I don't typically turn to Indiana basketball the be the source of learning and information. It is even less frequent that I turn to Bobby Knight to learn about anything other than basketball. But today I was reminded about former big-time recruit Ivan Renko and what his relationship with Knight was like. That story feels especially important during this current era of realignment, social media, and the number of people talking about otherwise critical topics.
If you're unfamiliar with Ivan Renko, he was one of the recruits that Knight was most excited about in his 1993 recruiting class. At 6-8 and 230-pounds, Renko had committed to the Hoosiers and Knight thought he would have an immediate impact on an already loaded squad. Renko came from Yugoslavia and was residing in New Jersey. Not many people knew about Renko and there wasn't a ton of information that could be said about Renko because of the political strife and turmoil going on in Yugoslavia at the time.
But Knight was excited about him, that much was very clear.
Most early recruiting experts didn't have information on Renko and scrambled to find out what they could. Some reported facts about Renko's game and talked about how great he would be or about how Knight was reaching for a project that wouldn't make an impact. The information on Renko was all over the map.
How did Renko turn out as a player?
Well, he didn't. Because he didn't exist. Knight made the entire thing up. There was no Ivan Renko. Knight talked about the tale in his book, "Bobby Knight: My Story." Here is the Renko tale in Knight's own words:
"I don't believe I've ever seen an occupation where there is more internal jealousy than in sports writing.
I've wondered how many gusy who talk or write so knowingly ever played a team sport. I've always contended there's a huge segement of people who cover sports who don't like sprots - they don't like the salaries athletes or coaches get, they envy athlete's recognition they get and the aura around them, and they have ever since those were the guys getting girlfriends in high school.
They're an amazing group.
You should see some o the guys who call me fat.
You should see how some of these guys dress - and criticize my wearing apparel.
Writers are decieving themselves if they thing I'm the only one in sports who thinks of them as I do. I'm just the worst at hiding it, of which I'm kind of proud. But I pay for doing that.
There are occasional little triumphs within the annoyances. When the anti-Knights were firing their strongest barrage in the spring of 2000, one of my arch-critics was reduced to writing that he didn't want to hear how many kids I graduate, or how clear our program is, or how kids who played for me feel about me, or how well those kids have done in life, or how many games or championships we've won, or good things that I've done for people...
And my thought was: Other than those things, what else is there?
He had pretty much covered the things I promised to try to do do when I met with the Indiana serach committee that March day in 1971 in Houston.
I think those things he was tired of hearing about added up to a hell of a good report card for my twenty-nine Indiana years.
To use some of the jargon of the day, I wasn't always reactive in my dealings with the press. Occasionally, I couldn't resist being a little bit proactive.
The classic was Ivan Renko.
Few things irritated me as much over the years as the rise of the self-proclaimed recruiting expert in newspapers around the country. A lot of fans are interested in recruiting news. Unquestionably, it sells newspapers - it even spawns whole magazines and periodicals and "services."
Never mind that what the fans read is frequently inaccurate, to use a kind word. Never mind that it puts public pressure on kids, when they and their parents are trying to make a quiet, serious decision. Never mind what extreme national recruitign attention does to kids' egos, their sense of self-worth.
Over the years I have taken an occasional shot at the same that this whole evlauation process has become. In late January of the 1992-93 season, as my Sunday television show was ending, I dropped in an almost accidental news leak - "NCAA rules prevent me from speaking about specific recruits. I spoke at a clinic in Europe last July, attended by about four hundred coaches. I was given some information over there on a kid from Yugoslavia. When I got back from the Northwestern game, on my desk was an indication that this kid has committed to coming to Indiana. He's a six-foot-eight, two-hundred-and-thirty pound kid that I think... anybody who follows the political situation of civil unrest in Yugoslavia can appreciate the fact that we'd just kinda like to leave it go at that. The kid's name is Ivan Renko. Let it suffice to say that we're very pleased to get this commitment."
The greatest fly every tied never caught as many fish as I did with Ivan Renko.
The recruiting 'experts' jumped at my bait. The waters exploded. Guru after guru commented. Some, to their credit, were honest - Bob Gibbons comes to mind. He and a few others - there are some good guys in the lot - said they had never heard of the guy but they would check. Others couldn't do that, couldn't let themselves seem to have been caught unprepared. Several said they knew about this Renko kid, had files on him, and they either agreed that he was an outstanding prospect or said how much I overrated him.
My favorites were the ones in the group who claimed to have actually seen Ivan Renko play and offered an instant, detailed evaluation of his skills and his future as a college player.
There was, of course, no Ivan Renko. I made up everything about him on the broadcast, and in a few follow-up comments that kept it all going. I wanted to make a point that so much of what people pay money to get from recruiting experts is sheer bullshit, and I think I - and they, in their reactions - did make that point. I figured it was kind of like the false D-day plans the Allied forces 'allowed' to get into German hands."
First and foremost? Ouch. Why am I covering something that is a direct attack on my intelligence?!
Secondly, there is an incredibly important lesson here - especially in the social media/instant information world that we live in. That lesson is really simple.
Media outlets can be manipulated, used, and taken advantage of by parties who have an agenda. That can be a coach looking to expose hypocrisy like Knight, or it can be a conference commissioner leaking information in an effort to create or refute a narrative.
Along with that, media personalities tend to have a special kind of arrogance about them that cultivates chances to be manipulated and used as pawns. It's a weird relationship.
Journalists need some arrogance. You have to be pretty confident and ballsy to ask difficult questions of people who don't want to talk to you. You have to be kind of cocky to report something that is going to be be received in such a negative way. That arrogance is important for the job.
That arrogance also has a downside, and manipulation is a big part of what that looks like.
So, as you move forward reading about conference realignment or hear about spring practice reports, remember Ivan Renko.