A Knight To Remember

Published 9:41 pm Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Butch Huff reflects on friendship with legendary Hall of Fame college basketball coach Bob Knight

ABOVE: Butch Huff recants some memories of his friendship with the late legendary college basketball coach Bob Knight. BELOW: Knight’s autobiography is signed but “Best Wishes Butch” was writen by Knight’s wife Karen. Knight wrote “Give em HELL Bob Knight.” (Tim Gearhart Sports Photos/For The Ironton Tribune)

By Jim Walker

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So, how does a legendary college basketball coach make a connection with a used car salesman from another state?

The coach is a former Army private first class while the other is a decorated Vietnam War veteran who was an Army infantry squad leader.

OK, so maybe that’s the connection.

Well, sort of. The coach began his head coaching career at West Point and developed a very disciplined, demanding style much like an Army general. The admirer was a man who liked that coaching style and philosophy which is what he learned during his military service.

This connection was made because Ironton native Butch Huff just wanted to know what made Bob Knight tick.

Knight played at Ohio State and was a member of the 1960 national championship team. Upon graduation, he coached one season at Cuyahoga Falls High School before joining the Army from 1963-65 where he served as an assistant on the basketball team and was named the head coach at the young age of 24 in 1965.

After a successful career with Army, Knight took the Indiana head coaching position thanks to the advice of Michigan head football coach Bo Schembechler. What followed was a great career that saw Knight win more than 900 games and three national championships including 1976 when the Hoosiers went unbeaten.

But Knight died on Nov. 1 at the age of 83 and the connection Huff had with Knight left him shaken.

Huff took a few days to gather himself and then began to reflect on a truly great and loving friendship with a coach known for a fiery temper who was admired and feared by the media, loved or hated by the public, but almost to a man loved by his former players.

Count Huff as one of those who loved the man.

“Years and years ago when he was at Indiana, I admired him. I admired his coaching style, basketball knowledge and everything. So, I’d write a letter and I would always get an answer,” said Huff as recalled the introductory period to be around 1973-74 before actually meeting with Knight around 1976 and the friendship was a go.

“This was snail mail. This is no email. I always tell guys, if you want to get to somebody famous, you’ve got to get to know the gatekeeper. Mary Ann Davis was with him for 30 years, ever and Texas Tech. And I got to know her and the next thing you know I’m getting tickets in the mail, going to Bloomington and all this.

“He and I had a similar warped sense of humor and I wish I could tell some of the jokes. The next thing you know, I start going to the games and then I’m going to the closed practices. Nobody is allowed in the practices and I’m doing that. That was the extent of it in Bloomington. I was always kind of cautious of overstepping my bounds.”

Knight was the Indiana head coach from 1971 to 2000. With a change in administration, Knight clashed with the new way of thinking and several incidents led to his dismissal as head coach.

But Knight landed on his feet and he was hired as the head coach at Texas Tech in Lubbock, TX. Despite being in Lubbock, the connection only got stronger as Huff began making trips south from his hometown of Ironton, Ohio.

“When he went to Lubbock, I took my son-in-law Chris Medinger and a guy he worked with, Scott Robinson, and Patrick Mahlmeister. Just to show you how much he thought of us, Coach had a manager meet us at the airport. The manager gave us the university car and he was available 24/7 as the designated driver. All we had to do was call him up.”

Knight’s hospitality went beyond a ride from the airport. Huff said the quartet was given an officer’s treatment that included a connection with the team.

“Of course, we went to close practices, we got to go to the pre-game walk-through. He put us up at the team hotel for like 20 bucks a night and then we were getting ready to leave that night and coach said, ‘These guys want a picture, right Butch?’ I said yeah, they want a picture. He said ‘How about we do it in the morning at the walk-through.’

Bob Knight and Butch Huff hug as Huff heads back home after a visit.

“At this point, he had on a normal pair of gray sweats. No lettering on them or anything. He said ‘let’s do it tomorrow.’

When Huff and the other three arrive for the photo, Knight is wearing a nice sweater and khakis.

“He’s looking good. It showed he cared. He really cared what he looked like in the photo. Then he diagrammed on his white board these directions to this barbecue joint he loved. He said, ‘You guys go out there and see what you think.’”

So they meandered their way to the place thanks to the directions.

