Nearly anyplace Todd Knight looks on the campus of Ouachita Baptist University, Arkansas' longest-tenured active college head football coach sees family looking back at him. Reporting to work each day, he'll huddle with his son, Spencer, who played for his dad at Ouachita and now coaches OBU's wide receivers.
Elsewhere on campus Knight routinely runs into his older brother, Dr. Tim Knight, the dean of sciences whose tenure with the school predates his by a couple of years. And at some point, Coach Knight is all but assured to see his father, John Knight, who with Todd's mom, Rose, retired to Arkadelphia to be closer to the boys and grandkids and keep tabs on how the Tigers are progressing.
There's more family here too, although of the football variety. Several of Knight's key assistant coaches have long ago put down roots here alongside their skipper and boast careers measured in decades. Even his boss, Athletic Director David Sharp, holds a paternalistic position having not only hired Knight but also coaching him during his days as a scrappy linebacker/offensive lineman in the 1980s.
And of course, there are the hundreds of players that Coach Knight has always seen as his own, like a particularly large set of nephews, each one to be incubated into better athletes and even better men leaving than they were coming in.
"The thing about football, and why I've always said it's the greatest sport, is that in football heart matters and energy matters and urgency matters. Those are the things that really teach what a total man is," Knight says. "The great thing about Ouachita is you can get a phenomenal education here, but there's some things the classroom doesn't teach. That's really what we're doing on the football field and in the fieldhouse. It's another way to teach life skills.
"That's really my job here. It's more than just football. I tell the guys all the time life is bigger than football. Football is important, but it's not the most important thing."
There's a lot that identifies Knight as a member of his profession, from a ready repertoire of there's-no-I-in-team-style idioms, and a slight rasp in his voice honed by three decades-plus on the sidelines, to a coiled intensity that burns in his eyes and escapes his body through animated gestures. But there's even more that's wholly unexpected in him, starting with a faith as immediate and vivid as the team's signature purple and his personal code of conduct that leans less toward being a tyrant and more into being a teacher of the game.
"I won't judge or look down on any [coach] by their style, but I would say for me, my style and my staff, I want us to be a light to the guys," he says. "Again, I'm not being critical of anyone else, but I will say about our coaching philosophy, one thing we strive to do is to be proactive instead of reactive.
"Reactive is, 'Ahhhhh! You fumbled!' Proactive is, 'Hey, you turned it over because you didn't have the six pressure points, the eagle claw, the palm, the forearm, the breast, the bicep. That's why you turned it over. Get the ball high and tight. Now, sometimes we react, sometimes we scream. But when we can be proactive, we're better coaches."
"Just seeing how he attacks every day, he's a positive guy by nature and I love that," says Riley Harms, starting quarterback and a team captain. "I think that's a great quality to have. He shows up every day with the same intensity and the same focus. I think that's just such a great thing to have in a role model because we know that it's not OK to have an off day mentally. Obviously, we're all going to make mistakes, but when you have a leader and a coach who is out there in front of us completely locked in on the goal, it makes everybody rise to that level.
"I want to be a college coach whenever I'm done playing. Obviously, this is just a perfect spot for me to be, under him."
Knight was born in 1964 in Baytown, Texas, but spent the entirety of his growing up in Star City (Lincoln County). During his years in high school, the team didn't win much but the Bulldog mascot served as apt metaphor to the undersized Knight.
"It was a little bit of some down years in Star City. Had a run there that wasn't great. It was great in my mind, but as far as records, it wasn't great," he says. "But I'm a bootstrap guy and I don't think the game of football will ever outgrow needing that kind of guy. You can measure height and weight but you can't measure a man's heart."
Despite the team's struggles, Knight says he got tremendous coaching, so much so that it set his mind on a career in the profession. He brought his optimistic attitude and work ethic to OBU where he walked on for Coach Buddy Benson. Knight still speaks with pride about earning his scholarship, ending his career as a team captain and, of course, the annual Battle of the Ravine rivalry game against Henderson State University across the street.
