Bobby Knight’s molten rage briefly bubbled beneath the surface until, like Vesuvius, he erupted in a pyrotechnic fury.
The Indiana basketball coach blew his top on Feb. 23, 1985, some 19 centuries after the mountain did.
The Hoosiers and Purdue were five minutes into a Big 10 Conference showdown when the fiery “General” famed for throwing tantrums made national headlines by throwing a chair. It clattered across the floor at Assembly Hall, an indelible image that Phil Bova, who officiated the game, replays in his head every time he returns to Bloomington.
“When I walk on that floor,” Bova said, “it’s kind of like a flashback thing.”
Knight exploded after the Hoosiers were called for their third foul in a span of 59 seconds. He uttered an obscenity, resulting in the first of three successive technicals, then picked up a red plastic chair with both hands and flung it onto the court. Jaws dropped throughout Assembly Hall. “It caught everybody by surprise,” said Bova, one of three officials who simultaneously tossed Knight for his toss. “The chair went across the floor almost into the handicapped section. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but it came awful darn close. Awful darn close.”Bova and his fellow officials — Fred Jaspers, now deceased, and London Bradley, who declined comment for this story —struggled to maintain order in the highly charged atmosphere of Assembly Hall. They were forced to contend with Knight’s wrath and his refusal to leave the premises; a din so deafening they had to shout to make themselves heard while huddled at the scorer’s table; and a shower of coins pelting the floor, courtesy of irate fans.
The sequence that triggered Knight’s legendary tirade began when Indiana’s Steve Alford was whistled for a foul with 4:01 elapsed. Less than a minute passed before teammate Marty Simmons was called for a foul during a scramble for a loose ball —a play, Knight insisted, that should have resulted in a jump ball. When Daryl Thomas was charged with a foul on the ensuing inbounds pass, Knight went off like a Fourth of July firecracker. An audible obscenity drew a “T” from Jaspers.
Purdue’s Steve Reid had just arrived at the line to shoot the free throws when he caught something out of the corner of his eye as it whizzed by.
“I couldn’t believe it was a chair,” Reid said. “I’ve never seen anything like that happen. I was shocked.”
So were the officials. While familiar with Knight’s short fuse and colorful vocabulary, they never expected him to rearrange the furniture. The act seemed beyond the pale even for the temperamental Knight.
“You’ll see guys taking a towel or a jacket and throwing it up in the air, or maybe kicking a bench,” said Bova, a vocational director at Buckeye High School in Medina, Ohio, who is wrapping up his 30th season as a Big 10 official and his 38th season overall in the collegiate ranks. “But seeing a chair come out, that was unique. I guess it was his way of making a statement, of showing his disgust.”
All three officials immediately gave the “T” sign and headed toward the scorer’s table, where Knight continued to rant.
“He was pretty wound up, to say the least,” Bova said. “We expressed to him that he was ejected for that technical foul. Then, during our conversation, he used some language that obviously you can’t print. So that was the third technical.”
But Knight stubbornly refused to depart as requested. The crowd of 17,279, already loud and boisterous, turned more raucous as the impasse dragged on.
“It being a rivalry, it was an intense game anyway,” Bova said. “And when the home team’s head coach gets thrown out, that kind of escalates things. Then, when he didn’t leave, that brought it to another level. I remember there was a crescendo of chants: ‘Bobby, Bobby, Bobby.’“
It seemed like an eternity, but it took us probably seven to 10 minutes to get him out of there. The Indiana athletic director, Ralph Floyd, came down onto the floor and was very concerned about what happened. He was wondering why we ejected Bob Knight. I said, ‘Mr. Floyd, you can’t toss a chair across the floor. That’s an automatic ejection.’ ”
By then the rain of coins had commenced. One reportedly struck the wife of Purdue Coach Gene Keady in the eye.
“There were nickels and dimes and quarters thrown onto the court,” Bova said. “I tell people that by the time we got Knight off the floor I had collected about $2.50.”
The game resumed after Knight exited to a standing ovation from the Indiana fans. The Hoosiers, who trailed 11-6 when play was interrupted, battled back to briefly take the lead late in the first half. But Purdue regained the advantage before the break and pulled away in the second half for a 72-63 victory.
“Thank goodness we were able to finish the game,” Bova said. “When the antics took place on the sidelines and Mr. Floyd came down, we had to explain to him that, hey, this was not acceptable. We need to get this game moving before things escalate. We had to make it very clear that if his coach didn’t leave, then the game would be forfeited.”
A contrite Knight later apologized for pitching a fit — and a chair.
“I do not think that my actions in the Purdue game were in any way necessary or appropriate. No one realizes that more than I do,” said Knight, who drew a one-game suspension from the Big 10 for his sideline histrionics. “I think sometimes you get in a situation where you obviously let some frustrations go out, and maybe you shouldn’t have.”
Knight has since moved on to Texas Tech and at the time of this writing was on the verge of becoming the winningest coach in Division I history. And Bova? He’s gained a place in college basketball history, too, as one of three officials who simultaneously tossed a coach for tossing a chair.
Bova encounters constant reminders of the incident, even when he’s not working a game at Assembly Hall. “People still talk about it all the time,” Bova said. “I’ve given talks at service clubs in the area and at officials gatherings and that game inevitably will come up. It was something unique to be part of.”
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