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Davis Never Won Over The Fans in Indiana

mike davis - indiana university
"I felt like it was time for this program to be united," said Mike Davis on Thursday. "I want our players to get it out of their minds whether coach Davis is returning. It's time for Indiana basketball to move forward." (Darron Cummings - AP)

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By John Feinstein
Saturday, February 18, 2006

In a sense, the real surprise in the Mike Davis saga is that he survived for six seasons as basketball coach at Indiana. The case can be made that no coach in history has ever taken over a program under more difficult circumstances. Following a legend in any job is an uphill battle, but it is even more difficult when the legend is dragged off kicking, screaming and filing lawsuits the way Bob Knight was from Indiana in September 2000.

Knight didn't hide his feeling that Davis's decision to accept the job -- originally on an interim basis -- was a betrayal. Given the way most Indiana fans felt -- and feel -- about Knight, that put Davis on the defensive before he coached his first game. In truth, that never changed.

Indiana gave Davis a six-year contract after reaching the national championship game in 2002 as a No. 5 seed, but even then, a lot of Indiana people could be heard grumbling, "Yeah, but he did it with Knight's players."

Of course, Knight hadn't reached the Final Four with his players since 1992, and a number of the players on the 2002 team suggested his absence had as much to do with their success as Davis's presence.

Regardless, the run to the championship game gave Davis a fair crack at making the job his own. He failed. He didn't get enough good players to succeed at Indiana. His decision in 2004 to take two transfers from Auburn was seen -- correctly -- as a sign that he was foundering in recruiting and was looking to save his job. His team had moments this season: almost beating Duke at home, crushing Kentucky and then beating Illinois a month later. But going from 12-3 to 13-9 on the heels of seasons that ended 14-15 and 15-14 will get almost any big-program coach fired these days. On Thursday, Davis jumped off the bridge before Rick Greenspan, Indiana's athletic director, could push him.

If there was any doubt about where this was headed, it vanished Monday, when Davis made a comment during the weekly Big Ten conference call about Indiana's fans perhaps needing a coach who is "one of their own." That's silly. Knight grew up in Orrville, Ohio, went to Ohio State and coached at Army before being hired at IU in 1971. He became an iconic figure in the state not because he was "one of their own" but because he won three national championships and went to five Final Fours. Had Davis continued to win after his success in '02, he would have become an adopted Hoosier in no time.

It is not impossible to make the jump from assistant coach to head coach in a big-time program: Roy Williams went from being Dean Smith's number two assistant to 14 seasons of great success at Kansas, even though the school was on probation when he succeeded Larry Brown in 1988. Tom Izzo stepped into Jud Heathcote's shoes at Michigan State in 1995 after 12 years as his assistant and has been to four of the last seven Final Fours.

But it isn't easy. Being the boss is entirely different than carrying out the boss's orders. It isn't just the extra weight of decision making. It is all that comes with the job: loss of privacy; demands from the public and alumni; second-guessing from fans, boosters and the media; having to answer questions about your team's performance after every game. It is a different way of life. If you coach basketball at Indiana, you are the most famous person in the state.

"Every single one of us who becomes a head coach trains for that day," Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "We learn about basketball, about communicating with players, about how to sell yourself to kids. But one thing we never study for a second is how to be famous. Then you become a head coach and you have some success and you are famous, whether you want to be or not. That can be a very difficult adjustment."

It was never easy for Davis. The constant questions about Knight made him understandably uncomfortable. He felt torn, because Knight had hired him at Indiana but was hammering him every chance he got. He wondered, because it was only human to wonder, if there were some IU fans who would never accept him because he was African American. In the end, race had nothing to do with his failure, but one can understand why he might have seen it as a roadblock to success. Indiana's no different than any big-money program: Most of its season ticket holders, boosters and ardent fans are white. This is the 21st century. Almost all fans today could care less what color a coach's skin is -- as long as he wins.

Davis just didn't win enough. He will get another coaching job and he will probably succeed because of what he learned. Indiana may very well hire one of its own -- Steve Alford and Randy Wittman have been mentioned -- and the next coach will be in a much better position because he is almost six years removed from Knight's departure. Alford didn't want the job in the spring of 2001, in part because he had just completed his second year at Iowa and in part because he felt the situation at Indiana was too volatile. He may feel differently now. He's not nearly as popular in Iowa as he is in Indiana, where he is remembered as the state's Mr. Basketball in 1983, a part of Knight's Olympic team in 1984 and the leader of Knight's last national championship team in 1987.

Like Davis, Alford has had a chance to learn from his mistakes. Unlike Davis, he was able to do a lot of his learning away from the white-hot glare of the big-time game. He began his coaching career at Division III Manchester and then took Southwest Missouri State to the Sweet 16 in 1999 before making the jump to Iowa. Even with that training, he has had trouble at times dealing with criticism and is viewed by many in Iowa as aloof and arrogant.

Those who know Alford know he's neither, but that's become part of his image. Those who know Davis will tell you he's not a whiner but rather a driven man who has, at times, let frustration get the best of him.

College coaching is a very lucrative business these days, but it is a tough business, too. Eddie Sutton probably belongs in the Hall of Fame and yet his career may be over because he drank and then he drove and is still fighting the alcoholism that made his life so difficult during his days at Kentucky. Quin Snyder was a lock to be a star -- he had the smarts, the looks and the basketball pedigree. After parting ways with Missouri, he's looking for work right now. Matt Doherty was national coach of the year at North Carolina in 2001. These days he's at Florida Atlantic.

None of them walked into a situation nearly as difficult as the one Davis took on in the fall of 2000. There isn't any doubt he can be a successful coach. It just won't be at Indiana.

That's not a surprise to anyone. Including, one suspects, Mike Davis.


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