Sometimes, Throw a Chair
Bobby Knight on why good referees are priceless, what athletes and stockbrokers share and why 'losing is abnormal.'
By FRED BARNES
The Wall Street Journal
Bobby Knight isn't for everyone. If you're a basketball fan, you're likely to regard him as one of the greatest coaches of all time. He is the guy who took the "hurryin' " out of Indiana University's "Hurryin' Hoosiers" brand of racehorse basketball (as his fast-breaking predecessor at IU, Lou Watson, often pointed out). He stressed defense, at least four passes on each offensive possession and what he calls a "mistake-avoidance strategy." He won 11 Big Ten titles and three NCAA championships at IU and coached the U.S. team—Michael Jordan was on it—that captured the gold medal at the 1984 Olympics.
Mr. Knight coached like a drill sergeant. He didn't let the players choose the team captain. He did. He rejected the idea of putting players' names on the backs of their jerseys. "You're playing for the name on the front on the jersey," he said. He detested losing. He told his players: "You're not here on scholarship to lose. I didn't recruit you to lose. Losing is abnormal; losing is unusual; losing is unacceptable. That's not what we're here for."
After 43 years of coaching, Mr. Knight retired in 2008. But as college basketball's March Madness begins this week—three weeks of high-voltage playoffs leading to a national champion—Mr. Knight remains for millions the prototype of an iron-fisted coach. He has many disciples, most notably Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, who played at West Point during Mr. Knight's first head-coaching stint.
If you aren't a basketball fan, you are less likely to admire Mr. Knight. His reputation for yelling at players, sometimes grabbing them angrily, and quarreling with referees is well-known. He once threw a chair across court while fuming over a referee's call. His disdain for referees lives on. The blind leading the blind? "I've seen it happen," Mr. Knight writes in "The Power of Negative Thinking," "and both had whistles." Good referees are priceless, he adds, "as all rare things are."
There's more to "The Power of Negative Thinking" than referee-baiting and basketball strategy. The book's conceit is that Mr. Knight's lessons from coaching apply to other fields. "The principles I established and followed in coaching carry over perfectly to the way I think leadership works best in business or any other area of life," he writes. Often they do, but not always.
"The smart, cautious athlete is doing in a split second what an investor may have to do in the split second of watching a stock market tape—consider the risks, calculate the best alternative, and then commit to it totally," according to Mr. Knight. This is a stretch. The player operates on instinct nurtured in hundreds of hours of practice. The investor relies on knowledge, his own and others'. Mr. Knight likens an organization's "human resources," or employees, to a basketball. Both are "limited" resources. Neither should be used wastefully (with a basketball, that would mean shooting it too quickly). But avoiding waste is a general rule that applies to nearly everything, not just employees and basketballs.
This isn't Mr. Knight's first book—his autobiographical "Knight: My Story" was published in 2002—and it won't be the book by which he is most remembered. He gave sportswriter John Feinstein near total access during the 1985-86 season at IU, and Mr. Feinstein produced a classic, "Season on the Brink," that immortalized Mr. Knight as one of the smartest and most domineering figures in sports.
What distinguishes "The Power of Negative Thinking" is that it is fun to read and wise, in its way. Mr. Knight isn't kidding about the value of negative thinking. He defines it as "recognizing, addressing, and removing obstacles to winning." For Mr. Knight that includes preparation and the elimination of mistakes. "Having the will to win is not enough," he writes. "Everyone has that. What matters is having the will to prepare to win." Victory, he insists, "favors the team making the fewest mistakes."
Mr. Knight lists "always worry" as the third of his Ten Commandments of leadership. "If you can't think of a thing to be worried about, worry about being overconfident," he says. The ninth commandment is "never talk too much. Get yourself a degree from Shut-Up School and remember it when talking about your competitors." Mr. Knight himself never obtained that degree.
Mr. Knight has put together a historical roster of those he believes succeeded through negative thinking. It includes Washington, Lincoln, Eisenhower, Shakespeare, Sun Tzu, Stonewall Jackson, Leonardo da Vinci and . . . Pogo. On his list of overconfident failures are Thomas Dewey, Robert E. Lee, Napoleon and Hitler. "Hitler must not have read Tolstoy," Mr. Knight says, or he wouldn't have invaded Russia.
Roughly half of "The Power of Negative Thinking" is simply about basketball. That Mr. Knight focuses on his three NCAA champs and the gold-medal Olympics team is understandable. But his coaching quirks are more interesting. He doesn't like to call timeouts, preferring to let his teams play through tough situations. Even in the waning seconds of a game, his advice is: "Do not stop the clock and let [opponents] set up their defense." A top goal for his teams was always "to make more free throws than our opponents shot."
Mr. Knight, now 72, reveals that his wife, Karen, a former high-school basketball coach, warned him against "being too negative." She urged him to be quick to praise players when they did well. "Now I may surprise you with this thought," he writes. "Amid all those firm negatives that bring things into line, a coach or any other kind of leader should never overlook a chance to be positive." Good as that advice is, it won't be a big part of the Knight legend. But winning 902 games and throwing that chair will never be forgotten.
Mr. Barnes is executive editor of the Weekly Standard.
A version of this article appeared March 21, 2013, on page A13 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Sometimes, Throw a Chair.