A shouted s-bomb rang out like a gunshot, and I bolted upright from my 10-minute nap just in time to see a deer dart in front of the car.
Mike swerved, narrowly missing the deer, and then jerked the steering wheel sharply to the right to avoid smashing into an exit sign. From there, everything was a blur as his Dodge Avenger spun out of control, fishtailing multiple times and sending our sodas and a box of donuts flying as we braced for impact or overturn.
Once moving at 90 miles per hour, the Avenger finally squealed to a stop facing backward halfway up the off-ramp. Nearly a minute passed as we sat frozen in our seats, catching our breaths and assessing the situation.
It was 2:30 a.m. on Sept. 13, 2000, just outside of Columbia, Mo. We weren’t dead — not yet, anyway. But both of us knew there was a good chance that would change a few hours later when we returned to Lawrence.
Tom Eblen was waiting for me, and Rick Musser was ready to wring Mike’s neck. We weren’t supposed to be here. We skipped their classes, and we had some explaining to do.
WHAT’S UP, KNIGHT?
On Sept. 10, Bobby Knight’s 29-year coaching career at Indiana University ended when he was fired in the wake of an altercation with a student a few days earlier after the student addressed the coach, “Hey, what’s up, Knight?” Already facing a zero-tolerance policy for previous behavior issues, Knight refused to step down after the incident. That’s when IU president Myles Brand relieved the three-time national championship coach of his duties.
Riots broke out on the Indiana campus in Bloomington that night as thousands of students marched in protest and burned Brand in effigy.
The next evening, Sept. 11, the IU student newspaper announced that it would play host to a public forum where Knight would speak publicly about the situation. It was about 10 p.m. when Mike and I — the men’s basketball beat writers for the University Daily Kansan — read about the public forum while working on stories in the Kansan newsroom.
“How awesome would it be to be there for it?” I said to Mike, only half-serious.
“You wanna go?” he shot back, a sly grin on his face.
Thirty minutes later, we were pulling onto I-70 in Mike’s Avenger. We told our sports editor where we were going. We also emailed our professors to tell them we’d be missing class. But we hadn’t asked for permission to go. This trip had better be awesome, we concluded, because we figured we’d be fired upon return for violating protocol.
We drove through a downpour for more than four hours before stopping at 3 a.m. in East St. Louis to grab a hotel room for a four-hour rest. We were back in the car by 8 a.m. on Sept. 12, wolfing down a box of donuts that accounted for all but one meal on the trip, and finishing the drive to Bloomington. Mike Davis was being introduced as the Hoosiers’ new coach that afternoon, and we wanted to report on it.
We pulled up to Assembly Hall 30 minutes before the press conference began, put on our button-down shirts and ties in the parking lot and made our way inside. The Media Relations staff gave us curious looks at the media check-in when we told them we were from the University Daily Kansan, but our official business cards got us through the door and into seats at center court for the press conference.
LEARNING UNDER PRESSURE
Davis’ press conference wasn’t memorable, and our conversations with players weren’t particularly insightful, as the IU athletics department staff clearly had coached the players on what to say and not to say.
Still, we dug deeper, talked to more people and searched for better angles, more informative quotes, something of substance.
We weren’t supposed to be here, but since we were we’d better get this right.
As the lead beat writer that semester, Mike took the news angle and delved into the serious reporting. Meanwhile, I sought column material and inspiration elsewhere.
It was announced that afternoon that Knight wouldn’t be speaking at the student newspaper forum until a day later. We couldn’t stay that long, but Knight was giving his first public statements that evening on ESPN during an interview with Jeremy Schaap.
I took an hour-long walk across the IU campus, soaking up the scene. The outrage, it seemed, had subsided from two nights prior. Plenty of symbolism remained in the form of signs hanging from fraternity and sorority houses voicing their support for the coach. The few students I saw looked somber. It was eerily quiet.
