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IT'S A Locke: : Lack of Morals and Ethics Aside, Once Bob Knight Is Your Friend, the Bond Never Breaks: Just Ask His New Assistant

February 04, 1988|RICHARD HOFFER | Times Staff Writer

Twenty-five years ago, two young pups took the floor, the one in his first head coaching job, the other in his first real assistant's job. They had new whistles, ridiculously crisp shorts, the usual killing doubts of youth. They were young men who suspected they were in well over their heads.

"I hope you know what you're doing," the assistant whispered to his boss. The boss, one year older and all of 23, was not much reassured by this confidence. He remembers thinking, "Great, we're trying to tame a wild horse and neither of us knows how to ride."

Twenty-five years later, different roads taken, but oddly intersecting after all this time: Bob Knight, grown equally tempestuous and self-righteous in his old age, that skeptical assistant from West Point, quietly hires Tates Locke, possibly the most dishonored and unemployable basketball coach of our time.

Telling vignette: His first day on the floor at Indiana, Locke pauses, shocked by those same old doubts, the shame of his awful history welling up. "What am I doing here?" he says. "Relax," Knight whispers to his old boss, and moves on.

Because Locke has rejoined Knight, this time at Indiana, this time their roles reversed, there has been little additional discussion of matters other than basketball. "Relax" is the extent of Knight's reckoning of his old friend's awful history or even Locke's tentative hold on the present. A man who is famous for his contempt of mediocrity, basketball and ethical, Knight has somehow forgiven a quarter century to silently accommodate an old friend and his personal redemption.

Whatever happened at Clemson, where Locke mysteriously ran amok and created a flagrantly and sometimes hilariously corrupt program, is now unspoken. Whatever happened afterward, when Locke's professional ruin became a personal disaster as well--the drinking, pills, the "Jacksonville co-ed"--remains unmentioned. "We talk basketball," says Locke gratefully. "Eighteen hours a day."

In truth, Bob Knight and anybody is already an odd couple. Knight would be famous without his national championships, if only for his occasional tantrum and his fevered declamations of cheating and other abuses in amateur sports. It is believed that he disdains the annual Big Ten coaches' meeting simply because he holds one of his colleague's methods in low regard. So Knight and Locke, the National Collegiate Athletic Assn.'s worst nightmare in the early 70s? How do you explain that?

You do know who Tates Locke is, right? The NCAA closed down his Clemson program in 1975, placing the team on three years' probation. The action was uncontested, and Locke himself, trying to unravel a knot in his stomach, even wrote a book about his four years there, admitting and detailing the abuses.

The NCAA has uncovered violations since and levied sanctions against other coaches, but Locke's conflagration remains one of the more memorable, if only because he invited so many to watch. For whatever reason, Locke has become somewhat synonymous with the term outlaw coach. Neither a stint in the National Basketball Assn. nor a three-year period at Jacksonville University, where he presumably ran a clean program, has been redemptive enough. He has been virtually untouchable.

This seems too bad. By all accounts, his two highly successful seasons at West Point, four more good years at Miami (of Ohio) University were conducted under Knight-like propriety. But then Clemson.

Well, maybe anybody would have tripped up at Clemson. Knight had told him not to go there in the first place. "Ah," recalls Locke, "the coach's ego." Locke thought he could win in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Actually, the first year he thought he could win clean. Until he had gone 9-17, it didn't occur to him to play any other way.

Here's how it works. It becomes convenient to tinker with a recruit's transcript. Then it became necessary to help a recruit's family. Fishing trips were arranged to isolate families and remove them from the recruiting pool. Cars were obtained by alumni, the coach simply hinting that they ought to "place a program" on a certain 6-foot 10-inch player. It got dirty and, at times, faintly ridiculous. To lure promising black players, some Clemson folks created hope of social growth by inventing a phony black fraternity. There would be a roundup of some black kids and the recruit would get a glimpse of them sipping soft drinks in a Quonset hut somewhere. "A joke," Locke agrees.

One must imagine Knight's disappointment. "All this had to tear Bobby up," says someone who is a friend to both. "It had almost been like they were brothers. Here's Tates getting in trouble, letting his personal life go to hell, writing a book . . . "

Knight regards book writers with the same disdain as cheaters, and here was his best friend committing both heinous crimes. Locke guessed he wasn't going to get any congratulatory notes.

"Still," Locke remembers, "all he ever said was, 'How did you ever let this happen.' I said, 'Coach, I don't know."'

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