Each week, The Detroit News will look back at events and people from past sports moments, enlarging on experiences that might have been forgotten with time, or revisiting behind-the-scenes drama that never made it into print or on airwaves.
The old press room at Crisler Arena half-tempted you to search for a grieving family. Or even for a flower-flanked casket where you might offer a final bow to someone dear.
The light was yellow (Maize, if one insists), the carpet soft. There were no windows.
It was a funeral home, at least in tone and texture.
Until, that is, on a volatile Saturday afternoon, Jan. 21, 1984, minutes after Michigan had beaten Bobby Knight’s visitors from Indiana, 55-50.
The quiet, the softness, gave way to thunder and obscenities.
Knight was in a rage over Michigan coach Bill Frieder.
“Frieder, you’re a chicken(bleep) SOB,” he yelled at the start of his supposed press session, annunciating each and every word of the SOB acronym.
Boom. And the invective continued — high-decibel, profane, shocking.
Then, for a second or two, silence as 60 or so people dealt with a verbal blindside that might as well have been a volcano blast.
It’s important to know that more folks than media were crammed into the postgame press room late that afternoon at Crisler.
There were university executives. There were a few Indiana staffers.
And there was a sizable group of what appeared to be football and basketball recruits, and parents. Moms and dads. Women and men.
They were now being exposed to Knight’s fury and profanity.
The spark had come from Frieder. In the closing minutes of a tight ballgame, with Knight, per usual, scalding Big Ten officials from his sidecourt bench, Frieder — 30 or so feet to Knight’s left — could be heard barking to those same officials:
“Give him a T!”
Frieder was trying to level the court. Knight was in the refs’ ears. Michigan’s coach wanted to make sure he wasn’t forfeiting a home court’s edge.
Knight saw it as treachery. As betrayal. As a rival coach crossing the line.
In fairness to Frieder, any notion that Frieder was the first coach to invite a ref to call a technical on an overwrought opponent coach — especially when Frieder had gotten his share of technicals through the years — is a stretch.
Knight, though, always played by His Set of Rules, by his Verdict on Right and Wrong.
And he was apoplectic over what he saw as a double-cross.
It was later discovered that Knight had another reason for exploding, as dubious as it seemed then, and now. Frieder had asked Knight to do an interview with late Ann Arbor News writer John Viges, who covered the Wolverines.
Why this request, which Knight granted during the Ann Arbor road trip, precluded any heat-of-the-game verbals by either coach is another area of relative mystery.
But, again, Knight was not into objective appraisals of what was fair or unfair, what was reckless or what Indiana’s head coach decided was simply an essential response by a man who, in a blink, could spew words as hot as lava.
What is hard to fathom in 2020 is how limited was the coverage that day. Had it happened now — or at any time during the past 25 years — Knight’s firestorm would have set the Internet and Twitter ablaze. It would have led ESPN, and local networks, and talk-radio, or any other 24-hour medium. Instead, in the winter of 1984, it wasn’t that big of a deal.
Knight’s incineration of a rival coach, both brutal and devastating in its intent to turn Freider to ash, never went much beyond the next day’s newspapers.
It was covered heavily by the Detroit News, Free Press, Ann Arbor News, Indianapolis Star, etc.
It showed up in the Chicago papers and as an item national papers ran, courtesy of the Associated Press and United Press International’s reporters in Ann Arbor.
But that pretty much was it.
It was, in most minds, a matter of Knight being Knight. That was the message at a time when I was covering UM basketball for the Detroit News and also filing weekly reports with Sports Illustrated, as a stringer assigned to send notes from the Big Ten.
SI’s editors ignored Knight’s tantrum. No follow-up calls, no request for more material. It simply didn’t fit a weekly’s needs when this was one more day of outrage spurred by one Bob Knight.
The Big Ten office had a different view, although to a deep degree, Knight was feared most of all by the powers in Schaumburg, Ill. It was all because of his success, his standing in Bloomington, Ind., and beyond, and also because people like Big Ten Commissioner Wayne Duke didn’t enjoy Knight’s fire-breathing tirades, which could be delivered over a phone as intimidatingly as they would be unleashed in person.
Knight knew what he had done. Knew, for sure, he had gone too far, even when Knight was not one to second-guess himself, apologize, or see error in acts or words. At least in his acts or words.
That much was clear on Sunday.
Knight called Joe Falls, the Detroit News columnist who had been on hand for Saturday’s megaton bomb.
Knight liked Falls. Respected him. Knight viewed Falls the way Knight’s friend, Bo Schembechler, who was coaching Michigan football at the time, appreciated Falls.
On this Sunday afternoon telephone call, Indiana’s basketball master was taking Falls’ temperature.
Joe told him:
“I think you should be suspended.”
Knight wasn’t suspended. Outside of some pro forma snorts from Duke’s office, Knight was unscathed. A year later, after tossing a chair across the court during a game at Bloomington, Knight was given all of a one-game layoff.
Frieder bore more scars than did Knight, absolutely. Six nights later, at the team hotel in Champaign, Ill., in a quiet moment before the next day’s game against Illinois, Frieder acknowledged that the Knight cataclysm had shaken him badly.
The two men scarcely spoke again during the final five years Frieder was at Michigan.
That, of course, was no surprise. Not when the ugliness of an attack so personal, so foul, was to be considered — at least by those who that day had been present.
Outside of Crisler Arena, there was a different response. Curiosity, for sure. A few gasps. And probably just as many shrugs.
This, after all, was but another Bobby Knight moment. One of so very many.
Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.