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A Twilight Zone Moment

Guide didn't want to foul on turkey trip with Coach Knight, boss

A Twilight Zone Moment
Guide didn't want to foul on turkey trip with Coach Knight, boss

If Bobby Knight’s words could kill there would have been a dead turkey on the ground.

Instead the bird was very much alive and the impromptu guide for Knight and friend, Jerry McKinnis could only hang his head in defeat.

“Jerry, you don’t know jack$&@% about turkey hunting and you are a rank novice,’’ Knight whispered, while leaning against an oak tree in Arkansas’ Ozark Mountains. “I only know half of jack$&@% and I’m half a novice. But we both got to see a really good turkey hunter screw up.”

In a fashion that only belongs to Knight, there was a compliment in there somewhere. But it didn’t help much.

The steady rhythm of raindrops plopping against the roof didn’t bode well for a turkey hunt. Turkeys are notorious for not gobbling on rainy days.

This was one morning where I wanted, if not needed, for everything to go at least semi-perfect. Rain, though, pretty much washed perfection straight down the Ozark mountainside.

Sitting in Jerry McKinnis’ house, listening to the plopping, waiting for the morning to start, all I could think about was how in the world I was going to salvage a hunt for two mentors in my life.

The first is McKinnis, who really is a rank novice at turkey hunting but has seen more gobblers on the hillsides around his home than most turkey hunters get to see in a lifetime. He’s my boss. And Bobby Knight, in my mind the irrefutable best coach of anything in the world, even if he does has a way with words. There was a time when I was skinnier, faster, but still couldn’t jump or dribble worth a dam, when I dreamed of playing for him.

It was an important personal morning, one where every move could be critical. But I was the only one worried about that.

Knight and McKinnis have been best friends for decades -- they were just enjoying their time away from being important people in other’s lives.

“So what do you think we should do first thing?” Knight questioned as I rolled through my mental-Rolodex of limited experiences with rain and turkeys. My standard plan on rainy mornings: Go back to bed.

The one time I needed a coach, the “Coach” was asking me.

My original plan was to start the morning near a green field 600 yards away. Hide all of us in some overhanging cedars and make a stand there. Gobblers cross the area frequently, often using it as a strutting zone. Even though many of them were with hens it made the most sense to start the day there. The turkeys, though, often roosted above McKinnis’ house.

The rain numbed my senses. With a steady plopping on the rooftop, we made the decision to stay close. The unforeseen, unpredicted and unplanned-for rain could get heavier.

It was a bad call. Thankfully one Coach didn’t recognize.

Bobby Knight the basketball coach, Bobby Knight the man, Bobby Knight the turkey hunter are all different than what most perceive who Bobby Knight really is.

Books, movies and news stories have shaped that perception for 30 years. He’s become a man a lot of sports fan either love or hate, with very few in between.

Those of us fortunate to have grown up in a generation where hard-nosed coaches were the norm compare him to John Wayne in action and hero status. His number of wins tops everyone with the most important achievement of graduating almost all of his players.

He’s mostly a black and white character, where the difference between right and wrong is distinct and separated.

He’s been known to throw chairs, walk off the court and even rant to make a point. He’s an imposing man. A sideways look from him can be scary and sometimes creates headlines.

What doesn’t make those headlines is just how big a heart he carries under his commanding frame. Books can be written about that.

This isn’t a book. But I’m intimately familiar with two instances.

The first was with Landon Turner, a young star on the Indiana basketball team who Knight says “would have certainly been a first-round NBA draft pick.”

Turner, though, was paralyzed in a one-car accident four months after winning the NCAA Championship. He has spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair.

Knight, like so many other coaches, could have moved on to the next class. Instead, before every Indiana University home game he would clear an area just for Turner, making sure he had the best seat in the house. In addition, he helped pay for Turner’s medical bills.

The only time Knight didn’t allow Turner to sit on the front was when he showed up with an earring. Say what you will, but that’s my type of coach.

The other was with McKinnis. Both of these guys have been through their tough times and in the 1990s, McKinnis was having one of his. The details are unimportant. McKinnis was in a deep funk and withdrawn from the rest of the world, until Knight, in only a way he can get away with, called McKinnis and turned him around.

That conversation was one-sided and was the perfect medicine. It went something like this: “If you are just going to lie around and act like a piece of dog $&@%, then go lay out in the yard and do it right.”

Not another word was said. Knight slammed down the phone and McKinnis started snapping out of his funk

As a turkey hunter, Knight brings the same fire to the turkey woods he once brought to college basketball. He even sees some similarities between going head to head with a turkey and going head to head with someone like Dean Smith.

He likes formulating a game plan.

“It’s like if you know you are playing a team that likes to run, we’ve got to beat you down the floor so you don’t get a lot of fast-break points,’’ he said. “You need to know what you are faced with each morning and be able or ready to respond to that immediately.

“It makes it fun. It gives me something to do.”

But that’s where the similarities stop, at least for him; a fact that would soon come apparent in only a too painful way.

Knight began turkey hunting in Indiana on a trip with a friend he characterized as “Abbott and Costello going hunting.”

Up to that point, he had mostly been a quail hunter, but was convinced to try bigger prey.

“My friend was really good,’’ Knight said. “But when we got to where we were going I jammed a 12-gauge shell into my 20-gauge. It was stuck and we had to go back to the truck and cut the damn thing out. By the time we were finished, I had shells and powder all over the place.”

Knight, though, was successful on that first trip. And was on his way to being hooked. For the next several years he would hunt about 15 days a season, and while getting several chances never pulled the trigger again.

Then he went to Texas where Rio Grande turkeys are numerous along with opportunities. On his first trip there he shot a Rio Grande and he was back in business.

