The often-muddled relationship between sports and politics is bubbling up again this week, with Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump getting an endorsement from Bob Knight, the polarizing former Indiana University basketball head coach, on Wednesday night at the Indiana State Fairgrounds in Indianapolis.
Trump described Knight’s endorsement as “the greatest endorsement in the history of Indiana.” The state's primary, which could further cement Trump's lead, is next Tuesday.
“You folks are taking a look at the most prepared man in history to step in as president of the United States,” Knight told the roughly 5,000 supporters gathered.
“There has never been a presidential candidate prepared to the length that this man is.”
List of Transgressions
Knight, 75, spent 29 seasons as head coach of the Indiana Hoosiers, winning 662 games and three national championships, but not without a heavy dose of criticism and controversy. Physical assault, threatening to commit physical assault, verbal abuse and famously throwing a chair across the court during a game are just part of Knight’s long list of transgressions.
Despite his questionable reputation, the unapologetic and complicated Knight remains a mostly respected figure in Indiana through the success he brought to the program on the court and his charitable efforts off it. For a state that is religious about basketball, the Ohio-born Knight has easily been one of the Hoosier State’s most recognizable public figures over the past four decades.
The value of an endorsement is difficult to quantify, but Knight’s backing may provide Trump with an important boost with 57 delegates up for grabs in Tuesday’s Republican primary. On the MSNBC program “Morning Joe,” host Joe Scarborough and guest Howard Dean, the former governor of Vermont who ran for president in 2004 and later led the Democratic National Committee, agreed that Knight’s endorsement carries plenty of weight.
"It is the same as Bear Bryant endorsing somebody in Alabama,” Dean said. “[Knight] did more for Indiana basketball, which I have to say is the biggest sport in Indiana, by far. I agree endorsements usually don't make much difference. This one does."
Both Knight and Trump, two figures who share an antipathy for the media, have successfully procured an anti-establishment persona, and Knight's glowing tribute to Trump only reinforces the candidate’s image of an outsider who doesn’t play by the same rules as his more politically experienced adversaries.
“I am not here to represent the Republican Party,” Knight said. “And I’m not here to represent any organization that deals with politics. I think the most important thing in the world is that we vote for the best man there is for this job.”
Throwing his support for a political candidate is mostly new to Knight. Before this week, Knight’s only other notable endorsement was in 2009 for Texas Secretary of State Roger Williams’ failed bid for the U.S. Senate. But Knight’s stature in Texas, where he coached the Texas Tech Red Raiders from 2001 to 2008, looms nowhere near as large or as influential as it does in Indiana.
Knight also struck perhaps an important chord by promoting Trump's integrity, in spite of his well-documented history of playing loosely with the truth.
"There has never been a more honest politician than Donald Trump," Knight said.
Other sports figures have also endorsed Trump, but to varying degrees. Brian France, the chairman and chief executive of Nascar, loosely endorsed Trump to much public backlash, while NFL quarterback Tom Brady stopped short of endorsing Trump but said it would be “great” if he wins.
But less reputable former athletes have also backed Trump, including heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson and former “NBA badboy” Dennis Rodman, as well as former Atlanta Brave John Rocker, a relief pitcher who made headlines for inflammatory comments about minorities in 1999, and after his retirement in 2003.
With the primary election set for Tuesday, Indiana’s delegates remain crucial for Trump to lock up the 1,237 needed to ensure his nomination. Trump, who leads with 992 delegates, remains in a three-way race for the Republican nomination against Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (562 delegates) and Ohio Gov. John Kasich (153 delegates), though Kasich has decided to not contest Indiana.