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DIANE PUCIN

Steve Alford's Knight Mare

As Onetime Hoosier Hero Prepares for First Game at His Alma Mater--as a Big Ten Foe--His Former Coach Gives Him the Silent Treatment

January 18, 2000|DIANE PUCIN

Steve Alford has already benched his biggest, strongest, toughest player. A kid named Jacob Jaacks, a 6-foot-8, 235-pound center, Iowa's muscle.

Jaacks has been known to throw his elbows around relentlessly and thoughtlessly.

"That's not the way we do things in my program," Alford told Jaacks before the senior sat down and missed a start. "That's not the way we do things."

How many times did Steve Alford hear that from his college coach, Bob Knight, at Indiana?

"About a million," Alford remembers.

Tonight, Alford, Iowa's rookie coach, will take the Hawkeyes to Assembly Hall in Bloomington, Ind., to play Knight's Hoosiers. Alford, Indiana born and reared, the point guard who helped Knight to a national title in 1987, the straight-talking Hoosier who stills wears his hair short and his clothes neat, should be the shining example of a Knight-produced player-coach-citizen, a disciplined, smart, fundamentally sound basketball man.

We would expect Knight to grab Alford in a bearhug, welcome Alford to the Big Ten coaching fraternity, beam with pride and think to himself, "Job well done."

Instead basketball fans across the Midwest are wondering if Knight will shake Alford's hand. Will Knight look Alford in the eye? What will the fans in Assembly Hall do? Will they cheer, these fans who idolized Alford the player and who gave Alford the coach a standing ovation once when he brought his previous team, Southwest Missouri State, back to his home state? Will they boo? Will they stay confused and silent?

For reasons Alford says are unknown to him, Knight has acted as if Alford does not exist ever since Alford was named Iowa coach.

Knight has never called Alford to congratulate him on the job. At the Big Ten media day in November, when Knight and Alford sat next to each other for four hours, Indiana and Iowa, linked by the alphabet instead of the past, not a word was exchanged. Not a hi, hello, how ya doing. Nothing.

Alford says he is confused by this. Knight says he has no time to worry about other coaches. "Do you realize how many guys I've coached against who either played for me or coached for me?" was the explanation the Indiana coach gave the Associated Press.

Big Ten people say there are many theories.

Is Knight resentful because Alford has been mentioned as his possible successor at Indiana?

There was talk among some Hoosier alums that maybe Indiana should have tried to hire Alford instead of letting the talented, young, Hoosier legend sign on at Iowa. The feeling was that Knight was slipping, the recruits wouldn't tolerate his totalitarian regime anymore, not the way Alford did.

Or is Knight angry because when Luke Recker, a talented Hoosier, announced he was transferring from Indiana last season, saying that he wasn't developing as a player, Recker inquired about attending Iowa?

Big Ten sources say this infuriated Knight, even after Recker ended up at Arizona. And, now in fact, Recker has landed at Iowa, where he can be closer to his girlfriend, who was paralyzed last summer in a car accident.

Maybe Knight is unhappy because Alford was so warmly received at Indianapolis a couple of years ago, when Southwest Missouri State played in the holiday Hoosier Classic. Informants say that Knight did not enjoy Alford's welcome at all. Petty? Yes. Knight-like? Also, yes.

"It's going to be uncomfortable, shaking hands with the guy [Knight] and then going in the other direction," Alford says. "Going to the other bench. There aren't that many kids who dreamed all their lives of playing for Indiana, playing for Coach Knight, then actually doing it, like I did. I was a coach's kid who grew up in that state, dying to play for Coach Knight. I spent four years going to the same bench as Coach Knight. I'll be real uncomfortable going to the other bench in Assembly Hall."

There have been debates in Indiana, in Bloomington and in New Castle, where Alford played at New Castle High for his dad, Sam. Who to cheer for? Who to cheer against?

Sam, who is an Iowa assistant, and his son are Indiana heroes as much as Knight.

"Die-hard Hoosier fans have always pulled for me," Steve says. "This night during the year, every year now, it's going to be hard on everybody. I know that."

He has tried to ignore Knight's slights. He will not speak publicly about it. Neither will Sam, who had some screaming matches with Knight when Steve played.

Some Indiana observers say that Sam never forgave Knight for one incident. Steve had agreed to pose for a calendar for a campus charity. In its infinite wisdom, the NCAA ruled that Alford committed a violation and Alford sat out a game.

Poor Alford had only thought he was doing a good deed. On the day Knight learned Alford would be suspended, he threw him off the team bus, which was going to the airport. It was a cold, snowy afternoon and Alford had to walk a mile or two.

Alford, who had been meticulous about being on time for practice, about never missing a class, about being early for a bus, who tried to do as many charitable deeds as possible, ended up being punished.

It seems as if Alford, who took Southwest Missouri State to the NCAA Sweet 16 in 1999 and, in his first coaching job, took Division III Manchester College in Indiana to the title game, is being punished foolishly by Knight again. For being a good and popular coach. For stealing Knight's light.

Before tonight's game, the Indiana band will play "Back Home Again in Indiana."

There are two other songs that would fit just as well at Assembly Hall, "Thanks for the Memory," and "I Get Along Without You Very Well." But which song for which man?

TONIGHT'S GAME

Iowa (7-8) at No. 11

Indiana (13-2)

4 p.m., ESPN

More Coverage:

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