By Jim Steele
This week was a sad week in the sports world.
Two icons passed this week, and they were two folks I revered. Former Indiana basketball coach Bobby Knight, 83, and former Los Angeles Dodgers and Washington Senators standout Frank Howard left this world last week.
I was a fan of both. Both of them stood out in their respective fields, though sometimes for dubious reasons.
Frank Howard was a big man for a baseball player. He was an anomaly for baseball in the ’60s and ’70s. He was 6-7 and the Bigs didn’t have players like that back then. He was a two-sport athlete at Ohio State, where he earned All-American honors in basketball and baseball.
He signed with the Dodgers and made his debut in 1958. Howard had a penchant for hitting tape-measure shots. He was one of three people to hit a ball completely out of Tiger Stadium in Detroit. He was a four-time All Star, a two-time home run champ and a World Series champ with the Dodgers.
But he also had a penchant for striking out, which annoyed some fans. Regardless, he was one of my favorites, probably because he’s a big guy and so am I, but not 6-7 big. I remember getting his baseball card in 1968 while a first grader in New Jersey. I still have it somewhere. I remember his Nestle’s Quik ad where he comes to the plate and the catcher is making fun of him for drinking the chocolate beverage.
Said the catcher: “How long have you been drinking Quik?” Howard swings, hits a home run and, upon crossing the plate, towers over the diminutive catcher and says, “Ever since I was your size.”
I saw him play with the Senators against the Houston Astros. It was the first spring training game I’d ever seen. Ted Williams managed the Senators at that time. What a treat that was. I regret not having the opportunity to interview Howard. I was told he was a very affable guy.
Knight was a polarizing figure. Most folks loved him or hated him. There was very little middle ground with that guy. He was known for his temper (evidenced by his throwing of a chair at Indiana’s Assembly Hall following what he deemed a bad call during the Iowa game). But he was known for being a team player. For example, if the Indiana swim coach was courting a high school prospect, he’d often ask Knight to call that athlete and encourage him or her to come to Indiana. He obliged and often did that.
He helped overweight students get on a fitness plan to lose weight, using his training and nutrition staff to help. Sometimes, he’d offer tutoring help for non-athletes struggling with grades. People don’t hear those stories; they just remember his fierce temper.
I knew many colleagues who didn’t like him, and I often wondered if they intentionally poked the bear with a stick during press conferences to elicit some kind of tantrum. Sometimes the way he responded was classic and funny.
There was the time where Knight called Boston Celtics GM Red Auerbach and asked a favor. One of Knight’s star players, Landon Turner, was paralyzed in a car wreck and his basketball career was over. Knight asked Auerbach to draft him anyway. Auerbach obliged. That’s a side of Knight few people talk about.
I knew the Bloomington, Ind., paper’s sports editor and he told me about a time when Indiana lost, and Knight didn’t particularly care for the paper’s account of the game. The sports editor’s phone rang, and it was Knight. Keep in mind, he and Knight had a good relationship. Knight called him everything but late for dinner during the call, then slammed the phone down. Three minutes later, the phone rang again. It was Knight. He told the writer, “I don’t know who that SOB (paraphrasing here) was that called you, but he wants to apologize.”
I first encountered Knight face-to-face at Jupiter, Fla. while covering Spring Training. He was a friend of St. Louis Cardinals’ manager Tonay LaRussa and joined him in the dugout. I was in the Cardinal clubhouse and saw him there. I held my breath and introduced myself. He was affable, kind and funny. We ran into each other fairly often for the next week-to-10 days or so and he always was kind to me.
He won three national titles for Hoosiers and is the last coach to lead a team to an unbeaten mark (1976 Hoosiers with Scott Mays and Kent Benson). He also is the only coach to win an NCAA championship, an NCAA title, and Olympic gold medal and a Pan American gold. Quite a legacy.
May they both rest in peace. They left us with a cornucopia of great memories.
Jim Steele is a correspondent for Magic Valley Publishing.