Jeff Mercer knew before most people what the significance of Saturday afternoon would be.
He understood why there would be a more visible security presence at Bart Kaufman Field and why it was of the utmost importance for those working in the James Roudebush Press Box to have a credential around their neck at all times.
He knew legendary former IU basketball coach Bob Knight was coming back to the IU campus, publicly, for the first time since he was fired in September 2000.
Despite being sworn to secrecy when he was told last week of Knight’s planned arrival, it was an impossible promise for Mercer to keep.
“I called my dad, and I called my family,” Mercer said. “They told me I couldn’t tell anybody, but I did. I told the one person. I had to tell my dad.”
Mercer's father briefly operated in the same rarefied coaching air as Knight, serving as an assistant baseball coach for IU from 1988 to 1989, right in the midst of Knight’s 29-year coaching tenure.
An adolescent Mercer grew up just 40 miles from Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall in Bargersville, Indiana. As a kid he watched Knight’s teams play, and often win, but what remains with him most is the words of his grandparents and father.
In his grandparents’ house there were two things on the wall: a crucifix and an autographed picture of Bob Knight.
“To have him come back to a baseball game, it honestly brought tears to my eyes,” Mercer said. “The raw emotion is overwhelming. The standard that he set here, it’s beyond me.
Parallels in success between Knight’s teams, which won three national titles and reached five Final Fours, and Mercer’s team during his first season as IU head coach, are not readily apparent.
But Mercer wants to use the pillars of Knight’s teams — toughness and competitiveness — when constructing his program.
“Never quit, never die," Mercer said. "That’s what we’re becoming about, and that’s what they were about. It’s the person you are that matters, and that’s what he preached and that’s what he taught and that’s what his program was. That’s what we’re going to be about too.”
For as much as those conversations with his family about IU basketball and about Knight linger in Mercer’s mind, so do tangible reminders about the relationship connecting IU, Knight and the Mercer family.
Mercer is only 33 years old. He followed his college playing career by going straight into coaching, stopping at the likes of Ohio Northern University, Western Kentucky University and his alma mater Wright State University before finding his way to Bloomington.
All Mercer said he ever wanted to do was coach at IU. That’s now reality for him, but Saturday afternoon was his latest surreal experience as part of the endeavor.
“To be the head coach at Indiana and have Coach Knight come back for the first time is more than anything in my wildest dreams I could have imagined,” Mercer said.
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