Randy Wittman got the save-the-date card in early January. The reunion of the 1980 IU men’s basketball Big Ten championship was about a month away.
He knew he had to call his coach, Bob Knight.
Knight had moved back to Bloomington in the fall and Wittman hadn’t spoken to him since. He asked Knight how he felt about being back in Bloomington. Knight said he knew he and his wife Karen made a great decision. His closest friends are in Bloomington, so are his doctors.
“You know why you think it’s such a great deal, that you like being back there,” Wittman said to Knight.
“No, why?” Knight said.
“It’s because that’s where you belong,” Wittman said. “You belong back in Indiana. That’s who you are and where you did a lot not only for the university but for the state of Indiana.”
Wittman could tell something was different. He sensed — after years of waiting — an opportunity.
“We all like getting back together, but it’s not the same without you being a part of it.” Wittman said. “You’re the reason why we came to Indiana. It wasn’t for the weather or anything else, it was to come play basketball for you. These reunions aren’t fulfilled without you being a part of it.”
Knight didn’t say anything. There was a long pause.
“Are you guys all coming back,” Knight finally responded.
Wittman didn’t know who was going to be at Assembly Hall for the reunion. But he said yes anyway.
“If everyone’s going to be there,” Knight said, “I’ll come back.”
Wittman’s call wasn’t the first attempt to bring Knight back. It’s a process that has been going over the last five to 10 years. With every reunion, former players would call Knight. They said the reunions weren’t the same without their coach.
He’d always say no.
Knight was fired in 2000 after 29 years at IU. Knight was placed on a "zero-tolerance" policy by IU president Myles Brand after an instiutional investigation into his behavior. He violated that policy during an altercation with a student. Knight's short temper is infamous. CNN released video of Knight choking the late Neil Reed in practice. He headbutted former player Sherron Wilkerson, brought a bullwhip to practice and kicked his own son, Pat. Alongside the banners, is a history marred by mistreatment and anger.
Knight held one of college sports’ most notable grudges since. He said he never wanted to have anything to do with IU. He said he wanted everyone who was a part of the IU administration that fired him to be dead.
IU Director of Athletics Fred Glass had always left the door open for Knight. Scott Dolson, IU’s deputy director of athletics and former student manager for Knight, said the school wanted Knight to feel he was welcome, but didn’t want to force the issue.
But Knight didn’t want to come back. It seemed he never would.
In April 2019, Knight returned to campus for the first time to watch an IU baseball game. Over the summer, he purchased a house in Bloomington and moved to Indiana in the fall.
Wittman thought the time was right.
Wittman wasn’t telling the full truth when he said all the former players would be back for the IU game against Purdue. It was the only way to ensure Knight would say yes. For there was no plan at that time for all the former players to return to Assembly Hall.
Wittman had less than a month to organize the event.
The 1980 reunion became the Bob Knight reunion. It would be a celebration of Knight, for all the different eras across his 29 years of coaching.
Wittman spoke with Dolson months before the 1980 Big Ten championship team reunion to begin planning. But with six weeks to go, Wittman told Dolson he would try to make this the time Knight returned.
And within a month of Feb. 8, Wittman told Dolson that after years of saying no, Knight had finally said yes.
“I was a little surprised, obviously,” Wittman said. “A lot of different guys have tried to get him to come back and he said no. I could tell though there might be an opportunity seeing how happy he was back in Bloomington. But I was still surprised when he said yes. I knew we had to move forward on this quickly to make it become reality.”
Wittman and Dolson formed a committee to organize the new reunion. It was headed by Wittman and former IU guard Quinn Buckner. Dolson was on the committee as well as Knight’s close friend Bob Hammel, IU team doctor Larry Rink and IU Assistant Director of Alumni Outreach and Special Projects Katie Bates.
The committee was also in close communication with Knight’s family throughout the process.
“I was definitely really excited,” Dolson said. “Not just for Coach Knight, but it was just fun for me to hear and see the players' excitement. I tried to stay pretty even keeled and really focus on the plan. But I could tell how much it meant to the players. That really would get my adrenaline going, seeing how impactful it was when the players were working on it.”
Wittman and Buckner tried to reach out to every former Knight player. By the time they got all the contact information from the school, there were less than three weeks to go.
Dolson ultimately wanted to keep the plan simple by maintaining as small a number of people involved in the planning as possible. He wanted the reunion as the former players envisioned.
It was all done secretly. Wittman asked ESPN for the ability to extend halftime in order to allow for the on-court reunion. There was trust among the former players and ESPN to not let the word get out.
That’s why Dolson and the athletics department never changed the name from the 1980 team reunion, and why there was no public announcement Knight was planning to come. He didn’t want fans to be disappointed if Knight woke up that Saturday morning and called it all off.
Even Dolson didn’t know for sure if the General would really come home.
Knight stepped out of Hammel’s Ford Taurus and entered through the back door of Cook Hall to avoid the line of students already flowing into the parking lot two hours and 15 minutes before game time against Purdue on Feb. 8.
That was the first time Dolson was sure he would actually be there.
For all the planning in place, all the preparation and phone calls made, there was no true guarantee he’d be there until he arrived at the athletic complex itself.
Wittman, however, wasn’t as worried.
“Pat [Knight] even came back a week early to be in Bloomington for that whole week to make sure everything went the way we wanted it to go,” Wittman said. “We always had a little doubt. But coach has always been a man of his word. When he said he was coming back there was never a time where we thought, ‘Oh no, that’s not going to happen.’”
Knight had been to Cook Hall the week before to film the video that would play on the scoreboard before he took the court. While IU was on the road against Penn State on Jan. 29, IU snuck Knight into the building. While fans were at home watching the game, no one would notice Knight’s arrival at the athletic complex.
“It was an easy way to get in and out,” Dolson said. “We didn’t have it locked down like Fort Knox or anything.”
When he returned on gameday, Knight went straight to meet the current IU team in its Cook Hall locker room. Wittman and Pat Knight were in the room along with Dolson. For Dolson, seeing Knight back in the building brought back memories flashing through his mind of his time as a manager.
“I think they all were really in awe,” Dolson said of the IU players meeting Knight. “It was a great moment for the team and you could tell just looking at the players faces that they were in awe of it. Here is this person that they’ve heard about for so long, this iconic figure.”
Knight and his former players had their reunion in Cook Hall. There were screens set up to watch the first half of the game happening a few yards away. But on that day, it wasn’t about the game, or the IU/Purdue rivalry.
Dolson and Wittman agreed the reunion and on-court celebration went better than they could have planned. Wittman said he believes Knight was grateful and happy he came back because he was reunited with players he hadn’t seen in years. He said it was the best moment of his basketball life.
“Just to be able to touch each of us again, even if it was for five seconds, or if it was five minutes or five hours,” Wittman said. “I think both for the players and for Coach it was something that was really cool.”
Wittman said there won’t be another reunion with Knight and former players stretching across his career. In this large reunion, Wittman believes Knight saw the appreciation IU fans had for him with the way they cheered. Knight’s teary eyes and chants of "defense” showed his appreciation back.
When asked why this time was different from attempts of years past, Wittman believes that being back in Indiana, being with his friends and the community that adores him, played a key part.
Buckner told Dolson the day was joyful, but he was relieved that IU basketball was back the way it should be.
“The whole day was very emotional,” Wittman said. “To have us all in there as he walked in. To see his reaction on his face to see a lot of us, I’m sure for the first time in a long time. It brought back memories of old times. The family was back together again.”