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He's In Control (Really!) With an impossible act to follow, Indiana coach Mike Davis has used diplomacy, tenacity and sometimes over-the-top intensity to win over the Hoosiers faithful

Feb. 03, 2003
Feb. 03, 2003

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Feb. 3, 2003

He's In Control (Really!) With an impossible act to follow, Indiana coach Mike Davis has used diplomacy, tenacity and sometimes over-the-top intensity to win over the Hoosiers faithful

The nice lady at the ticket window will not let Indiana coach Mike
Davis pay for admission. He stands in the lobby of Lawrence North
High, just outside Indianapolis, with his right hand plunged into
his pocket, insistent on forking over his $4 to watch the
hometown Wildcats (and more to the point, two of their budding
stars, who might someday become Hoosiers) play Bloomington South
on a blustery Tuesday night in mid-January. Beyond heavy wooden
doors the starting lineups are being introduced over the public
address system. "You're sure, now?" says Davis, hand still in
pocket, chin tucked toward his chest.

This is an article from the Feb. 3, 2003 issue Original Layout

"I'm sure," says the woman demurely. "There's no charge for you,
Coach."

The towheaded boys roaming the balcony bleachers will not let
Davis watch the game uninterrupted. In groups of two, three and
four they ascend the metal stairs and, starstruck, ask for his
autograph. On scraps of program ripped loose for the occasion. On
crimson-and-cream Indiana jerseys. On mini basketballs.

Likewise, before letting Davis leave at the end of the game, an
older gentleman in spectacles and polyester insists on delivering
a message to this man for whom faith is so important that he
doesn't hold practices on Sundays: "Coach, I just want you to
know that it's nice to have a Christian on the bench. And we're
all behind you."

More than two years have passed since Davis assumed control of
the Hoosiers after Bob Knight (page 54) was fired by then Indiana
president Myles Brand (who is now NCAA president). Knight's
departure was an emotional event that tore open the soul of
Hoosiers basketball and will long remain a part of the school's
and the state's considerable hoops lore. Davis was at the center
of it all, either an ungrateful opportunist or a brave stopgap,
depending on your view. But even after last Saturday's 69--47
road loss to Purdue, his three Indiana teams had won 60 of 89
games. Last year's squad fell one victory short of the school's
sixth national title, and at week's end this season's team was
14--4, ranked No. 19 in the nation and among the favorites to
contend for the Big Ten title and play deep into March. One of
Davis's recruits, 6'3" guard Bracey Wright, had proved to be one
of the most precocious freshmen in the country, having scored in
double figures in every game in which he had played. (Wright had
missed four games, including the loss to the Boilermakers, with a
back injury.)

Slowly, Hoosier Nation heals. Davis, 42, is given standing
ovations when he is introduced before home games at Assembly
Hall. The I LIKE MIKE bumper stickers that could be seen in
Atlanta during last year's Final Four are all over Bloomington.
His Dec. 21 on-court eruption over what he thought was a bad call
by a ref in a loss to Kentucky--an outburst that brought Davis a
one-game suspension by the school--was largely excused by Indiana
fans as just an excess of passion, nothing more. "You can feel
it," says junior guard A.J. Moye. "The people know we're back,
and they know what Coach Davis is doing for this program."

What the fans have done is strike a compromise of sorts with
their collective conscience. "I think people can support Coach
Knight and support Mike Davis at the same time," said Kent
Benson, the center on Knight's unbeaten 1976 national
championship team, after watching the Hoosiers open the Big Ten
schedule with a 73--57 win over Penn State at Assembly Hall on
Jan. 8. "I will always believe in Coach Knight. I have four
daughters, but if I had a son, I'd want him to play for Coach
Knight. I think the way he was treated here was totally
inappropriate. But Indiana basketball is a fraternity. I want the
program to succeed. I want Mike Davis to succeed."

On the Saturday night last March when the Hoosiers upset Oklahoma
73--64 to reach the national title game (which they lost 64--52
to Maryland), Davis returned to his Atlanta hotel, where he sat
next to his wife, Tamilya, on the edge of a bed in their suite
and watched in wonder as the TV played highlights of the game. "I
heard they had 7,000 fans at Assembly Hall watching the game on
television!" Tamilya said to Mike.

"You're kidding," he said.

"I kid you not," said Tamilya, and then turned to a visitor.
"Last year [Mike's first season, 2000--01] they had to give away
tickets to fill it up for games."

Next to her, Mike fell backward on the bed. He put the palm of
his right hand on his forehead, eyes fixed on the ceiling (and
far beyond). "Is this wild?" he asked. "Is this just wild?"

