The first time I saw Mike Davis after he’d coached an NCAA Tournament basketball game, in Boston in 2003, his team had won – and he looked miserable.
The second time, which came over the weekend in Greenville, S.C., his team had just lost. He didn’t look happy – Davis is never happy with losing – but he had much more of an air of contentment, and was happy to visit for a while.
Nearly 40 years have passed since Davis came from Fayette to play for C.M. Newton at Alabama, where he was popular not just for his skills – he was an All-SEC Defensive Team selection and a career double-figure scorer – but for a quick smile that was paired with a fierce will to win. He followed a fairly familiar path for a while – professional basketball overseas, then a steady push up the steep ladder of assistant coaching, starting out at Miles College, then to an international team in Venezuela and eventually ending up on David Hobbs’ staff at UA.
Then things became – and it’s hard to pin things down with just a single adjective – quirky.
Davis, armed with a recommendation from Newton, moved from Tuscaloosa to join the staff of the most prominent college coach of that time, Bobby Knight at Indiana. He was an assistant for three years when things changed, almost overnight, as Knight was fired after a confrontation with a student that capped a series of incidents. With the firing coming in mid-September of 2000, Indiana opted to choose an interim coach from its staff and suddenly Davis, with no head coaching experience, was the head coach for one of the highest-profile teams in the country and at the beginning of a coaching arc as curious as the case of Benjamin Button.
To get some idea of what Davis was facing, imagine a relatively inexperienced assistant coach on Alabama’s 1982 football staff being told two months before the season that he was replacing Paul “Bear” Bryant. Then imagine that Bryant, instead of retiring and helping with an orderly transition, had been outraged by his dismissal, lurking on the fringes and wishing that the university, if not specifically Davis himself, would fail. (That attitude hasn’t changed in 17 years, as Knight made clear in interviews earlier this month.)
Then imagine that, in the face of that disaster-in-waiting, you survive the season – then reach the national championship game one year later. That is exactly what Davis did.
But even with that Final Four to his credit, all that seemed to change was an increase in expectations. Any normal person would feel enormous pressure and maybe even a little suspicion at what was going on around him. That’s where Davis seemed to be in 2003, even after his Indiana team pulled off a first-round win over his college team, Alabama, a matchup that probably added a little more emotion for Davis that weekend, both from old ties and the fact that he was recruiting in Alabama for players like Hillcrest’s D.J. White, a future Indiana star.
Eventually, his teams struggled – there was a 15-14 season, followed by a 14-15 – and after six years, he was replaced at Indiana (which has yet to find a replacement to satisfy its fan base) and took the job at UAB, another position that came with its own set of political pressures, especially for a former Alabama player. He had four straight seasons of 22 wins or more but went 15-16 in 2012 and – even though he had a commitment from future NBA All-Star DeMarcus Cousins – was let go after that down year.
So a winning record at Indiana and a winning record at UAB and five NCAA appearances (and no NCAA scandals) along the way landed Davis at Texas Southern in the basketball-proud but little-publicized SWAC.
Since taking that job, Davis has dominated his own league. Over the past three seasons, the Tigers have had a Sabanesque 48-6 record in conference play – just the sort of dominance that would have a younger coach, a different coach, moving up the ladder to bigger things – the bigger things that Davis has already achieved.
After a 16 seed loses a first-round NCAA Tournament game, the losing coach usually gets a few polite, perfunctory questions in his press conference before the media moves on to grab Roy Williams or Mike Krzyzewski for the “big story.” There’s nothing wrong with that. But sometimes you miss a great story, or some profound insight, or just some fascinating basketball talk: which was precisely what Davis was happy to do in Greenville after his team was overwhelmed by a powerful North Carolina squad.
When he talked, he spoke with the voice of a coach who finally runs his own program in his own way for an administration that is no doubt thrilled with his efforts. His children are adults now, and he seems younger, in some ways, than he did 15 years ago, still motivated to win but doing it by following his own path – and recruiting his own way.