I concluded my walk in time to join members of the Indiana spirit squad in an Assembly Hall lounge to watch Knight’s interview with Schaap. There were tears on cheerleaders’ cheeks, and there was plenty of laughter in response to many of Knight’s answers.
Much like some Penn State fans today make excuses for former coach Joe Paterno in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child abuse scandal because winning football games matters more than acknowledging the truth; or the way many Kansas fans excused Mark Mangino’s atrocious behavior because he led the Jayhawks to an Orange Bowl victory; many at Indiana felt the same way about Knight. His “Do as I say, not as I do” attitude was accepted because three championship banners hung from the rafters.
I tried to capture that sentiment in my column. I hope I did.
The sun had set by the time Mike and I filed our stories from Assembly Hall and hit the road for the journey back to Lawrence.
We never saw Bobby Knight in person, missing his appearance at the public forum by 24 hours, but beyond that we believed the trip had been a success. We’d worked under immense pressure and on minimal sleep, and produced some solid reporting and commentary.
We witnessed college basketball history as the man who eventually would become the winningest coach in Division I was finally held accountable for his behavior.
We spent a few precious hours trying to get to the heart of the biggest story in college basketball that year.
We learned so much on the trip in part because of our motivation to do our job as reporters to the very best of our abilities, and also because of budding egos that come naturally with being responsible for the prime sports beat at KU.
Now, we just needed to make it back to Lawrence and explain ourselves to our professors. I’d missed Tom Eblen’s Reporting II class. Tom was the general manager of the Kansan. When I emailed him to inform him of our little trip, I wrote, “I know you’ll want to talk to me when we get back, so I’ll come find you.”
Tom’s response was brief and to-the-point: “Yes, let’s talk.”
I was frightened.
Mike’s hide likely was in greater danger. He’d missed Rick Musser’s class, and we later learned that upon seeing that Mike was absent Rick stormed into Tom’s office and demanded to know why he’d approved our trip.
Tom’s response to Rick: “I didn’t.”
Mike and I knew we couldn’t afford to miss another day of classes, so we sped through the night to make the 500-mile drive home. Both of us were exhausted, so we took turns driving and sleeping. My shift ended just before we reached Columbia.
Moments later, we were nearly dead on an off-ramp a few blocks from the University of Missouri.
The deer that ran in front of the car didn’t kill us. Neither did anything else that night as we rolled back into Lawrence at about 5:30 a.m. as the sun was rising.
Fortunately, our professors didn’t kill us, either, and we didn’t get fired.
Rick threatened repeatedly to flunk Mike for the semester, but ended up passing him.
WHAT DID YOU LEARN?
As promised in my email, I went and knocked on Tom’s door first thing that morning. The conversation played out like this:
Tom: “Sit down, Chris.”
Tom: “Did you talk to the editors and ask for permission to go to Indiana?”
Tom: “Was it necessary for the Kansan to send reporters to Indiana?”
Tom: “If advertisers ask me why we used our money to send reporters to cover an event in Indiana that doesn’t involve KU, what am I supposed to tell them?”
Tom: “Did you learn anything while you were there?”
Me: “Well, yeah. I learned a ton.”
Tom: “Well, good then. That’s what’s important. Just make sure you ask for permission next time.”
CATCHING UP WITH COACH KNIGHT
As fate would have it, Mike and I finally got to report on Bobby Knight in person a year later when he was hired as the new head coach at Texas Tech. I was covering KU for the Topeka Capital-Journal, and Mike was working for a TV station.
I covered the visitor’s locker room when Texas Tech came to Lawrence for the first time with Knight at the helm. Meanwhile, Mike had another near-death experience when the coach bumped into Mike’s camera after shaking hands with then-KU coach Roy Williams prior to the game.
There was no altercation, just a fierce glare in Mike’s direction, but it chilled him to the core much like that September night a year earlier when we returned from our failed search for the legendary coach.