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The Long Road Home

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After finding a place of his own at Texas Southern, he's ready for a homecoming. Mike Davis opens up about his return to Indiana, family, his relationship with Bob Knight, and finding a sense of belonging in Houston.

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

His gravelly southern accent breaks a bit the moment it's brought up.

"I'm gettin' emotional thinkin' about it right now."

Mike Davis built a career out of not making things about himself. But he'll admit to you there are selfish motivations for bringing his Texas Southern Tigers back home to Bloomington next Monday.

"One of the reasons I'm coming back to play at Indiana is because I want both my boys to experience it."

It has been 14 years since Davis was thrust into college basketball's hottest spotlight, eight since he left Bloomington for good after the 2006 season. But under the layer of scars from the continual scrutiny of following a coaching legend, there's a man that still bleeds five-banners-and-candy-striped-pants as if he'd spent his entire life on 17th Street in Bloomington, Indiana.

Even the hastiest of shotgun marriages aren't without unconditional love.

Mike Davis

Credit: Jonathan Daniel / Staff

The Apprentice

Davis wasn't an Indiana man. Or even a true Knight disciple. Growing up in Fayette, Alabama he bled crimson from a young age - Crimson Tide. He played his college ball for the legendary C.M. Newton in Tuscaloosa. The man's selfless nature shone through even in those early college days, winning the team's Hustle Award in each of his four seasons with the program.

After a quick cup of coffee with the Milwaukee Bucks, Davis' playing career bounced him about the globe from Topeka to Italy to Switzerland. His early coaching career was much of the same, spending time in Venezuela and Wichita Falls, Texas before winding his way back to home - landing an assistant's job on David Hobbs' staff at his alma mater.

But after three seasons on Hobbs' staff - he was ready for a bigger challenge. Through a mutual connection from his CBA days with his son Pat, Davis got a call to come to Bloomington to interview for a seat on Bob Knight's bench.

"Honestly, I was just really appreciative and surprised I got the job because it's one of the best programs in the history of college basketball. It was a big deal for me."

And much like the legend himself - Davis thought the program and Knight were inseparable. Indiana was like graduate school for the 37-year-old ‘Bama boy - a place to receive a crash course in big-time college basketball from an all-time great at a University and athletic program that put basketball before all else. It was hardly his final destination.

"Never, never, never. Never could even dream of being the head coach at Indiana. You know, I'd always envisioned myself - probably in Indiana -- somewhere else that needed a coach. "

"Hey, Knight!"

Never have so many lives been altered by an exclamatory pseudo-greeting.

Save maybe The General himself, none saw his waters change course like Davis'.

For most, an opportunity to be a head basketball coach at a major program is a dream. Most aren't following a larger-than-life basketball cult hero. A young assistant coach was thrown in an unenviable situation - remain loyal to the man who'd given him his big break in coaching or to the players he'd had a hand in bringing to Indiana University. He could easily follow Knight out the door and continue his growth as a young coach elsewhere - away from the high-pressure situation in Bloomington.

Or he could put his own long-term career stability at risk by taking the title of Interim Head Coach at Indiana.

"I just remember a bunch of players that wanted me to stay, because they wanted to stay there and play. They thought that a new coach would come in, and they were talkin' about leavin'."

"For me, it was more a thing of keeping the program afloat. Not that I thought it wouldn't, but at least for that year. I didn't want it to become a situation where players started to transfer out and Indiana having a rough season. Of course, we ended up making the NCAA Tournament, which was kind of a surprise."

Asked about his relationship with Knight, Davis' strong voice begins to trail off.

"I haven't talked to Coach Knight. No, no I haven't."

He hasn't spoken to the man who he came to Bloomington to learn from since the days before he took the job at Indiana.

"You know, I think everybody in coaching has a guy that was kind of involved, responsible for their development a coach - kind of that mentor. I mean, I understand the situation. But you know..."

He pauses a bit with his words.

"It's tough. But I, I... understand the situation."

Mike Davis

Credit: Sporting News Archive / Contributor

A Run To Remember

It's not Knight-time in Indiana anymore, it's a new Da-vis!

