Replacing a legend is a tale unto itself

Ever so slowly, Davis wins coaching respect of die-hard Knight fans

Ncaa Tournament

March 26, 2002|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

No matter where Indiana basketball coach Mike Davis went this season, he could not escape the shadow of Bob Knight.

Knight was there, in spirit at least, for the Hoosiers' Big Ten season. He was there, like a history lesson, when the team survived two rounds of the NCAA tournament in Sacramento, Calif. And he was there, almost ghost-like, when the Hoosiers took Lexington, Ky., by storm to win the South Regional.

At one point last week in Lexington, Davis sounded driven to distraction when talking about the loyalists in Bloomington, Ind., who still live in the Knight era.

"The ghosts never go away because what you have is people who are ... I won't say crazy, [but] there's no word to describe them," said Davis, hired to replace the deposed Knight in September 2000. "Here we are, Big Ten [co-] champs, and they're not happy about that. Here we are in the Sweet 16, and they're not happy about that."

Here they are in the Final Four, and Davis should brace for another run of Knight questions later this week in Atlanta before taking on Oklahoma in a national semifinal.

Davis, 41, has earned some breathing room with four straight tournament wins. But only a national championship will satisfy the Indiana zealots and allow him to step completely out from under Knight's shadow.

In the wake of the Hoosiers' South Regional championship, there were signs of acceptance, though. When he went out to dinner with his family Sunday night, the group was placed in a private room.

"I didn't understand why they put us in a private room," Davis said. "When I walked out, I did, because the whole place started clapping and cheering. I was a little embarrassed. But at the same time, it made me feel good."

The only black coach in the Hoosiers' 101 years of basketball, Davis has shown great perseverance in his personal life. He overcame a difficult speech impediment as an adult. A dozen years after he left Alabama, where he played four years, he earned a degree in communications through correspondence courses.

He never really knew his father, who lived apart from him and died when he was 13.

There was more tragedy: In 1990, he lost a daughter, Nichole, who died in a car accident, and his son, Mike Jr. - both children were from a previous marriage - was seriously injured.

Through it all, Davis worked the fringes of pro and college basketball. He played in Switzerland and Italy and in the Continental Basketball Association. He took coaching jobs in Venezuela, the CBA and at Miles College in Birmingham, Ala.

Until Indiana president Myles Brand appointed him Knight's interim successor in the fall of 2000, though, Davis had never been a head coach (he had been an assistant under Knight three years).

He's been trying to justify the hire ever since.

"For the last year or so, everybody's been doubting my ability to coach this basketball team," Davis said.

The Hoosiers have a two-year record of 45-24 under Davis, including 24-11 this season. Even this month's NCAA run hasn't won over everyone.

"You've got to know Indiana fans," said sophomore Jared Jeffries. "There's going to be those now that like him. Those are the same ones that liked him before. No matter how many national titles he wins, or how many Big Ten championships he wins, certain people are going to be loyal to Coach Knight for various reasons.

"But he [Davis] is building a tradition at Indiana, and this team is building a tradition at Indiana, and I think the people that were with us before are our biggest fans now."

Dane Fife, one of three seniors on the team, was one of Knight's most visible supporters when he was fired. Still, the Big Ten's defensive player of the year credits Davis with bringing back his offensive game this season and restoring the team to its former glory.

"Coach Davis changed this team from the way Coach Knight used to coach," Fife said. "He changed a lot of players on the team. I think he's proven to a lot of people he can flat-out coach. He's earned it, and he's gotten us to play championship-type basketball."

When Davis inherited the team last season, he said Indiana had a reputation for being soft.

"But if you look at the way this team has played this year and at the end of last year, we're probably the toughest team in the country," he said.

Now the Hoosiers are in the Final Four for the first time in 10 years. If nothing else, it's a vindication of Brand's decision and Davis' coaching ability.

"It's great for the program, great for me and great for a lot of other assistant coaches around the country for us to be in this position," Davis said. "In this whole ordeal, what people don't remember is that if Coach Knight wouldn't have brought me here as an assistant coach, I wouldn't be here as head coach. A lot of credit has to go to President Brand and Coach Knight for hiring me."

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