As he ran up and down the steep stairs of Assembly Hall as a freshman, Mike Woodson likely could not have imagined that the man glaring up at him from the Branch McCracken Court far below would one day be he his strongest advocate. And it would have been impossible to envision that this seemingly crazed coach would break down as Woodson’s promising senior season and perhaps entire playing career appeared to be coming to an end sooner than planned.
Woodson had a strong disciplinarian for a coach in high school, and he knew of Bob Knight’s demanding reputation. But after failing to keep his man off the offensive boards one too many times at practice, he got his first up close and personal encounter with Knight’s at times fiery demeanor.
“My freshman year I only weighed a buck-85 playing small forward, and I could never keep anybody off the boards, and Coach told me early on, I kept missing block outs, and Coach was like ‘Dammit, you miss one more block out and you’re gonna run them stairs until I get tired,’ Woodson recalled on the House of Hoosier podcast with A.J. Guyton.
What followed was the moment every player who came to Indiana during Knight’s tenure experienced.
The “what have I gotten myself into” moment.
“And sure enough I missed a block out,” Woodson continued. “And there I go, I ran all the way to the top, and walk all the way down. And this was going on for about an hour and I was like ‘did I come to IU for this?’ So he (Knight) hollers up and says ‘Well, I guess I’ve got to put up with your ass for another three years. Get on down here.'”
Woodson did come back down to the court that day, and he became one of the best Indiana players during Knight’s tenure.
And on more than one occasion during his four seasons in Bloomington, Woodson discovered that his head coach could direct his wrath not only at him, but on his behalf.
Woodson had been left off the first team All-Big Ten squad by the media as a junior despite averaging 21 points and 5.7 rebounds while shooting 50 percent from the field. Later in the day after the voting was released, Woodson poured in a career high 48 points as Indiana knocked off Illinois in Champaign.
At the post game press conference, Knight laid into the media.
“He just erupted,” Woodson recalled. “He was like ‘how the hell can this guy not be on first team All-Big Ten,’ and then the next day they put me on first team All-Big Ten.”
Woodson got the recognition he deserved as a junior, and his senior season at Indiana was setting up to be special. The Hoosiers were the preseason No. 1 team, and Woodson had a chance to be one of the top picks in the 1980 NBA Draft.
But before that senior season began, Woodson developed a back issue that had the potential to end his playing career.
As he dealt with the potentially devastating news, Woodson once again saw a side of Coach Knight that was much different than the man who sent him up and down the Assembly Hall stairs.
“Coach saw me at my lowest my senior year when I went down with back surgery,” Woodson said. “And it was the lowest point of my career. But I saw him at his lowest too, because he thought my career was over with, and he broke down, and it was the first time that I had ever seen Coach vulnerable in terms of a coach-player relationship.”
And it was at that point when Woodson realized his coach was much more complex than the man who had often been portrayed in the media as red-faced and angry.
“When he broke down I was like ‘Wow, this guy, he really cares about Mike Woodson, and his future, and you know, where he’s coming from,'” Woodson said. “That’s probably the lowest I’ve ever seen Coach, but it was a special time because I knew he was in my corner, and he always knew I was there in his corner.”
The coach-player relationship had become something different.
And it remains today.
“I think that developed a bond that has lasted for forty years plus,” Woodson said.
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