The students lined up early for most big games, but not like this. Feb. 8, 2020, was different.
Three hours before tipoff, the line stretched around Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall, circling the stadium, wrapping around neighboring Cook Hall and all the way up Fee Lane nearly a quarter-mile away.
Inside the arena, a reporter, Jeff Rabjohns, asked IU’s sports information director, “Do the players know?”
“I’m sure they look at their phones,” the sports information director replied as he walked by.
The fans outside in the cold knew as they waited patiently.
Students had camped out in the snow the night before to get the best possible seats. They huddled around space heaters, trying to keep their hands and feet from going numb.
A group of seven students near the front had arrived at 10:30 p.m. the night before. They’d been in line 12 hours, anxiously waiting for the doors to open while laying huddled on the cold sidewalk under a pile of jackets and blankets.
“When we looked out our window last night and saw it was snowing, we really didn’t want to get in line,” then-freshman Jordan BeMiller said. “But we knew if we were going to get the best seats, we had to do it.”
Inside Assembly Hall, people rushed to complete final preparations as the 2 p.m. tip approached.
Event staff finished laying out T-shirts and newspapers with a graphic reading “Pummel Purdue” throughout the student section. Police officers from five different departments — the most ever for a basketball game at Assembly Hall, IUPD cadet Callee Richardson said— gathered in the lobby for a final briefing as they tried to figure out how to deal with the crowds.
On the court, photographers and television stations mapped out where they would be during the halftime festivities. Writers lined the courtside bleachers, jotting down notes and watching warmups as the players slowly trickled out of the locker room.
Despite the nervous energy brewing in the building, the often-loud Assembly Hall crowd was oddly quiet.
Then suddenly, Assembly Hall transformed into a red-carpet event as IU alumni billionaire entrepreneur Mark Cuban and ESPN’s Sage Steele walked down the south stairs behind the basket to cheers from the students. Broadcaster Dick Vitale emerged from his dressing room, bounding through a swarm of fans asking for photos.
There was excitement in the stadium, but it wasn’t for basketball. If it were possible, Hoosier fans would have fast forwarded to halftime.
He was back.
Bob Knight was fired in September 2000 for violating IU’s zero-tolerance policy after having a physical altercation with a student, Kent Harvey, when he said, “What’s up, Knight?” while walking past the coach.
Knight grabbed Harvey and started yelling at him, saying that he should only be referred to as “Mr. Knight” or “Coach Knight,” never just “Knight.” The altercation occurred on the heels of an IU investigation into Knight after video emerged of him choking former player Neil Reid during a practice a few years before.
While Knight is revered in Indiana and throughout college basketball for his accomplishments on the hardwood, his darker legacy is often forgotten.
Knight’s use of profanity and verbal abuse to his players is well documentented, along with a history of racist and sexist comments and actions throughout his time at IU.
“As far as the hierarchy at Indiana University at that time, I have absolutely no respect whatsoever for those people,” Knight said on “The Dan Patrick Show” in 2017. “And with that in mind, I have no interest in ever going back to that university.”
Assembly Hall fell silent as the video board flickered during halftime. The screen showed a lone red chair sitting in an empty gym. Knight walked across the gym, sat down and stared into the camera.
“The thing I appreciated the most was that we won,” Knight said before the video cut to black.
The Hoosiers’ season appeared to be fading as they stumbled their way through the game. The loss to Purdue that Saturday afternoon marked the team’s fourth in a row, and an NCAA Tournament bid looked to be slipping away.
But for 15 minutes, the crowd didn’t seem to care. The biggest game of the year was an afterthought.
The screen faded to an empty tunnel inside the bowels of Assembly Hall. Then he appeared, slowly shuffling with the help of former players Steve Green and Quinn Buckner toward the roar of 17,222 fans ready to welcome him home.
As Knight emerged from the tunnel, stepping onto the court for the first time in nearly 20 years, the crowd chanted “Bobby! Bobby! Bobby!” to the 79-year-old former IU head coach.
The 47 former players in attendance, who were being honored for the 40th anniversary of the 1980 Big Ten Championship team, stepped aside as Knight made his way to center court. The celebration may have been honoring the former Hoosiers, but they knew who this was really about — Knight.
[Related: The General comes home]
As Knight reached center court, Green and Buckner let him go, leaving the winningest coach in program history to stand alone, gazing around at an arena he once swore he’d never return to.
While standing at mid-court, chants of “Thank you coach!” rang throughout the stadium. Knight waved to the crowd. After a few moments, former IU standout Isiah Thomas nodded to his fellow alumni as they walked over to join their coach.
For a split second, Knight’s blank stare turned into a smile as he wrapped his arm around Thomas’ neck and he embraced his former player.
“Throw a chair!” the student section yelled, a statement that would have tossed Knight into a frenzy years ago. Now he let it go, slowly turning to embrace his longtime friend Vitale before heading off the court toward the tunnel he came out of.
As Knight approached the edge of the court, his arm still draped around Thomas’ neck, he stopped and started to yell.
The stadium fell silent.
“Play defense!” he yelled as he pumped his fist. “Play defense!”
Maybe it was because IU had allowed Purdue to shoot 52% during the first half and trailed by 9 points at the time. Maybe it was just the natural response, but the crowd roared back “Defense!” as Knight began shuffling his way off the court.
Just before he reached the tunnel, Knight stopped one last time and did something he rarely did in his prime.
“Thank you,” Knight said to the crowd with a slight bow, turning to wave one last time before disappearing out of sight.
[Related: The General’s shadow]
Only Knight could explain why he decided to return. He’s never talked about his decision to come back and likely never will. The 80-year-old former head coach has removed himself from the public-eye due to his health.
Maybe he got fed up with former players constantly calling him and begging him to let the past go. Maybe he couldn’t avoid Assembly Hall any longer. Maybe he looked in the mirror one day and realized that he was a lot closer to the end than the beginning and didn’t want to be left with the regret of never getting his warm welcome home.
Nearly 20 years, five head coaches and a $40 million renovation to Assembly Hall transformed the basketball program since the General left, but the love for the legendary coach never left the building.
“This is where he belongs,” said Randy Wittman, who was one of Knight’s players from 1978-83.
“I’ll go to my grave with this memory of today.”