“This place was a shack. The floor was falling out of it but man, the food was good. He knew what he was talking about,” Huff said.

There were other things that showed Knight had not softened as a coach and he made sure his players knew what to expect from the start.

Huff recalled the sign over the door to the team locker room which read, “This is not Burger King. You can not have it your way.”

Although Knight was demanding as a coach, he was always warm when he had visitors.

“If I would bring my wife Lisa, he welcomed her with open arms. He treated her the same as he did anyone else,” said Huff.

Weary from the coaching grind, Knight retired. After his tenure at Texas Tech, he moved back to Bloomington with his wife Karen, a former high school basketball coach in Oklahoma. Huff said he would travel to Indiana a couple of times a year, just visiting and hanging out at the house.

Butch Huff presented Bob Knight with a T-shirt on his birthday reflecting on the Ohio State Buckeyes 1960 national basketball championship team of which Knight was the sixth man. Knight became emotional when he opened the gift and was moved to tears.

“I took Chris and his buddy Scott Robinson who was an Indiana alum. Chris was a Notre Dame grad. We rang the bell and Karen answered the door and we walked in and I knew he was in the kitchen or family room which are connected. I walked through and said, ‘Hi honey, I’m home.’ And he said, ‘I told you Karen not to answer that door.’ We had great times like that. He was so accommodating. So unlike the perceived notion some people have of his personality. He was just a great friend. That shows you what kind of sense of humor he has right there on that chair.”

The chair Huff was referring to was a red folding chair similar to the one the Indiana team used during their games and the chair that Knight once tossed across the court to show his displeasure with the call by some game officials.

The chair was a gift from Knight to Huff and was signed, “Bob Knight for Butch F.O.S.” Knight often signed items for Huff and he would occasionally include F.O.S. which stood for something that was a joke between the two.

“That’s what he called me all the time. ‘F.O.S. what are you doing?” Huff said of Knight describing something he believed filled his friend.

Although he had numerous items and photos signed by Knight, Huff took an item that he said has an emotional connection. It was the autobiography of Knight and it was the last thing that Knight had signed for him.

“At that time he was 81, 82 and he died at 83. Karen wrote, “Best Wishes Butch.” And then Knight wrote, “Give ‘Em Hell – Bob Knight.”

In what were the waning weeks of Knight’s life, Huff recalled events that made him begin to come to grips with the fact his friend’s health was failing.

“When we were leaving and getting in the truck and ready to go, I would always text Karen and say ‘How is he? Do you think he enjoyed it?“ And she said, ‘It was wonderful. You really, really meant a lot. It gave him the stimulation that he really needed.’ Karen was always fantastic about texting me right back. It might take an hour or two, but she would always get back. In those last couple of weeks, I wasn’t hearing from her. I knew something was up. But still, it’s hard to take. The guy’s a good friend.

“I told Lisa it’s like losing a family member. It just floored me. They lost a guy who changed the game. People used to say, ‘Why do you want to hang around that guy for?’ And I answered, ‘If I had a son that was good enough to play for him, what would be wrong with getting a college degree and going through the Marine Corps simultaneously? That kid would be ready for anything life had to throw at him.’”

Evidently, Huff and Knight had another thing in common because Knight had a similar attraction to Hall of Fame outfielder Ted Williams, one of the greatest hitters of all-time.

Knight became friends with Williams which caused Huff to ask the legendary basketball coach how he hooked up with a baseball legend.

“He said, ‘Well, I recognized that there was someone who was the best at what he did and I wanted to get to know him to see if I could learn something.’ I said, ‘Why do you think I’m sitting in front of you right now. It’s the same thing.’”

Knight would pass off the compliment with ‘right, right’ It didn’t matter how many times I would ask him, ‘Coach, how were you able to accomplish what you accomplished that other guys couldn’t do?’ Every single time he would answer, ‘I had great players.’ I never saw him pat himself on the back ever.

“He was quite a guy.”

Huff said the best compliment Knight ever gave him was something he never got to hear.

On one visit with Medinger and Robinson, Huff came into the house and the first thing he said was he needed to go to the bathroom.

As he walked down the hallway, Knight looked at the other men and said, “Jesus, he’s one of a kind.”

That is true of Butch Huff, but the same thing can be said of Bob Knight. He, too, was one of a kind.

And that makes for quite a connection.