"Over my four years we were three and one in the Battle of the Ravine which is a big deal," he says. "We won the conference championship my freshman year and my senior year we ended up behind UCA and Henderson who tied for it.
"I was an average player. I was not a great player so being voted team captain when I was a senior was huge to me, because that's usually voted by the players."
More committed than ever to become a coach, Knight took every opportunity to soak up as much as he could from Benson.
"I came here and had a great experience playing for Buddy Benson. He was the head coach and very influential in my career," Knight says. "He's a disciplinarian, he's a detail-oriented guy who believed the little things mattered. I learned that from him. The only reason I played was because of the discipline of Coach Benson and the other players. It was discipline and fundamentals that got me on the field, it wasn't athletic ability."
Knight's best get during his time at OBU was a pretty coed from Searcy, Julie Hartsfield who would become the rock of his existence, mother to his three kids and the rudder for the itinerant life nearly all coaches live.
"She's everything," Knight says, his voice softening. "I mean, she's the coach at home. When you're going home, you're griping and talking about how bad practice was, she goes, 'Well, that's why the sun's going to come up in the morning. You're going to get to fix those problems.'"
Knight's real-world coaches education began as a graduate assistant at Delta State University in Cleveland, Miss. There he coached and learned under Jimmy "Red" Parker. Parker, who had coached at the highest levels of the sport, including as head coach of Clemson in the 1970s, was another formative figure in Knight's life and career, helping him envision the kind of coach he wanted to become.
"Coach Parker used to tell young coaches 'Be yourself,'" Knight says. "I'll never forget him saying, 'Don't try to be like me. Don't try to be like the guy you're GA'ing for. You need to be you because people are going to see through that. You might take a philosophy, you might take a play or something from somebody because it's a business where you share ideas. But you've still got to be you.' That's really stuck with me, and I've tried to be me. I hope the me that I am is better now than it was when I got into it."
From Delta State Knight moved to Division I University of Texas El Paso for two years under serving under head coach and former Arkansas assistant David Lee, then returned to Cleveland as Delta State head coach from 1993 to 1998. His final year there, Knight led the team to the first conference title in school history and landed conference Coach of the Year honors.
It was then the phone rang from his alma mater. After years mired in mediocrity, the Tigers were ready for a change. It was time for Knight to come home to OBU.
"I went from being an assistant coach/defensive coordinator to athletic director," says David Sharp. "Todd Knight had been on my radar and obviously, we hired him. The attractive things about him were his integrity, his love for the game, his being a student of the game and being on the cutting edge of doing things the right way in developing young men. Not only on the field but off the field."
Knight took over a program that hadn't had a winning season since he graduated, amassing a record of 44-72-2 in the 12 interim seasons. Adding insult to injury, rival Henderson State had reeled off seven straight Battle of the Ravine victories, the Reddies' longest streak since 1907-1912. Turning things around wouldn't be easy or quick; the Tigers went 28-61 over the next nine seasons with the highlight being back-to-back 5-5 seasons in 2002 and 2003. Even in small college football, that's enough to get the fan base rumbling.
"It was tough," Knight says. "My wife coached me up on that. She reminded me, and she's exactly right, that when they're saying those things it's because [fans] want to win too, and they care about it. I'd rather have an armchair quarterback that's up there fighting mad wanting to win the game than I would an empty bleacher.
"People have irritated me through the years, but overall the Ouachita family has been great. The ones that are critical don't mean it, they just want us to be good. Sometimes people will say something and [Julie] puts her hand out and says, 'Just remember, they love the program. They want the program to be good. They might not think like you think, but at least they're here.' That's a great way to look at it."
EXPERIMENT PAYS OFF
By 2008 the Knight experiment was starting to pay off. The Tigers posted a 7-3 mark and haven't had a losing season since. In 2011 OBU won the school's first Great American Conference title, the first of six such crowns, more than any other coach in Ouachita history. The Tigers went undefeated in regular season play four times in 2014, 2018, 2019 and 2022. Knight, a three-time conference Coach of the Year and 2022 American Football Coaches Association (AFCA) Region Three Coach of the Year, also led the Tigers to five playoff berths, including the school's first in 2014.
