While on deck and in pursuit of game fish, we anglers become acutely aware of our surroundings. We hear every surface disturbance, see any oddly shaped object or movement in the water, feel even the slightest tick in the rod tip, and at times, we can almost taste and smell the presence of fish.
One man who knows all too well about senses reaching superhero sensitivity in the heat of the moment is Bob Knight, who earned a reputation as one of the, if not the, best college basketball coaches in history. To earn such a status, Knight had to remain extremely focused at all times. In his element, he missed nothing — he could see and capitalize on every weakness of opposing teams; he could feel his five players jell as a single unit; he could hear every sneaker squeak on the hardwood; and because he was so incredibly dialed in, he became quite familiar with the smells and tastes of victory.
So, what does a legendary collegiate basketball coach have to do with fly-fishing? Well, it just so happens that Knight feels every bit as at home on the flats as he does on the basketball court.
The idea to learn more about Knight's angling habits came when Fly Fishing in Salt Waters contributor Mark B. Hatter recounted a firsthand interaction he had with Coach:
“Coach Bobby Knight called for me?” I asked my wife. “How should I know?” she said. “He left a number; call him.” The college basketball coaching icon had called me about a feature story I’d written for Fly Fishing in Salt Waters about chasing bonefish on the flats of South Caicos. He wanted to know if my story was “real or bullshit.” We chatted for a bit, and by the end of our conversation, I’d convinced “Coach” the fly-fishing was as good as I’d described. In appreciation for the “G2” he’d send me a Texas Tech shirt. I didn’t get the shirt, but, since that call five years ago, both Coach and I independently have been regulars at Bibo Jayne’s bonefish operation on South Caicos. Recently, an email from Bibo mentioned he was fishing Coach in the coming week. I wrote back a one-liner: “Tell that bastard he still owes me a shirt!” A week later, my Texas Tech shirt had finally arrived with a nice, personal letter from Bobby Knight.
Tracking down a four-time coach of the year proved tricky, especially with March Madness just around the corner. When I finally did connect with Knight, introductions were exchanged, and I made the mistake of referring to him as Bobby — once I was corrected and the proper name of Bob was established, he explained how his love for fly-fishing began.
In 1973, he traveled to Montana with a spinning outfit in hand to fish the Madison River for big rainbow trout. After having caught his share of fish, he was intrigued with the other anglers on the river using dry flies. On the third day of his trip he borrowed a fly rod, and right then and there he was hooked.
To most of us, basketball is just a game, but when the game is played at the level Coach Knight is accustomed to, it becomes a completely different animal. The stress, blood, sweat and tears that inevitably have to be put in to compete with the best of the best have to take their toll. I figured fly-fishing was something that Coach did only during the offseason as a way to mentally unwind and physically heal from the torment of a basketball season. Interestingly enough, fly-fishing is not a casual hobby for Knight and it’s not something he does once or twice a year — it’s something that he does as often as he possibly can. He’s an equal opportunity fisherman who doesn’t particularly have a favorite species or a favorite destination; he simply likes to fly-fish.
"You never know if a kid is going to do what you've told him to do, and actually, I've had flies that have reacted a lot better to my instructions over the years than a lot if the players I've had, so maybe I'm better at fly-fishing than coaching."
Knight has had his fair share of media attention throughout the years, and what the cameras and reporters had the most interest in was the passion and intensity he brought with him on the basketball court. I couldn’t help but wonder if he carried the same attitude on the water. He shared with me that it’s not so much intensity as it is persistence. He said that he just stays at it — so much, in fact, that Knight admitted that his fishing buddies often have a difficult time staying with him because he doesn’t like to give up — a mentality that was instilled in each student who played under his leadership.
During his tenure at Indiana University, Knight led three Hoosier teams to NCAA National Championships, including an undefeated season in 1976 — a feat that hasn’t been achieved since. While everyday folks might think it impossible to even imagine the sense of accomplishment that comes with working so hard all season long with one goal and actually seeing it through to the end, Knight feels differently. When I asked him what it feels like to win a title, he understandably had trouble putting it into words but eventually summed up his response by saying, “It’s a similar thrill every time you catch a fish. When you see the fish take your fly, it’s like being ahead of the game.”
While I had plenty more questions that I hoped would parallel fly-fishing with basketball, it was at this point that Knight forced a turnover. Knight has an intimidating air about him that, I admit, made it difficult for me to play my A-game. I made a fundamental error when I paused between questions. Knight picked up on the slip-up immediately and reached in for a steal.
“Where do you like to fish?” he asked. I answered by saying that, like him, I’m not discriminatory on locals; I simply like to fish too. A fraction of a second before I started to ask my next question, Knight boxed me out and asked: “What do you like to fish for?” Again, I quickly responded, but the questions kept coming my direction. Strategically, he continued his attack, keeping the ball in his court.
With every move I made to regain control, Knight aggressively and persistently countered. He was quicker to ask me questions and tactically responded to mine in the form of yet another question for me. After he had me completely worn down, he asked, “Why don’t you take me fly-fishing sometime?” How else could I possibly respond with anything but “I’d love to.” We discussed logistics and, by the end of our conversation, I had agreed to set up a redfishing trip in Louisiana later in 2013. While Knight showed me a thing or two about how an interview with a legendary coach really goes down, perhaps I’ll have a chance to redeem myself on the front of a skiff.
Am I feeling the pressure? Like being down by one point with no time on the clock and being on the foul line for the final two shots of a game.