Now, eight months later, he guides his Lincoln Navigator through
the darkness along Route 37, back toward Bloomington. He has
spoken dozens of times to fan gatherings and shaken thousands of
hands since Atlanta. "I think we're over the hump," he says.
"Every day in the spring I was out there [talking to fans], and
then we got off to a good start [8--0] this year." The pavement
hums beneath his wheels. "Indiana fans are a family when it comes
to basketball," Davis says. "And they want to win."

Indiana occupies a unique place in basketball culture. John
Wooden was raised in Martinsville and was an All-America guard at
Purdue before he became the Wizard of Westwood. Bobby Plump and
little Milan High won the state title that inspired the film
Hoosiers. Oscar Robertson played high school ball in Indianapolis
and Larry Bird in French Lick, from which he went first to
Indiana and then to Indiana State. The game is revered in the
state, and for nearly three decades, from 1971 to 2000, the
principal object of Hoosier adoration was Knight, who coached
Indiana to three NCAA titles (in '76, '81 and '87) and turned
Bloomington into a walled kingdom with his inflexible manner.
When the last of Knight's meltdowns came, in September 2000,
leaving him twisting in the wind because he'd violated the
university's zero-tolerance policy regarding his behavior, Davis
was placed in an extraordinarily difficult position. It became
apparent that Brand (along with university vice president Terry
Clapacs and then athletic director Clarence Doninger) might offer
Knight's job to Davis or fellow assistant John Treloar.

Davis and Treloar had been hired by Knight before the 1997--98
season, Davis from Alabama and Treloar from the Continental
Basketball Association, where he had been Davis's boss from 1990
to '95. A fourth-year Indiana assistant, Davis was living in a
rented Indianapolis house with Tamilya (his second wife, whom
he'd married in 1995), their then two-year-old son, Antoine, and
Davis's then 15-year-old son, Mike Jr., from his first marriage.
Tamilya, now 33, was working as a high school geography teacher,
and while Davis says Knight pushed him to leave with him if
Knight was fired, he did not promise Davis a future job. The
couple had already suffered financially. They had arrived in
Indiana $25,000 in debt and were helped out by a loan from Bill
Robertson, a longtime family friend and the president of a bank
in Davis's hometown of Fayette, Ala. (Davis repaid the loan with
part of the $25,000 Christmas bonus he and all Indiana assistants
received in 1997.)

"Here we were, paying rent, with two children, and helping
support Mike's mom in Alabama," says Tamilya. "We weren't going
to make it on my teacher's salary if Mike didn't get another job.
Family takes priority. I said to Mike, 'Who knows? Maybe they'll
keep you after the season.' I'm a realist. I didn't expect that.
But I figured if we had a good season, somebody would hire Mike.
It was an awful time and an awful decision."

Davis agonized over the possibility of getting Knight's job. "He
called me three or four times a day," says Leon Douglas, a close
friend and a former star at Alabama, where Davis played from 1979
to '83. "Knight told him to leave. He told all the assistants to
go down with the captain of the ship. Mike was saying to me,
'I've got to support my family.' It was a tough time in his
life."

Davis and Treloar had met in 1980 when Treloar, who is four years
older than Davis, was a volunteer assistant coach at Alabama.
They are good friends. One evening in the second week of
September 2000, they came to a meeting at Clapacs's Bloomington
home, where Doninger offered to make them cocoaches to replace
Knight.

It was Treloar who declined, a hugely unselfish gesture. "I knew
you needed one guy to make the tough decisions," he says. "And I
knew how badly Mike wanted to be a head coach. It seemed like the
right thing to do."

Davis was named interim head coach and walked into a maelstrom.
Dane Fife, then a junior guard, had announced upon Knight's
firing that he would transfer. He didn't. Tom Coverdale, then a
sophomore point guard, said the same thing. He, too, remained.
Season-ticket holders stayed away from games early in the
2000--01 season to protest Knight's firing. Davis's office was
flooded with venomous phone calls and email, most of which
Davis's secretary, B.J. McElroy, simply did not forward to her
boss. Knight and Davis still haven't spoken, and Knight made it
known through his network of friends that he felt Davis had
betrayed him by taking the job.

On top of all that, Davis was entering uncharted territory as the
first black head coach, in any sport, in university history. His
role on Knight's staff had been limited. Before coming to
Bloomington he'd spent two seasons at Alabama as a
restricted-earnings coach--a position since eliminated by the
NCAA--which meant he wasn't allowed to go on the road as a
recruiter. Still, Knight made recruiting Davis's principal duty.
Indeed, many in Indiana thought Davis had been hired because of
criticism that Knight's all-white staff was missing out on the
state's top black players. "I didn't know what I was doing,"
Davis says of his early recruiting efforts. Yet on hustle and
personality he landed 6'10" forward Jared Jeffries, a Bloomington
native who was the star of last year's team before leaving for
the NBA after just two seasons. He also signed Moye and 6'9"
forward Jeff Newton, both from Atlanta.