The USA Today article recapping the Indiana's win over Duke in the 2002 Sweet 16 describes a young fan's sign just off the court in Rupp Arena. Wins over the defending national champions work as a tremendous elixir for a fanbase's deepest and freshest wounds.

For those under 30, AJ Moye's block on Carlos Boozer might be Indiana basketball's defining moment. I'm included in that group. I had just turned 11 and one of my birthday presents was Jared Jefferies' Indiana #1 jersey. My dad and I watched that game from our living room together - just about 25 miles from Assembly Hall. That win, that night is one that Dad and I still talk about, a moment we'll share forever. Maybe a game shouldn't matter that much. But it did. Indiana basketball is important to people. Mike Davis understood that.

Even at the pinnacle of his career, he didn't make it about himself. It was about the experience, the moment for his players, for the fans. He merely viewed his role as a steward, a caretaker of something much larger than any individual.

"My memory I really hold on to is when we came back after beating Kent State. We came back from Bloomington that night - the boys wanted to come back that night -- and just the thousands and thousands of people that were outside of Assembly Hall, just mind-blowing. I think our boys have lifetime memories of that, just the love, the amount of love the fans showed our players. I don't even know if anybody had a camera that could take enough pictures of that night."

Not that he needs one. Davis described the scene like a proud father recounting his daughter's wedding.

"Our players deserve a lot more credit than anything, because they were fighting for their playing life at that point. They wanted to do something special for the program, to do something that hadn't been accomplished in a long time by us going to the Final Four."

I asked him if he'd come back if Indiana would choose to honor the 2002 team as a group. He cuts me off before I can get the full question.

"Oh, I'd come back in a heartbeat. I think Dane Fife texted me and said they were trying to get together maybe next summer.

Davis is still close with many of his former players. Specifically, he mentions Fife and Mike Roberts, now assistants at Michigan State and UNC-Greensboro respectively. He goes paternal again, talking about their accomplishments.

"Outside of their families, outside of mom and dad, you like to think you had a little part of their success. I enjoy when they text me or call me. The little moments we had in that player-coach relationship. It's wonderful to see them doing so well."

"I don't like to fly, so I'll drive up from Houston. Except I'll fly when I'm with the team, of course," he joked.

"It'd be a great opportunity for me to come back. An unbelievable opportunity."

Still, Davis knew the 2002 run to the title game had, at best, just bought him time.

"Just to be totally, totally honest with you, me being the head coach there was always going to be controversial.

Mike Davis

Credit: Jonathan Ferrey / Staff

Mounting Pressure

Following a figure as revered as Knight was an unenviable task even in the best of circumstances and the program lost the momentum spurned by Moye's block shortly thereafter. Davis' infamous on-court tirade following a loss to Kentucky was followed by mounting losses on the court and in the homes of recruits. Indiana failed to make the NCAA tournament in consecutive seasons (2004 & 2005) for the first time since 1971 & '72, Knight's first two years leading the program.

FireMikeDavis.com was loaded into the favorites bar of Hoosier fans, yearning for the consistent success of the Knight years.

Things reached a head in February 2006. Davis' team, which had high expectations and had reached the AP Top 10 earlier in the season, suffered four straight Big Ten losses. He resigned following a loss to Iowa, with the caveat that he'd coach out the remainder of the season.

"I thought I had done my job there, as far as getting it to where it needed to be. To get the recruits Indiana needed to get, they needed someone else to lead the program."

"I thought I had done my job there, as far as getting it to where it needed to be. To get the recruits Indiana needed to get, they needed someone else to lead the program. It wasn't fair to the players to continue to have this cloud over the program, as far as me being the head coach. I understood the emotion of it. And I was really appreciative of the opportunity to coach there."

The arrangement was certainly strange, but one that reflected his paternal relationship with his players - falling on his own sword for the sake of their experience.

"I knew as long as I was the head coach, if we lost the game, it was the end of the world for them. And it can't be that. Because you can't continue to get better if you take it like that. If you lose a game, you want to focus on getting better. And I didn't want it to be the end of the world every time we lost a game for our players. So I did it for them."

Davis didn't want the divisive issue of his job at Indiana to stratify his players from the Bensons, Mays, Smarts, Cheaneys, and Baileys of Hoosier teams gone-by.

