Tate | For all of Knight's wins at IU, Henson has the better legacy


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For me, a man's legacy in life is adjudged not in banked gold, but by what he means to all those who survive.

As examples, Bill Cosby won't be remembered for his comedic brilliance, nor Rod Blagojevich for his electoral success. Shame will attend their funerals.

And with ESPN's recent "30 for 30," show reviving the darkness of Knight, we can now stand back and take a fuller view of Robert Montgomery Knight, erstwhile scourge of Indiana, and his former rival, Lou Henson of Illinois.

Knight won the skirmishes, as well he should have. During his time, which featured three NCAA titles and 11 Big Ten crowns, he was considered the successor to John Wooden as the premier college basketball coach.

Whereas Henson was left with the remnants of 5-18 and 8-18 teams when he took over at Illinois in 1975-76, the Hoosiers were rampaging with the nation's last unbeaten team (61-1 in two seasons). And Knight was making deep inroads in this state's talent ... Quinn Buckner, Glen Grunwald, Isiah Thomas, Uwe Blab and the late Eric Anderson, among numerous others.

Beyond the ledger

Henson's audit in head-to-head clashes was 15 wins, 27 losses. Books were written about Knight and Brian Dennehy played Knight's part in the TV movie, "A Season on the Brink."

But with more time to judge the War of Life, Henson has outlived the skirmishes. And if there's only one spot available when those two reach the Pearly Gates, we know who'll be admitted ... someone who didn't routinely bully officials, insult the media, drive the Big Ten commissioner up a wall, intimidate friends and rivals, display a whip and a jackass (representing Purdue) on his TV show, throw a chair (drawing a two-year probation), shatter a clipboard over a player's head, tangle with the wrestling coach (bad idea) or hunt in no-hunting zones with the gun safety off.

Nor would Henson, in an interview with Connie Chung, offer the following: "I think if rape is inevitable, relax and enjoy it."

Sure, there are those within Indiana who disagree — Knight remains an enigma there — but reasonable people in the other 49 states would see more clearly. And don't forget Puerto Rico, where Knight was once arrested for assault for attacking a policeman over a delayed practice time.

Man of the people

We see in Henson a man of deep substance, beloved by all who come in touch, not because he won some games, but because he walked a straight path, treats every new acquaintance like a long-lost cousin and has battled off the deck repeatedly through a cancer-threatened old age.

When the Illini Hall of Fame committee overlooked Henson in its inaugural class, the public outcry was so loud that Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman stood up during the Chicago ceremony to announce that Henson would be No. 1 in the second class ... a decision roundly cheered.

Where Knight was overbearing and disgustingly profane, Henson has yet to utter a single swear word. Where a university secretary felt threatened when Knight smashed a potted plant near her desk, Henson's longtime secretary, Dorothy Damewood, still treats him like a loving aunt. Where Knight was a Raging Bull on the sideline, Henson was active yet under control, never head-butting or kicking a player, much less choking one.

And on the subject of Neil Reed, the "30 for 30" show left an impression that his short life was beleaguered and thrown off course by the clannish Knight following ... as though it was his fault that Knight choked him.

Different receptions

There was Henson on Dec. 8, two days removed from a three-day hospital trip, alongside Mary in the front row at State Farm Center for the Illini-UNLV game, being honored by long-time athletic trainer Rod Cardinal, former players Larry Lubin and Steve Lanter and letter-winners who donated funds to create a scholarship named for him and Mary.

In sharp contrast, Knight has refused to return to the IU campus since his firing in 2000 and, when reminded that then-President Myles Brand was deceased, expressed a wish that "they were all dead."

We saw how Henson handled the passing of his son, how he treated those who criticized him, how he responded to Bruce Pearl and Digger Phelps when they threatened his career. And we saw a man who, seeing an emergency, accepted a $1 paycheck for an entire season of coaching at New Mexico State. He is as respected there as he is here, the Aggies' Pan American Arena and Highway 28 to El Paso bearing his name.

Method to the madness

Knight, as must be reported, was always the smartest man in the room, and he provided funds and personal support for the IU library. Furthermore, he must be praised for his compassion in behalf of a paralyzed Landon Turner, among others. He was never accused of cheating. He chased off laggards but most of those who remained graduated.

As a coach, his demanding personality attracted extraordinary talent, and he credits his domineering style as essential to his IU accomplishments ... though he had indifferent success at Texas Tech where he was 53-49 in eight seasons of Big 12 play through 2008. Growing seemingly disinterested with analysis, he was dropped by ESPN in 2015.

More recently, the likes of Mike Krzyzewski, Tony Bennett, Jay Wright and John Beilein have excelled without disgracing themselves. Just as did Henson.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com