercollegiate skiing at 11….’”
Valvano went on to coach at St. Mary’s College in Maryland and Bellarmine College, a small Kentucky school, but he admits that the Catholic episode pretty much crushed his dreams of following his brother into a big-time coaching career.
The firing, as well what he saw his brother endure, has made Bob Valvano’s radio gig rather odd these days, since Bobby Knight and the investigation into his bullying has become the most talked about topic in sports. On one hand, Valvano, keenly aware of how miserable it is to be on the business end of a witch hunt, empathizes with the Indiana coach. Yet he also can’t forget how harshly and publicly Knight judged his brother when Jim was in much the same situation.
Because of the inner conflicts, Valvano has decided not to use his show to advocate for either the dismissal or retention of the Indiana coach. “This thing is so personal for me, it’s almost embarrassing,” he says.
Other media members aren’t so reticent. During the Mother’s Day edition of The Sports Reporters on ESPN television, pundit Mike Lupica repeated several times that Bobby Knight should not be back at Indiana.—Dave McKenna