Day ‘N’ Knight
Brandin Knight’s helped the Pitt Panthers go from marginal to marvelous.
The University of Pittsburgh’s basketball team began their season last week ranked No. 5 in the Associated Press’ Top 25 Poll. The Division I Coaches’ Top 25 Poll had them checking in at No. 4. Neither spot is a surprise. Since 2001, the Pitt Panthers have spent more time in the Top 25 than out of it. A plethora of players and coaches deserve credit for the program’s sustained success. Maybe none more so than Brandin Knight.
In 1998, Brandin Knight signed on to play his college ball at the University of Pittsburgh. After four seasons balling in The ’Burgh, then in the D-League and, for the shortest of stints, in the NBA, Knight returned to coach at Pitt in 2006. He’s been there ever since.
You could say that Knight impacted the program as a player and continues to as a coach. But people in and around Pitt don’t use those titles—“player,” “coach”—when describing what he’s meant to the Panthers. Instead, they use more meaningful terms. Familial terms.
When interviewed, former Pittsburgh players don’t merely say, “He was my teammate.” They say, “He was my brother.” Current players don’t merely say, “He’s my coach.” They say, “He’s like my big brother.” Those who follow the Panthers closely don’t merely say, “He helped turn the program around.” They say, “He, along with former Coach Ben Howland and current coach Jamie Dixon, fathered the rebirth.”
Those are some pretty high compliments for a player who almost didn’t land a scholarship from a major D-I program.
“Really, Pitt was the best offer,” recalls Knight, now a dozen years removed from his high school days at Seton Hall Prep (NJ). “I had some mid-major interest. Offers from Manhattan, Howard and Rice University. What ended up happening was, [then-Panther] Ricky Greer saw me at ABCD Camp and he asked Coach [Ralph] Willard to take me. That’s how I ended up at Pitt.”
Brandin, better known for being NBA player Brevin Knight’s younger brother and New Jersey coaching legend Melvin Knight’s son, was bringing an understated, undervalued game to Pittsburgh, a school that had suffered four losing seasons in the previous five under Coach Willard.
Thanks to deft recruiting by assistant coach Troy Weaver, aside from Knight, future Lottery picks Rodney White and DerMarr Johnson were set to play under Willard, too. It was the spring of ’98, and things were looking bright in the coal-darkened city. Then, abruptly, Willard abandoned the helm; Weaver left; and the prodigious pair of White of Johnson decided not to enroll.
Suddenly, an 18-year-old BK found himself joining a historically weak team and playing for a new, young coach who hadn’t recruited him.
“It was a little different at first because I didn’t really know what to expect,” remembers Knight, “but it wasn’t like I had ever played for Coach Willard, so it was gonna be a new experience for me either way. Fortunately, it worked out well, and Coach Howland was very instrumental in helping me develop as a player. [Then-assistant coach] Dixon did, too. They were instrumental in making me the player and person I am.”
Coming from Northern Arizona, Coach Howland brought a system predicated on defense, shooting and toughness. And while Pitt didn’t have the proper long-range shooting personnel, the roster was full of tough, tenacious, two-way players. Knight was among the most talented of the bunch.
“As a player, he was just tough nosed, gave it his all,” says Levance Fields, one of the toughest players to come through The ’Burgh. “It didn’t matter if Brandin was hurt or not. He was just an underdog who rose up.”
The first few years under Howland were a learning process for both the coach and his players. In 1999-00, Howland’s and Knight’s first year, the team went 13-15. The next year, the team got incrementally better, finishing 19-14 and making an appearance in the NIT. The third season of the marriage of Howland, Knight and Pitt was when everything clicked. That year the Panthers finished an outstanding 29-6, won the Big East regular season title and advanced to the program’s first Sweet 16. Brandin Knight was named Big East Co-Player of the Year. Ben Howland was named Big East Coach of the Year. The Pittsburgh Panthers were on the map. The next year, despite nagging injuries hampering both Knight and versatile swingman Julius Page, the team amassed a record of 28-5, won the Big East regular season and Tournament titles, and again, reached the Sweet 16.
After compiling a school record in assists (785), assists per game (6.2), steals (298) and collecting a handful of conference and national awards, Brandin Knight’s eligibility was up. But not before he reinvigorated a program that had been dead since the late ’80s, changing the way Pitt played and was perceived in the process.