In an era vastly different from that of his mentors, Knight has been able to navigate the changing tides and connect with players young enough to be his sons, getting better as time goes on.
"I feel like I've adjusted in the profession, not that I'm giving up any principles, not that at all," he says. "I think this generation is a great generation, but they want to know why. When I came up, it was you do this. You go block this guy. Now they go, 'Why do we do that?' If you do a good job explaining the why they'll play hard for you.
"I also think it's important today that they know it's more than just being a good player. It's important to them that you know their mom has cancer. It's important that you know when they need to go home, they need help with something or they're in financial disarray or whatever it is. Our philosophy is trust, care and commitment and I tell my players all the time, 'You want more friends than anybody? You've got to care about more people.' I think that's the difference to me in coaching and generational stuff. Now it's more about I want you to understand the big picture. It's probably better than how we did back in the day, honestly."
The proof of Knight's system can be measured in other ways, including a 90% graduation rate among his players. Of the four OBU alumni who have played in the NFL since 1970, three came out of the Knight era including Julius Pruitt (2011, Miami Dolphins); Phillip Supernaw (2012-2017 for Tennessee, Kansas City, Houston and Baltimore); and cornerback Gregory Junior with the Jacksonville Jaguars, who last year became the school's first-ever NFL draft pick.
Knight waves off talk about Ouachita becoming an NFL factory, but does say the program's emphasis on fundamentals, attitude and work ethic has shown viability in the pros.
"Phillip Supernaw with the Titans, the first thing he told me when he made it, he said, 'Coach, the difference between me and these other guys is they're all entitled. I've had to work,'" Knight says. "He said, 'They're griping because there's not a Gatorade machine in the dressing room. I'm just thankful I've got a helmet and shoulder pads and I know how to grind every day.' Hearing him say that just re-emphasized how work ethic and coming to work every day and staying focused, not being complacent, those things matter at any level."
LEADER AMONG LEADERS
In addition to preparing his team's play on the field, Knight has also invested back into the game by serving on committees through the NCAA and the AFCA. Most notably, he serves on the rules committee for the NCAA and was one of the primary architects of the targeting rule enacted in 2013. He's also nearing the end of his yearlong term as president of the American Football Coaches Association. Through these seats, he gets to bring a coach's perspective to proposed rule changes while advocating for the profession's highest ideals.
"Over the last couple years, it's been all about the portal, all about NIL [name, image likeness]," he says. "Some of these things are not bad but they're not really coming forward like they were intended to be. The portal was really intended as a way that kids that weren't playing would have a way to transfer. It blossomed into something we didn't plan on, that the NCAA didn't plan on.
"NIL, you're taking the great team sport and all of a sudden, you're paying one guy instead of everybody. So there are some negatives, but there are some positives, too. It's our job to try to curtail these things and get them going in the right direction. I'm not saying they're not positive now, but they can be better."
As a result of these positions, Knight is well-known among his coaching brethren at all levels, including those household names even the most casual fan would recognize. Yet for all that, he has no desire to join them at the highest level of big-time collegiate football and the unrelenting pressure-cooker environment that goes with it. Instead, he's happy to coach alongside longtime associates and his son, continuing to lead his teams to success on the field and greater glory off of it.
"I don't think it matters as much what level you're coaching at, I think it matters more what you do with what you've got," he says. "At first, yeah, I wanted to coach Division One. Then, the second half of my career was not about moving up. I got to thinking, I've still got to raise my family and do all these things. Ouachita was a good fit for us and hey, the fundamentals are the fundamentals.
"We have some great players, but our great players want to be at Ouachita, they want to get a degree. They know that football will end. I think that's the key. What does football do for you when it's over? It's teaching you those life skills to go be the best you can be. That's really what I'm looking for."