Hogs head coach Eric Musselman was in the arena the day his father and Bobby Knight both made their Big Ten head coaching debuts. It was Jan 8, 1972, and Eric, then age 7, watched Bill Musselman coach his Minnesota Gophers team to a 52-51 win over Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers.
Knight, who died on Wednesday at the age of 83, didn’t do too much losing after that. He led Indiana basketball to an undefeated season just four years later and won three national titles in all. Arkansas basketball assistant Keith Smart, one of Knight’s Hoosiers, clinched the last of those in 1987 with a game-winning shot.
Bill Musselman and Bobby Knight, high school basketball rivals who grew up just 10 miles from each other in Ohio and graduated the same year, formed a friendship that helped both coaches’ careers (even if Bobby once refused to shake Bill’s hand after a game). Their relationship, by extension, has also helped the career of Bill’s son. In 1998, father and son even spent a week with Knight in Bloomington, Indiana. At the time, the Musselmans were NBA assistant coaches who couldn’t be with their own players because of a lockout over the collective bargaining agreement.
Bobby Knight and Eric Musselman
“With the lockout, you can’t deal with your own players, so we got sent out on college assignments to go scout,” Eric Musselman said in 2019. “We spent a week with Coach Knight and watched their practice, sat in on all their film sessions.”
Those were the same kind of practices that Keith Smart cut his teeth on, and both he and Eric Musselman have incorporated Bobby Knight’s teaching into their vast knowledge of the game to help lift Arkansas basketball to its current heights.
However, that influence actually began decades earlier, when Knight indirectly helped lay the groundwork to make Razorback program good enough to attract a coach of Musselman’s caliber in the first place.
In the 1970s, Knight developed friendships with both Frank Broyles, the former Arkansas athletic director, and Eddie Sutton, who built the foundation for modern Arkansas basketball.
Before Sutton’s arrival to Fayetteville in 1974, basketball was a distant afterthought to football. It had losing records in three of the previous four seasons and had no postseason appearances since 1958.
But Sutton’s Razorback teams were a revelation, taking the entire state by storm just as Musselman’s teams so many years later would also do. Sutton won five SWC regular season titles, made nine NCAA Tournament appearances and made a Final Four appearance in 1978.
Through it all, he’d often golf or talk shop with Knight. Even though Sutton was older by four years, Knight had been a college coach for longer and Sutton modeled his principles of strong defense, structured offense and minimal mistakes off those of Knight and his own college coach, Henry Iba. Indeed, Pig Trail Nation’s Mike Irwin tells a story about finding Sutton in his office chatting on the phone with Bobby Knight about how basketball was becoming too much about offense.
Bobby Knight Assists Arkansas Basketball
From a distance, Knight even evangelized on behalf of Arkansas.
In a March 1975 broadcast, according to the Arkansas Gazette, Knight called Fayetteville “the prettiest place I ever saw” and directed a message toward the best high school basketball players in Indiana: “I can’t take but six of you. I hope I get the best six. The rest of you, write a letter to coach Sutton. Arkansas is the place for you to go.”
Knight put his money where his mouth was and in fact sent a player Sutton’s way. That was Kent Allison, a Western Kentucky transfer whom Knight called and told to go to Arkansas, Allsion told the Arkansas Democrat in a May 9, 1975 article. That first season of the Sutton era in Fayetteville, Allison led the Hogs in scoring and rebounding.
Knight was a man of contradictions, however, which is seen in a bad piece of advice he gave Sutton a year before as the then Creighton coach was weighing whether to accept Frank Broyles’ offer or not.
It’s widely believed that because Knight and Broyles were friends, Knight told Broyles to get Sutton. According to an interview with Sutton in a March 10, 1977 article in the Arkansas Gazette, however, that is false:
Who knows where Arkansas would be today if Sutton had taken Knight’s advice. Perhaps Pat Foster, an assistant predating Sutton’s arrival, would have been promoted. Foster, however, later proved to a good head coach but not on the same Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame level as Sutton. Almost certainly, the Razorbacks would have suffered in such an alternative universe — especially if Sutton had chosen former SWC rivals Texas instead.
As the U.S. national team head coach in the 1984 Olympics, Knight helped coach two Razorbacks. Alvin Robertson and Joe Kleine made the star-studded squad alongside the likes of Charles Barkley and Michael Jordan, whom he apparently made cry. “To this day, I don’t know how the hell I made that team” out of the 72 collegians who tried out, Kleine said in the interview with Pat Bradley below.
While Robertson was NBA-bound after the gold medal-winning experience, Kleine used the experience to propel him a 1st Team All-SWC selection his senior year and selection as the sixth overall pick in the 1985 NBA Draft (tied with Anthony Black for second all-time highest in program history).
Bobby Knight’s Bad Advice to Frank Broyles
1985 was also the year that Eddie Sutton decided to leave Fayetteville to take over in Lexington, Ky. after more than a decade in Fayetteville.
That sent Broyles into a bit of a scramble mode to find the next Arkansas basketball coach, and he interviewed a couple of former Bobby Knight proteges among other candidates. The first was Mike Krzyzewski, who had played for Knight at Army and was then five years into what became a legendary stint at Duke. Krzyzewski turned Broyles down.
The second was Illinois State’s Bob Donewald, a former assistant of Knight. Knight urged Broyles to hire Donewald and they got close to striking a deal with Donewald going so far as to fly to Fayetteville to learn more about the job. Broyles, however, didn’t think the mild-mannered Donewald would be the right man for the job after the charismatic Sutton had made such a mark, so he went with his gut and hired Tulsa’s Nolan Richardson instead.
“Broyles and Richardson had played golf together in a Tulsa event and Richardson wowed Broyles in his interview,” Harry King wrote. “Richardson, who won almost 80 percent of his games during five years at Tulsa despite the lack of an on-campus facility, was impressed with the UA package.”
It was a daring move. Richardson became the first African-American coach at a major university in the South, and the first African-American head coach of a men’s program in the Southwest Conference, but it proved to be the right one too. Donewald never took any of his college teams past the second round of the NCAA Tournament. The fiery Nolan Richardson, meanwhile, took the Razorback program to even greater heights, making three Final Fours and winning the national title in 1994.
On the recruiting trail, Richardson did end up losing a battle to Bobby Knight when Keith Smart of Baton Rouge chose Indiana over Arkansas in the mid 1980s, but in the end that has worked out for Arkansas. Smart is now helping Musselman lift the Hogs back to the same kind of success Richardson experienced three decades ago.
Roasting Eddie Sutton
To wrap, let’s travel back to 1980, when Sutton, Knight and Texas coach Abe Lemons were all part of a celebrity roast event in Little Rock that raised more than $40,000 for charity.
“I have to be nice to Eddie,” Broyles said according to the August 27, 1980 Arkansas Democrat. “I have to be nice to Abe [Lemons] and Bobby too. If Eddie were to leave they would be the first two in line.”
The roasting went all around. At one point, Sutton said of Knight: “Bobby is a great coach. He’s had more talent on his teams than anyone in the country the last nine or 10 years, and I want to congratulate him on his ONE national title.”
Plus, this zinger: “Bobby’s the only guy I know who would throw a beer party and then lock the door.”
The irascible Knight could certainly give as well as he could take, though. “Sutton is probably going to heaven, he said, according to the Arkansas Gazette’s report of the event. “You know where Abe and I are going. Sutton will have his work trying to beat us, though. You know where the officials are going.”