“It’s kind of like the mentality of the [NFL’s] Steelers,” says Knight, referring to the Panthers’ fiery, passionate, defensive-minded style of play. “We almost took the Steelers’ approach to the basketball court.”
The progress the school made over the early 2K years could have evaporated once Knight graduated and Howland went west to UCLA after the ’03 season. But the style of play—the style of player—was stamped in pen, not pencil.
Under new head coach Jamie Dixon, Howland’s long-time assistant, the program continued to build on the foundation that BH, BK and company laid. First, Carl “Black Magic” Krauser took over at point guard, leading the team to their third straight Big East regular season title. And then, after Krauser graduated, Levance Fields continued the 1-guard tradition, leading the team to a Big East Tournament title and the NCAA Tournament.
“I always try to tell people, those guys were very capable of carrying it on,” says a humble Knight. “They all left their own staple on this program.”
By 2006, a team that had once struggled to consistently play .500 ball a decade prior was now winning Big East titles and NCAA games on the regular. That season, Brandin Knight returned to work with Coach Dixon, first as a video coordinator and later as a full-fledged assistant. Almost immediately, BK picked up as a coach where he left off as a player.
“When he was a player, he played with so much heart, and he was the heartbeat of those teams,” says Sean Brown, a walk-on who worked out under Knight’s guidance. “And he still kind of is now, just in a different capacity.”
In his current “capacity” as assistant coach, Knight spends copious amounts of time scouting upcoming opponents, helping current players in the gym and, maybe most importantly, on the recruiting trail. In the past few seasons, he’s helped Dixon land some top-tier recruits, maybe none greater than Ashton Gibbs, a graduate of Seton Hall Prep—Knight’s Alma Mater—and the latest heady Pitt point guard.
“He’s really recruiting a lot of big-time players to come here,” says Gibbs, who’s averaging 19.3 points and 5.3 assists per game through the team’s 3-0 start this season. “So, I think that the best is yet to come for this program, and you’ll find that out in the next couple of years.”
Aside from looking for skilled players, Knight makes a point to seek out preps who are the hardest workers and of the highest quality character.
“We look for kids who have an edge to them about certain things,” says BK. “Namely, caring about winning, willing to compete and willing to do what it takes to get better.”
Basically, Knight’s looking for kids like him. Kids like Julius Page. Carl Krauser. Chevy Troutman. Levance Fields. Kid who could’ve played for Coach Howland. Kids who can play for Coach Dixon. Kids who can play in the Steel City. Kids who can carry on the hard-working tradition that Knight and Co. founded.
In March of 2009, six years after Brandin’s playing days ended and three years into his young coaching career, the University of Pittsburgh rewarded his decade of effort on Pitt’s behalf by raising his No. 20 jersey to the rafters, where it joined the jerseys of Don Hennon, Billy Knight and Charles Smith.
Fields says that it wasn’t just Knight’s stats that made him deserving of having his jersey put on ice, but because of the greater impact he’s had on Pitt.
“Brandin built the program,” says Fields, unsolicited. “You gotta give credit to the rest of the team and the rest of the coaching staff, but he was the leader, the captain, the guy who got the whole situation rolling.”
Sean Brown, a lifelong native of The ’Burgh, agrees: “Knight’s pretty much the architect of the entire basketball team, you know what I mean? He’s the founder of that whole blue-collar style we have. To be our original point guard and start that success from ’99 until now, that’s pretty amazing.”
A few months ago, Rutgers, a school located a few turnpike exits from Knight’s childhood neighborhood, offered him a top assistant job. He couldn’t have been blamed for taking the position. But, in the ultimate testament to his loyalty, BK turned it down.
“Pittsburgh has become my home,” says Knight. “I’ve been here for 12 years. I know the people. I know all the staff. There are so many peripheral people I enjoy being around. And my family enjoys being here.”
Since his Steel City arrival in 1999, Pitt’s accomplished a lot. Big East regular season titles, Big East Tournament titles, NCAA births, NCAA wins, Sweet 16s and even an Elite Eight appearance. The only thing the Panthers haven’t managed to do is reach a Final Four—something they plan on doing this season for the first time since 1941.
“I think this is the year,” says a quiet Gibbs.
Whether or not Pitt manages to dance its way to the Final Four this season or any other, you can no longer call the program lacking. They’ve already accomplished more this century than anyone would have thought possible. As they administration, coaches, fanbase and players have proven, Pitt is more than just a program, it’s a family. And Brandin Knight’s more than just a former-player-turned-coach. He’s a patriarch.