"I knew I'd get a job somewhere else. And If I wasn't the coach at Indiana, I wouldn't be in that position to get a job somewhere else. I thought what they did for me was way more than what I'd given back to them. And I wanted them to be able to come back and have good memories of the program."

At the time of his resignation, a member of the Indiana board of trustees said Davis was in a "no-win" situation. Eight years later, a man who might be right to harbor some ill-will toward Indiana basketball and its fan base strongly disagrees.

"I thought I was in a win-win situation, to be honest with you. Because, man, who was I? I was a no-name guy that got a chance to coach at Indiana."

For a young coach who'd spent as many seasons coaching in the CBA and Venezuela as he had collegiately at that point, he viewed stepping in at Indiana as playing with house money.

"I was just someone trying to keep it together until someone else came. I was someone who got the chance to coach at Indiana, and I wanted to do well there. But when I look back for me it was a no-lose situation, no matter what people thought.

And he only has one regret when it comes to his time at Indiana.

"As I look back, I'd do it all over again the same way I did it - except I'd probably leave a little earlier. And that's not to upset anyone, but just to let someone else lead the program."

"Because that is a great program."

Mike Davis

Credit: Gregory Shamus / Stringer

Family First

Still, home for Davis was Alabama. He was still a kid from Fayette, a basketball guy that had grown up in The Bear's shadow.

Mike Anderson, who coached at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, took the job at Missouri in the summer of 2006, and Davis was a natural fit for a replacement.

"It was good for me to be back home, really good for me to be back home. I just wanted to coach & to enjoy coaching. I think each stop you make is always a learning experience and a process you have to process.

"I was glad I was home. Because there were some things that happened during that time that I needed to be close to my family."

One of those "things" included the death of Davis' mother two years ago. A god-fearing man that places his family before all else, his career path became a further testament to the man upstairs' plan for him - leading him back home to Alabama, where he could be close to his mother, his sons close to their grandmother, during her final years.

At his mothers' funeral, his darkest hour, Davis received a surprise gift that only furthered his emotional bond with his past.

"I look up, and there's some flowers from Indiana University and Coach Tom Crean. I can't even tell you how that made me feel. To be at that kind of low moment, and then you look up and see that name on the card. Utmost respect for him."

Still, Davis was let go by UAB following the 2012 season. Slow ticket sales were cited as a factor. True to his character, Davis harbors no ill-will.

"I thought I had a good career. We had four straight 20-win seasons at UAB. It was a great opportunity.

And that lead him to take the job at Texas Southern. For the family man, possibly his most comfortable situation yet.

"I thought it was a really good opportunity for my boys to make the move here to Houston because my oldest boy (Mike, Jr.) is on my staff. My youngest son (Antoine) is in 9th grade, we home-schooled him because John Lucas is working out with him, training with him twice a day."

The job at the SWAC school has given Davis more time to be "Dad," and as with any father, ask him about his sons, and his voice lights up. He'll be quick to recite Antoine's three-point shooting stats from a team camp this summer.

"Oh, he's really really good," talking about Antoine as a player. "He's getting the best teaching and coaching he could possibly get with John Lucas. Lotta schools have watched him play and Coach Lucas think's he's gonna be really, really, really special."

"Just watching them and working out with them has made me better as a coach."

"I just can't wait to get him up to Indiana- hopefully Indiana recruits him," he says for a second time. "I wanted him to be excited about it, and he is - really excited."

Yes, Mike Davis talks like a man that out-and-out wants his son to play at Indiana. The Mike Davis that's building a pretty good program of his own at Texas Southern, one that's racked up a conference regular season title and NCAA appearance in the last two seasons. At the same Indiana where he was scorned for Josh McRoberts, Greg Oden, and Mike Conley's choice to leave the state. For the same Indiana fans that created a web page dedicated to his dismissal.

Because that's Mike Davis.

He still loves Indiana.

But even Davis' own coaching staff wasn't sure what he'd think about making a return-trip home to Indiana.