Then things changed for him on a hunt with friends when he picked up a box call one day and had three gobblers respond. They were sitting and calling with no response.

Knight is always active, whether on the sidelines or the turkey woods.

“Let me have that thing,” he said. “I hit it one time and a turkey gobbled.”

“My friend, who had been calling said, ‘You’ll need to shoot, so get your gun ready and I’ll call.’”

The box call switched hands and every call went unanswered until Knight took it back over and once again, he got the hoped-for response of gobbling turkeys. The turkeys were marching straight at him and as they walked down into a dip in the landscape, he got his gun up and when the first head popped out, he pulled the trigger.

When he reached the dip, all three turkeys were dead. An uncommon feat, but it didn’t mean near as much to him as the fact he had made a call and a turkey had responded.

Since then he’s called in and taken dozens. His springtime passion following March Madness is to take friends and call in turkeys for them.

“I get more out of that than anything,’’ Knight said,

More than once he’s called in turkeys, not had the perfect shot and let them walk deeming the hunt a success. Today, you may see him on television shows in camo and talking turkey hunting.

With the rain, now plopping on the bill of my hat, it was obvious that any roosted turkey was not going to gobble. We had set up on the side of hill where McKinnis had seen dozens of turkeys march down to the green field below us.

Knight, whose newfound passion is calling, worked his slate. The rest of us listened. By 7:30 a.m., my brain started drying out along with the rain.

The thought slam-dunked me to reality: When it rains, turkeys like to be in the open. I knew that from years of sharing experiences with the best turkey hunters in the country.

“We’ve got to go,’’ I whispered to the pair. “We need to head straight to the green field and set up there. I think that’s our best opportunity.”

Ten minutes later we were sitting under a cedar tree. Its under-story was the perfect blind for three men. Knight started hitting his slate, asking for and taking advice on rhythm and duration.

At precisely 8 a.m., he received the first response. A gobbler, no more than 150 yards away, answered as cleanly and loudly as you would want a turkey to answer. We waited. Knight stroked his slate again and the turkey answered.

“This is where we make it or break it,’’ I whispered. “We’re going to sit here and let him gobble. He’s already answered you twice, so he’s acknowledged that you are a hen. Now we have to make him want to come to us.

“The next time he gobbles, immediately make three or four yelps with the slate and let’s see what happens.”

We waited again. A couple minutes later, the turkey gobbled but it sounded further away. Knight stroked the call. The gobbler responded.

The immediate thought was that hens were carrying this boy away, but he was still workable, since he seemed to be responding. Once more we waited. Knight called and the turkey responded, this time closer.

“That’s it,’’ I said, “no matter how much you want to pick up that call we are not going to call. We’re going to wait on this bird to make the next move.”

Ten minutes passed without a peep. Then the bird gobbled again, still in the same place. We stayed quiet and after five minutes it gobbled again. We waited and three minutes later it gobbled again, this time moving away.

Knight resumed calling. And for the next hour and a half we played this game of turkey moving closer and then moving away. Knight getting him hot, then shutting it down.

A really good turkey hunter would have immediately been able to move on this turkey. But with three big bodies that was out of the question.

By 10 a.m., though, it was apparent that if we were going to kill this turkey before Knight had to leave, we needed to move.

We ran/walked as fast as an overweight 48-year old can move with Knight and McKinnis in tow.

The turkey was in a small acre-sized clearing, obviously setting up shop there and using it as a strut zone. I say that now, I didn’t know it at the time.

But McKinnis knew the area. The bird had gone silent and our plan was to slip into the opening, set up and call the bird back to us.

When we got close, Knight ran the slate and got nothing in return. I stepped into the woods, kneeled down and looked. My immediate thought was to belly crawl closer, but as I turned and looked at Knight and McKinnis, I thought “no way.”

I took a couple more steps and was getting ready to take a seat, when I caught the movement of turkey legs high tailing it from behind a cedar bush and for safer ground. Its beard was long enough I thought he would trip on it.

The turkey Knight had kept gobbling in the rain for two hours was gone and I hung my head in defeat.

I asked Coach what was his most memorable defeat. He retold a story of a game in the 1970 NIT semifinals when he coached Army against St. John’s. Army was a point ahead and the referee called a two-shot foul with seconds left on the clock.

It was a bonehead call. I believe that as much as Knight.

St. John’s went on to win that game by a point. Bobby Knight has never forgotten the taste of that defeat.

In 1975 after a 31-0 season, his Indiana team lost to Kentucky in the regional final. That one hurt because as Knight put it, his team “was by far the best team in the country.”

In each of those cases, he relayed the plays and players with astonishing detail. To remember that after 35 years shows you how hard it was.

“I may feel just like that right now,’’ I said.

“Bull,’’ Knight said, laughing. “You can take all the turkeys I’ve shot or the lines that have broken and fish that have gotten off and give me just one of those points.

“This morning that doesn’t bother me at all. What am I going do with it anyhow? I’m going give it to somebody so I don’t lose anything by missing a turkey.  The turkey sure gains and that doesn’t bother me. That’s part of the game.  You’re a lot more upset than I am.

“If that turkey had come on up there and we had shot it, that probably would have been great but it probably wouldn’t have been as interesting as what happened.”

That’s when he threw in the compliment.

“Jerry, you don’t know jack$&@% about turkey hunting and you are a rank novice. I only know half of jack$&@% and I’m half a novice. But we both got to see a really good turkey hunter screw up.

“You don’t get to see that every day, so I think it was a good day.”

He didn’t stop there. With less than 30 minutes to go before he had to jump in a truck to drive to the airport, in true Knight spirit, he wanted to play until the final second ticked.

“Now, we’ve got to move. We’ve made so freakin’ (not what he really said) much noise here we would have scared gorillas away. Where do we go next?”

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