“We don’t do anything special,” he said. “We want players to come and play for Texas Southern because they want to play in the championship game. Houston is a beautiful city.
“We haven’t been out (on the road) recruiting in three or four years. Most of our recruiting comes on the phone. People see our program and see our schedule, who we play. We haven’t played a home game in non-conference in two seasons, and if you want to be a pro – most guys think they want to be a pro – that’s a great experience.
“What I did this year was kind of special. We played Texas-Arlington on a Saturday night, got up Sunday morning at five o’clock (and) played Delaware the very next day. We played LSU on a Saturday night, an 8 p.m. game, got on the bus, drove all night, played TCU in Fort Worth at 5 o’clock the next day. That was for a lot of guys that thought they want to be a pro. They have to realize it’s very difficult to play that schedule. But also, that put us in a situation to tell ourselves who we are and for players to have an answer for, ‘How bad you want to play basketball?'”
If that sounds like a coach following his own path, it is. But if it sounds like a coach that is content to show up at the NCAA Tournament as cannon fodder, you don’t know Mike Davis.
“The other reason we play those non-conference games, because we all set goals, and you need to know if your goals are real or not, if you can accomplish the goals,” he said. “We played Louisville and all those guys. That way, you know, when we start out our conference games, if we’re playing at a 10-level effort, 10 toughness and 10 in alertness. This year, we were able to win some games in our conference playing at a 5-level or a 6. (But) I told our guys, in this event, no 5 or 6 effort or toughness is going to win these games. If today had been (a game) in our league, we would have won. But to have a chance today, we would have had to play at a 10 level and find a way to make them play at a 5, maybe their worst game, and we still might not win. That (North Carolina) team is unbelievable.
“But you keep trying. That’s what’s so special about it to me. I’ve been there. I understand the feeling. I know what it takes. But trying to get your team to understand it when they don’t see it on a regular basis is difficult. And for me, I feel like from tomorrow when we get back to Houston, all the way through next year, I’m going to be preaching and coaching about the effort you have to give, about the work you have to put in.
“I know the feeling. But they don’t know the feeling, (and) it’s really kind of hard to get them to see it. They forget it, because we’ve been 16-2, 16-2, 16-2 the last three years in our conference.
“I feel like this will be the (best) team I have back next year, and we have some big guys sitting out. But I told all the guys: Don’t forget. Don’t forget how hard it is. And don’t forget how hard it is in April, May, June, July, August, because we’ll be here (in the NCAA Tournament) again next year. But if we don’t change the way we approach everything, the way we work, then the results will be the same.”
That ability to change, to adapt, seems to have worked for Davis. He has the benefit of experience, of having been there before, having seen things that many coaches have not. As Davis says, you don’t forget. But you can learn.
Perhaps no one coaching college basketball today has evolved, as Davis has, from leading a powerhouse of the loftiest pedigree to coaching a team that would have made history with a single win – a progression not from a David into a Goliath, but a journey down another road, capped by a story in which it’s not hard to see a little bit of Davis’ own personality shining through.
“We talked, everybody talked about David and Goliath. What I told my basketball team, that story is a powerful story. But what people don’t realize is, really, David was supposed to win. He was the expert. He wasn’t someone they sent out to fight and never had ever used a sling shot. His sling shot was like a gun, shooting a gun. And he was an expert. So Goliath was a big old guy and he had one eye. If he got his hands on you he was going to automatically win. That’s a powerful story. We aren’t Goliath. But are we experts? Are we in great shape? Are we prepared to give great effort every possession? Are we willing to get back in transition, block out?
“So don’t go into this game thinking that you’re a David if you’re not willing to prepare yourself up to this point to play at that 10 level for 40 minutes.
“That’s how you can win.”
Reach Cecil Hurt at email@example.com or 205-722-0225.