"You can tell when someone asks you a question, and they really don't know what you're response is going to be. But when asked me about it, I was like ‘oh, yeah, that'd be great.' Because I really wanted to bring Antoine to an elite camp at Indiana."

Mike, Jr played for a couple of seasons under his father at Indiana as a walk-on after graduating from Bloomington High School North. But Davis' youngest son, Antoine was had just reached kindergarten age when his dad resigned at Indiana.

This might be Davis' first selfish decision of his coaching career. To share the experience of playing at Assembly Hall one more time with his sons.

"I want Mike to have a chance to coach there. And Antoine's gonna be really-really good. Probably a top twenty-five player in the country his senior year. I want him to experience another game there. "

Antoine's possible recruitment by Indiana is a recurring theme throughout our nearly hour-long conversation.

"So, yeah, when the opportunity came up, I thought I'd be a great opportunity to go back a place that I coached that was one of the best parts of my career-- to let both by boys revisit Assembly Hall. It was a no-brainer to me"

"We've got a lot of friends there. And I haven't been back in a long, long, long, long time."

Since the day he left Bloomington after the 2006 season, to be exact.

Mike Davis

Credit: Gregory Shamus / Stringer

Homecoming

It goes without saying the SWAC is a little different world than the Big Ten. Budgets are tighter, TV games are scarce, and goals are different. Still, Davis uses the years he spent at Indiana and with Knight as an advantage.

"I think all the experience I've had has helped me mold the players I have now. They look at me as being - I mean, how many guys in the SWAC have coached for a national championship? They look at that as a positive thing.

"I've grown so much. I've really learned to watch film. Coach Knight always talked about that. I've really learned about putting the right kind of work in."

I ask him about his goals as a coach, at Texas Southern. The words could be ripped directly from one of his' estranged mentor's books.

"Coaching is about winning for the fans and having those players that walk out of here, out of the program and into real life, becoming men and professionals that are able to take care of their families. You can put Coach Knight up there with anyone that's ever coached a game from that standpoint. And that's what I try to do now. Try to make sure these boys can live a productive life, teach them some life lessons along the way."

Fourteen years after being thrown to the basketball wolves, Davis has found his equilibrium. He lives and dies less with the individual wins and losses, at a program that needs Mike Davis probably more than Mike Davis needs it. He's afforded the time to be Husband and Dad and Fan - his favorite three roles in life.

"Life is about discovering who you are. And I've found who I am."

I ask him if he'll finish his career in Houston.

"If they'll have me. I want to watch my son play. But definitely want to coach more than four more years. And I want Mike, Jr. to be a coach one day. So if I could coach for another 15 years that would be great for me. But I'm at a really good place where I understand the process now, and that's the most important thing."

Davis, forever tied to turmoil at Indiana, has found peace away from the spotlight in Houston.

"Not everybody belongs somewhere, but you can belong somewhere and I'm where I belong."

You have to dig a bit to get Mike Davis to talk about himself. Most things about him are just roundabout verbiage about his sons, his wife, his mother, his former players, and often, the Indiana program. In a culture and a profession where coaches are the face of the program, Mike Davis would have no qualms coaching anonymously. He is the embodiment of selfless, continually asserting that he has been the beneficiary of the work of others and often discounting his own. Selfless, in every sense of the word.

Prior to his arrival, Indiana Basketball was Robert Montgomery Knight. Mike Davis just wanted Indiana Basketball to be Indiana Basketball.

Finally, I get him to talk about himself. Coming home. To Assembly Hall.

"You know, I've never even been in the visitors locker room at all."

He can still see the rest of the building like it was yesterday, the echoes careening down from the upper reaches of the balcony as they did so many times during his career. But, of course, he'll tell you those were for his players. Not him.

"I know how it's going to be as a coach - I remember how intimidating it was. But I'm excited already. We've got a game with Eastern Washington first but I've already got the jitters and excitement about going there. I can't even imagine how it's going to be that night."

Mike Davis has spent fourteen years putting others before himself. Monday, he'll do the same thing, likely deferring attention to his players as he has his entire coaching career.

But just maybe - those players will get to witness their coach receive the standing ovation he deserves in Assembly Hall.

"It's just way overdue for me coming back to Indiana. Way overdue."