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Bob Knight Must Have Studied Machiavelli

April 17, 2011

Currently, Bob Knight sits a top of the leader board for all time wins by a college basketball coach.  He is also the only coach to win the NIT, NCAA March Madness Tournament, the Olympic Gold Metal, and the Pan American Games.  Knight also led Indiana to a perfect 32-0 season as well as winning the Naismith Men’s College Coach of the Year Award.  If I were to continue listing all of Knight’s achievements, this post would be incredibly long, so I’ll get to the point.  Overall, Knight is considered to be one of the best college basketball coaches of all time, and personally, I consider him to be the very best.

There are many different styles of basketball coaching, and Bobby Knight’s was unique to say the least.  However, if looked at closely, it is very to say that Knight approached the game with a very Machiavellian style.  Let me explain.  Machiavelli says that when a prince, or in this case coach, is deciding whether to be feared or loved, “it is safer to be feared than loved if you cannot be both” (Machiavelli 72).  Knight took this approach to heart as he is arguably one of the most feared coaches in the history of any sport.  Even though this is example is quite extreme, there is footage of Knight choking one of his players during a practice in 1997.  Additionally he has been arrested for assault, is known for his excessive yelling, and I’m guessing most of you are familiar with his chair throwing incident.  However, despite all of these actions that might be considered a bad example, no player on any of Knight’s teams have ever gotten in trouble with the NCAA or their respective universities.  I believe this is because of the fear Knight instilled in them; something Machiavelli would be proud to see.

In chapter 10 of “The Prince,” Machiavelli discusses the importance of having a strong army to defend the nation (Machiavelli 46).  Machiavelli recommends that a prince “put together a sufficient army and fight a battle against anyone who comes to attack them” (Machiavelli 46).  It appears that Knight interpreted this in a basketball sense, as he prided his teams on superb defense.  It was known that whenever you played one of Knight’s teams, you were going to have trouble scoring the basketball no matter how good your offense was.  Knight valued defense of the basket, just like Machiavelli valued the defense of a nation.  People in the basketball world will tell you defense wins championships, and Bobby Knight’s dedication to defense is one of the main reasons he has so many.

My last comparison between Machiavelli and Knight comes in chapter 19 of “The Prince.”  In this chapter, Machiavelli tells a prince he should be wary of two things, “one internal, on account of his subjects; the other external on account of foreign power” (Machiavelli 79).  The way a coach can keep the internal aspect of this problem in order is to make sure he is respected by his players.  Even though Knight was feared and a little bit crazy, all of his players respected him and played hard for him each and every day.  Knight’s teams almost always had winning records, and when a team is winning the coach will have the attention and respect of his players.  As for outside sources, Knight could not let critics of his coaching style change the way he ran his team.  After the chocking and chair throwing incident, Knight was placed on a zero tolerance policy with Indiana University, meaning one more mishap would get him fired.  However, this did not make Knight change his coaching style because that would be letting the foreign powers win the battle.  This led to Knight keeping the respect of his players and coaching for several more years despite his old age.  Knight always made sure he stayed true to himself and his players, not letting an internal or external problem arise.

Even though Bobby Knight may be looked at as a crazy old man now, nobody can contest his success as a head basketball coach.  Knight will always be viewed as one of the greatest minds in basketball, partially because he took some advice from one of the greatest minds in politics.  Maybe more coaches should sit down and read “The Prince” if their team isn’t doing so well.

Machiavelli, Niccolò. The Prince. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago, 1998. Print.

Pictures came from these URLs:,r:1,s:0

Bobby Knight Facts came from a life time of watching sports, so it is tough to give credit to any one source.  Some facts were also taken from this website:

  1. micahfr permalink
    April 17, 2011 2:03 PM

    College sports is a very Machiavellian industry. The coaches must have complete control over their respective programs. Bob Knight is a very good example of Machiavellianism in college sports. However, I think there are better coaches that exemplify the belief that “the end justify the means” mantra. Jim Tressel fits perfectly. Although his players did something illegal, according to the NCAA, and were going to be suspended for the first five games of the 2011 NCAA football season (a decision that was made before the 2011 Sugar Bowl), he still allowed those five players to play in the bowl game because he new they would give OSU a better chance to win the game, which they did. Although, the decision was of questionable morality, he won the game, and ultimately nobody but Michigan and Arkansas fans will remember the decision

  2. jdeclaire permalink
    April 17, 2011 2:44 PM

    After reading this post, I do believe that Coach Knight represents a great example of certain Machiavellian views. I had never really thought of Machiavelli’s beliefs in a college sports sense, but you make some very good points about the similarity. As you pointed out in the post, his coaching style and attitude is very representative of Machiavellian ways. With that being said, I think it is interesting how you compare Coach Knight’s fearful defense to Machiavelli’s view about having an army and defending a nation. I did not have the pleasure to watch many of Coach Knight’s teams, but I know that his teams were prided on defense. In my opinion, however, a team’s defensive scheme is not comparable to an actual army. I do not think it is right to compare a college basketball team’s emphasis on defense to a prince putting together an army to protect his nation. Yes, they are similar in terms of the basic concept, which is essentially defend the opposition, but that does not necessarily mean that they are directly linked. Defense is merely part of the game of basketball that is needed in order to succeed. Putting together an army, on the other hand, is a much more complex and difficult situation that is not so cut and dry. In basketball, teaching the main concepts of defense is fairly simple and easy to adapt. An army to protect a nation does not entail the same simplicity. Overall, though, I think you make a very intriguing comparison that looks at Machiavelli through a completely new perspective.

  3. Brian Wandschneider permalink
    April 17, 2011 10:24 PM

    I really enjoyed this post. Any way to relate sports to political theory is a good one as far as I’m concerned. While many college coaches relate to Machiavelli, I think Knight is the best example in recent memory. His tactics were, to say the least, questionable, but his success is respected among everyone. The ends justify the means and Knight did what he had to do to get the respect and even fear from his players, so that he could install his system of basketball that was so wildly successful. In the long run, only success is truly remembered and Machiavelli would never argue that Knight’s coaching techniques were wrong.

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