Once he was named coach, Davis tried to bring his team together.
"I had black players who thought I was going to play them because
they were black," he says. "And I had white players who thought I
was going to play only the black players because I was black. It
was a mess. I just tried to preach hard work." There was a mutiny
almost every day in the first season. Davis gave ground when
necessary and fought back at other times. He pushed most of the
right buttons.

"The thing he figured out early on," says senior guard Kyle
Hornsby, "is that after everything we went through, we just
wanted to play ball."

Says Coverdale, "He learned from his mistakes. We learned from
ours."

Slowly, Davis converted Knight's beloved motion offense to an
NBA-style attack, with emphasis on spacing and matchups. His
first year the Hoosiers went 21--13, and even though they fell in
the first round of the NCAA tournament--as had four of Knight's
last seven Indiana teams--the school removed the interim from
Davis's title before the 2001--02 season and raised his salary
from $200,000 to $500,000 a year. After last season's stunning
run through the NCAA tournament, including a 74--73 upset of No.
1 Duke in the South Regional semifinal, the contract was improved
to $800,000 a year for six years, plus a $300,000 bonus if Davis
stays three years and $100,000 bonuses for each subsequent year.
As loud as ovations speak, money speaks louder.

To people who know Davis well, it comes as no surprise that he
has survived and even prospered. He was raised in rural Fayette,
a town of fewer than 5,000 an hour's drive north of Tuscaloosa.
His father, Walter, left the family when Davis was six (and died
five years after that), and Mike was raised, along with his older
brother, Van, in a tiny two-bedroom home by their mother,
Vandella. People in town called her Mama Van, and she supported
her family by working as a secretary at West Highland High. Her
sons attended Fayette High, where Mike became one of the best
basketball players in the state. As a senior center he averaged
26 points and 10 rebounds. The Tigers played in a bandbox gym
where the scorer's table was in the rafters and substitutes had
to ring a courtside buzzer to get the scorekeeper's attention.
"If you were a good player on an opposing team and you were
trying to get in the game, sometimes the scorekeeper would just
never hear that buzzer at all," says Martin Newton, who played
against Davis in high school and whose father, C.M., was Davis's
first coach at Alabama. Davis played four years for the Tide (the
final three for Wimp Sanderson), complementing offensive threats
like Ennis Whatley and Bobby Lee Hurt with his passionate
defense. Says Treloar, "He was tenacious and rough. You did not
want to be guarded by Mike Davis."

Davis left Alabama without a degree. (Later, through
correspondence work, he received his bachelor's in
telecommunications from Thomas Edison College in Trenton, N.J.)
His NBA dream died quickly when, after the Milwaukee Bucks
drafted him in the second round, coach Don Nelson cut him in
training camp. "I had the drive but not the talent," says Davis.
"All I wanted was to make that team and help my mother, and I
couldn't do it. It took me a long time to get over it." He
bounced between Europe and the CBA for six seasons until, in
1990, he found himself working as an assistant coach at Miles
College, a Division II school in Fairfield, Ala., earning so
little that he sold T-shirts on the side for extra income. "It
was embarrassing," says Davis. "No real job, no degree, selling
Tshirts out of my car. I was ashamed to tell people what I was
doing."

During that one season at Miles, Davis's 17-month-old daughter,
Nicole, was killed in a car accident that also seriously injured
his first wife, Teresa, and son Mike. (Davis was not involved in
the accident.) "Something like that," he says, "I guess it makes
you tough or it makes you soft. To me I think it did both. Every
year on Nicole's birthday, I think about how old she would be.
But I got tougher, too."

The day after Davis's scouting trip to Lawrence North, Assembly
Hall is filled with familiar sounds--the squeak of sneakers, the
thudding of basketballs on the wooden floor. As the Hoosiers
scrimmage, Davis leans against the far end of the scorer's table,
distant and quiet. (A visitor cannot help but notice the contrast
with Davis's predecessor.) Suddenly Davis straightens up and
moves toward midcourt, his brow furrowed.

"This is the last time I'm gonna tell you guys, block out the
shooter!" he shouts. "We're giving up 14 offensive rebounds a
game. If that don't change, I'm gonna change it!" There is a
moment of silence, and then the work resumes.

There is little question that Indiana is now Davis's program. He
recruited 12 of the 14 players on this year's roster. Within the
team Knight is history now. "I've heard about Bob Knight coaching
here, but I don't remember it," says Wright, who is 19 years old.

Davis's philosophy is terse: Play loose yet hard. "Keep things
simple," he says.

Lest his players forget that everybody--the coach included--is
human, Davis has provided regular reminders. After a loss to
Kentucky in his first season, Davis questioned his own fitness
for the job. One year later, after another loss to the Wildcats,
Davis suggested that Indiana didn't have the talent to compete
with Kentucky but said that "help is on the way," insulting his
veterans. His most recent explosion, during the waning seconds of
the latest loss to Kentucky, was front and center on sportscast
highlights for days: Davis sprinting onto the floor at
Louisville's Freedom Hall, banging his head with his hand,
screaming at referee Bert Smith. "I'm watching him," says
Tamilya, "and I'm thinking, What are you doing?"

