"I was not an easy coach to play for. That was never my intent," he said during his 35-minute commencement address. "My intent was to see that the guys who played for me went away from basketball with a better opportunity to succeed in life than anyone anywhere could have."
Knight has made only a handful of public appearances in Indiana since he was fired as the Hoosiers' coach in 2000 after a freshman accused him of grabbing him.
The former coach wore a black robe to accept an honorary public service degree in recognition of his commitment to young people, but he took it off for the speech, saying he told the school president he always works in sweaters.
"Dick Vitale wears a coat, a tie and he talks too much. I limit what I have to say and wear a sweater," he joked.
He told the graduates the key to success was being prepared for life's challenges.
"Preparation is the key to victory in any game that you play. The prepared people win a lot more than the unprepared people," he said. "You can never spend too much time on preparation. The will to prepare to win is far more important than the will to win."
Knight set a Division I record with 902 wins at Army, Indiana and Texas Tech, but didn't talk about his 29 years with the Hoosiers during the speech. He spent most of his time telling humorous stories, including one about coaching Michael Jordan on the 1984 U.S. Olympic team.
The Americans were up big at halftime in the gold medal and Knight wanted to make sure his team didn't get complacent. He decided to get on Jordan, who was playing well, to send a message to the rest of the team. He told Jordan he was the only U.S. player who wasn't setting screens.
Jordan responded: "Coach, didn't I read recently where you thought I was the quickest player you'd ever been around?"
"I said, 'Michael, what does that have to do with you screening?' He said, 'I think I'm setting them quicker than you can see them.'"
Knight liked the comeback, but said the point he was trying to make was that people can't become satisfied.
"Satisfaction is the first step toward defeat. Don't ever forget that. Never be satisfied. There's always something better," he said.
Trine University is a private school with about 1,930 students in northeast Indiana near Ohio and Michigan, about 35 miles north of Fort Wayne. It was known as Tri-State University until it changed its name a year ago in honor of Ralph Trine and his wife, Sheri, large contributors to the school.
Knight also asked the veterans in the crowd to stand to be recognized and urged the graduates to go out and work to make the country a better place for them.
"For you graduates, it's men and women like those that just stood and those that will stand in the future that have given us — you and me, all of us — a life in the greatest country in the world," Knight said. "We owe it to them to do everything we can to improve things, to make things better, to make things possible for those people who spent time in the military giving us that opportunity."