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With tears, thanks and symmetry, Hubert Davis has UNC in the Final Four

Hubert Davis became the first rookie head coach to lead his team to the men's Final Four since 1998. (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
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PHILADELPHIA — He had hugged his North Carolina players and shaken hands with the Saint Peter’s coaches, and all of a sudden, at last, Hubert Davis was alone. He paced toward midcourt Sunday night in the moments after he had led the Tar Heels to the Final Four. Davis thought about his players, their parents, the hours and stress poured into recruiting, the impact it all had on his wife and children. He stopped. Davis buried his hands in his face, bent at the waist and cried.

“It was the first time that I can remember in the last 11½ months that I could take a deep breath, and it just came out,” Davis said. “It’s not just this year. It’s everything.”

In the wildly anticipated first NCAA tournament meeting of North Carolina and Duke on Saturday night in New Orleans, the spotlight will fall primarily on Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski, who will retire after either a loss to Duke’s ancient rival or following the national championship game Monday. The achievement of the man on the other sideline merits its own historical perspective.

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Davis, 51, moved one seat over and took charge of the North Carolina program after Roy Williams retired in April. He became the first rookie coach to reach the Final Four since Bill Guthridge led North Carolina there the year after Dean Smith retired, joining three of his mentors as coaches who have guided the Tar Heels to the first weekend in April.

Davis restored the Tar Heels after two seasons of uncharacteristic struggle and righted them after a midseason plunge. They earned a No. 8 seed for the unevenness of their season, but Davis helped a roster of diverse talents coalesce in the final two months. He repeatedly told his players he wanted them to experience what he had as a Tar Heel: a trip to the Final Four. When it came, he could not stop the tears.

“It shows how much he cares about us and cares about the game,” sophomore guard Caleb Love said. “We knew all along his passion, and we carried that with us. We feed off him and his energy. That’s why you see us playing so hard for him.”

Davis told his players he had played 12 years in the NBA but his most cherished basketball experience was playing in the Final Four — even though, in 1991, he lost. “I desperately want you to have that experience,” Davis told his team. “I want you to get to the Final Four. I want you to get to the final game. I want you to do that.”

The urge pulled Davis back to coaching. For four years after his NBA career, Davis analyzed college basketball on ESPN’s “College GameDay.” He joined Williams’s staff in 2012. He described coaching as “an act of service.” He has constantly deflected questions about his own satisfaction this March, celebrating instead the “stories” and “testimonies” his players are creating during their run.

“If I’m only coaching basketball, then I need to quit or be fired,” Davis said Sunday night. “I’m not just a basketball coach. My job is to help and to teach and to care for them.”

Davis has been “the right fit for us right now,” North Carolina Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham said Sunday night. As obvious as that seems now, Davis’s ascension was far from certain.

When Williams retired, North Carolina expected to hire a replacement with head coaching experience. Davis merited consideration as a nine-year assistant with a deep basketball intellect, NBA experience and a profound connection to a proudly insular and familial program. At first, Cunningham thought he might need to explain to Davis why he would be passed over.

“That’s the first conversation I had with him,” Cunningham said. “I said, ‘My predisposition looking for a head coach for Carolina basketball is somebody with head coaching experience.’ That was our very first conversation. And I needed to be convinced it’s not too big of a step. And he’s demonstrated all year it was not too big of a step.”

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Cunningham never wondered how Davis would perform during games. In every other role a head coach must play, the kind of responsibilities that can be mastered only with experience, he has watched Davis adapt and grow.

“It’s all of the non-game-day basketball decisions,” Cunningham said. “It’s recruiting. It’s parents. It’s scheduling. It’s agents. It’s everything associated with it that head coaches deal with every day in addition to game-planning, practice planning, things of that nature. Until you sit in that chair, you really don’t understand. Anybody I’ve ever hired has talked about that. It’s very different from what they anticipated. Your time is not your own. It’s 24/7, and the things that come your way, you can never imagine.”

As Davis evolved, he steered the Tar Heels through a program crossroads. The hinge in North Carolina’s season came the week after an on-court debacle. On Jan. 18, the Tar Heels lost by 28 at Miami. Four days later, Wake Forest throttled them by 22. They had yielded 183 points in two games, and questions flooded back into Chapel Hill. North Carolina had won 14 games in 2019-20 and 18 in 2020-21, which it capped with a first-round loss in the tournament. In late January, the Tar Heels teetered toward another substandard season.

At practice the following Monday, the players braced for a lashing from their coach. They instead listened as Davis told them how good they are, that the season could still end how they wanted to, that they needed to believe in each other.

“Coach Davis came in super positive, and we were not expecting that at all,” senior guard Leaky Black said. “We were expecting him to come in hot and chew us out, but I feel like he was super positive. That was a turning point for us.”

The Tar Heels won their next four games, and they have gone 16-3 since the loss at Wake Forest. A slide toward mediocrity has been forgotten.

“It just seems alive again and getting back to where it was kind of before my freshman year,” junior center Armando Bacot said.

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The pleasures and benefits of leading North Carolina can also be burdens. The head coach at UNC will always have support from a loyal and famous fleet of alums. He can sell and utilize a unique tradition. But he will also feel pressure not to let them down, to uphold what some of the most legendary figures in the sport’s history built.

The Tar Heels surged late in the year in part because Davis found how to imprint his personality on the program. He wanted to coach with the values of Smith and Guthridge and Williams, but that didn’t have to mean coaching like them. Bacot praised Davis’s willingness to teach tactics favored in the NBA.

“Keep what’s good but don’t get stuck,” Cunningham said. “Change what needs to be changed to be modern and current. And I think that’s what Hubert brings — a current mentality to the historical tradition and success that we’ve had.”

On Sunday night, Davis was asked about the “symmetry” of following Guthridge as a rookie coach in the Final Four. Davis choked up and fended off tears as he explained how Guthridge, who died in 2015, had believed in him.

“I want every player that played for Coach Smith, Coach Guthridge and Coach Williams, I want them — whether it’s in person, TV, highlights — I want them to be able to identify and go, That’s the Carolina I went to,” Davis said. “It’s really important for me that this program, with my own personality in my own shoes, looks exactly like the program that Coach Smith, Coach Guthridge and Coach Williams ran.”

On the stage at center court Sunday night, Davis spotted Williams in the crowd, pointed at him and mouthed, “Thank you.” He could add it to all the memories packed into his first 11½ months in a very big job. When the season ends, Davis plans to sit by a pool and reflect on it all, those moments that came flooding out of him Sunday night and the ones still to come.

“I remember the feeling walking out of that tunnel for the press conference,” Davis said. “I remember getting on the bus for the first time and I was sitting in the front for the first time. That was different. I remember the first practice and getting at midcourt and putting together a practice plan. I remember coming out of the tunnel for the first time as head coach. I remember going on the road. I remember everything.”