Davis was wrong and embarrassed, and said so repeatedly. "People
were saying, 'Just like Coach Knight,'" says Davis. "This job,
Indiana basketball coach, means a lot to this state and to the
fans. You can't embarrass that position. And I did."

But within days he had moved on, and soon he even added a touch
of levity to practice. Two days before the Hoosiers traveled to
Philadelphia to play Temple on Dec. 28, Davis showed up at
practice wearing his oldest son's gold sweat suit--"Ridiculous
outfit," says Davis--with the waistband halfway down his butt and
a silver chain dangling from his neck. "This is how y'all look,"
Davis told his players as he strutted along the sideline.

This year's team is solid, but it's reliant on three-point
shooting from Coverdale, Hornsby and Wright. When the Hoosiers
shoot poorly, they lose. Big men Newton and George Leach are
agile but soft. Last Saturday's hammering by Purdue prompted
Davis to close the locker-room door and deliver a harangue. "The
way we played today, not a person who loves Indiana basketball
should be happy. I told our guys that," said Davis, mindful that
difficult games loomed this week at Michigan State and
Louisville.

Davis's goal is to raise the talent level. "Duke gets great
players every year," he says. "I want Indiana to be like that.
Great players who are good people, too. We can do that here."
Wright was the start. A gifted scorer from outside Dallas, Wright
saw Davis at every one of his AAU games in the summer before his
senior year in high school. "That boy tossed up a shot, I was in
the front row," says Davis. "I told myself, I'm gonna watch every
single game Bracey plays, because Indiana ain't seen anything
like this kid before." (Well, maybe not since Isiah Thomas.)
Wright returned the affection: "He had faith in me. I have faith
in him," he says. There is talk, already, of whether Wright will
stay for only a year or two before leaving for the NBA.

On the night when Davis visited Lawrence North High, he was going
to see--and be seen by--6'11" center Greg Oden and 5'10" point
guard Mike Conley (son of former Olympic triple jumper Mike
Conley). Both are freshmen. "That's a three-year commitment,"
says Davis. "But you've got to do it."

Jack Keefer, who has coached Lawrence North for 27 years and sent
numerous players to Division I programs, says, "Mike is younger
than Bob [Knight], he's willing to get out and grab hands and
work the room. And he's got some smile, doesn't he?"

"If I were a high school senior right now, I'm not sure Coach
Davis would recruit me," says Coverdale, who lacks quickness. "He
probably wouldn't." (Davis disagrees with his heady point guard
and says he'd love to find "another Coverdale or another Hornsby"
this year.)

Yet Davis is much more than a recruiter. While he worked his way
through the CBA to Alabama and to Indiana in the '90s, Davis kept
a notebook of game and practice strategies that he would someday
employ if he got a chance to coach. He now spends long hours in
Knight's old court-level bunker at Assembly Hall, watching
videotape, discovering a dozen mistakes on every offensive
possession. (Treloar is his defensive expert.)

There is a delightful chaos to Davis's life. He drives Mike Jr.
to high school at Bloomington North every morning, and Tamilya
often brings Antoine to meet his father in the bunker for lunch.
"I guess I'll sleep when I get older," says Davis. One night last
week Davis was watching the closing minutes of a Big Ten game on
videotape when Tamilya and Antoine arrived to pick up Daddy from
work. "Time to go home," Davis said. He clicked off the
television, slowly rose from the couch and walked into the
bathroom to wash his hands.

Over the hiss of running water Davis said to no one in
particular, "They play a lot of zone.... I sure hope they play
zone against us." Because, as the man said, Indiana basketball
fans are a family, too. And they want to win.

FIVE COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN BIEVER FIRED UP Though not nearly as volcanic as his predecessor Knight, Davis is often just as animated on the sidelines.COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO BUYING IN After threatening to transfer when Knight was fired, Coverdale has become Davis's mainstay.COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO BASKETBALLISTIC Davis's embarrassing eruption in the Kentucky game was shrugged off in Hoosier land.COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN TIDE TURNER A spindly Davis was a valued role player for Alabama in the early '80s.COLOR PHOTO: JEFFERY A. SALTER SETTLING IN Once basketball nomads, Mike, Mike Jr. (rear), Tamilya and Antoine have found a home in Bloomington.
There was a MUTINY ALMOST EVERY DAY in the first season.
Davis gave ground when necessary and fought back at other
times.
"Mike is willing to GET OUT AND GRAB HANDS and work the room,"
says Lawrence North's Keefer. "And he's got some smile, doesn't
he?"