Knight Moves

Indiana icon’s phone call put Frank on coaching fast track

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Lawrence Frank was 13 when he decided he wanted to be a basketball coach. He wasn’t much older when he chose the mentor he felt gave him the best chance to make it happen: Bobby Knight.

Dean Smith had been a giant of college basketball for at least a few decades when Frank was coming of age in Teaneck, N.J., in the mid-1980s. John Thompson was in the midst of his dynastic run at Georgetown. Jerry Tarkanian was building a power in the desert at UNLV, Eddie Sutton lorded over the thoroughbred recruits annually attracted to Kentucky and Jim Valvano’s larger-than-life personality elevated North Carolina State to the national stage.

“I respected a lot of coaches – North Carolina, Duke – but Indiana, that was what just worked for me,” Frank said of his fixation. “I had tremendous respect for coach Knight and obviously still do.”

With the help of his father and a neighbor, Frank crafted a letter that wound up in the hands of Knight’s assistant coach, Dan Dakich, stating his desire to join the Indiana basketball program as a student manager. He followed up with a phone call to Dakich, hoping to earn a commitment for one of the coveted spots – four in each IU class, 16 in all.

He got nothing.

“Indiana was the only school I was looking at that said, ‘You want to be a manager? We get 60 applicants a year. Take your chance,’ ” Frank told me.

He had a sure thing at Delaware, whose coach, Steve Steinwedel, was recruiting two players from Teaneck and eventually offered Frank a scholarship as a coaching assistant.

“So I could choose between a four-year scholarship to be a coaching assistant at Delaware or Indiana, where there is zero guarantee, 60 applicants, take your chance.”

To earn a few bucks, Frank had a job in high school shuttling travelers from Teaneck to the airport about 20 miles away in Newark. A chance conversation with one of his passengers convinced him to take the leap and choose Indiana over Delaware.

“I just remember giving this guy a ride. He said something that just clicked with me about being a small fish in a big sea on the opportunities. For whatever reason, it clicked and I said, ‘I’m going to Indiana.’ ”

To be one of the lucky four to make the cut among the incoming freshman class of 1988 in Bloomington, Frank also had to navigate a slippery political slope. IU basketball is a religion in hoops-crazed Indiana and the fervor never ran hotter than it did during the ’80s, peaking just as Frank made his pilgrimage from New Jersey one year after the Hoosiers won their third NCAA title in 11 years under Knight.

“If you can’t play at Indiana, the next best thing is being a manager in that state,” he said. “So we had, as managers, a lot of former really good high school players that couldn’t play at Indiana but were Division II or III quality but they wanted to be affiliated with the program. Also, because of prior managers, you had a lot of guys who wanted to be coaches, so it was a great apprenticeship, but it also made it very competitive. And there were the political connections, governor’s sons or things like that, so there were a lot of variables in play.”

He didn’t find out he made the cut until he was enrolled and the interview process began a few weeks after classes started. As a freshman, “you’re like a plebe – filling water bottles, mopping up the floor, washing the backboards, collecting the gear, lining the floor,” he said. “You’re doing entry-level tasks.”

Knight was famously curt, combative and dismissive and must have cut an intimidating figure for any teenager, let alone one who stood 5-foot-8 and had been cut four straight years from his Teaneck High team. Frank did his best to not be noticed – “the best manager is one who’s never seen or heard,” he said – but he came in for Knight’s wrath occasionally.

“He went off on me a few times, and many times I deserved it,” he said. “Those things help you grow up. When you make mistakes and you’re accountable, they help you grow up. Growing up where I grew up, it’s not that there wasn’t the intimidation factor, but it was different. You get yelled at, you move on. I always felt he was hard but he was fair. If you gave your best effort, he respected that. If you were loyal, he was there for you for life. A lot of people, once you leave them, they might not be there for you.”

Once the 1991-92 season ended and Frank’s four years under Knight were up, he went to him for advice on getting on his career path to coaching. He’d majored in education and was prepared to become a high school coach. But he secretly hoped to land somewhere as a college graduate assistant.

For two weeks, Frank showed up every day at Knight’s office and asked his secretary, Marian, if he could get in to see Knight for a few minutes. Finally, sometime in the third week, he gained an audience with Knight.

“So I went in there and gave him my whole spiel. I want to be a coach – boom-boom-boom. I appreciated the experience and I wanted to get your advice – not asking for anything, just advice. He looks at me and says, ‘You know, you have a while before you’re the next James Naismith.’ And that was it. Man, I waited three weeks for this?”

Not long after, Frank landed a job as a staff assistant, with a $5,000 salary, under Kevin O’Neill at Marquette. Two months into the job, Frank and O’Neill were having dinner when O’Neill asked him, “Do you know why I hired you?”

“Yeah, just because of my relationship with the Indiana program and your respect for coach Knight,” Frank replied.

“No,” O’Neill answered. “I hired you because I got a call from coach Knight, who said, ‘If you don’t hire this son of a gun, it’ll be the worst mistake you make.’ ”

“But coach Knight never to this day has said that to me,” Frank said. “That’s kind of indicative of who he is. He does a lot of these things on behalf of others but he never wants the credit.”