Separation is best for Davis and IU program
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- In September 2000, Mike Davis stood in front of a wall of cameras in Assembly Hall and looked scared to death while accepting the risky assignment to replace Bob Knight.
Thursday afternoon, 5½ years and a thousand worry lines later, a composed, magnanimous and ultimately relieved Davis stood in front of a wall of cameras in Assembly Hall and announced the most upbeat resignation in college basketball history.
"This is a great day for Indiana basketball," Davis proclaimed. "Trust me, it is."
Thousands of Davis bashers will agree heartily with that statement, with some justification. Indiana should be better off without Mike Davis -- and Mike Davis should be better off without Indiana.
(At least two key Indiana players do not see it that way, however. Key sophomores D.J. White and Robert Vaden both said Davis was the reason they came to IU -- and sounded like they were ready to board the first thing smokin' and get out of town. Depending how the chips fall, they could join Davis at another school next season, if the coach gets another job.)
But even the most dogged Davis critics in this state must admit that he has grown up tremendously since that day in 2000, when a small-town Alabama native with a stutter and no head-coaching history took over one of the most storied programs in the nation.
The only regret was that he could never grow enough to fill the void Knight left behind. In some ways, Mike Davis never had a prayer. In some ways he was the eternal interim coach, always a two-game losing streak away from hearing fire-the-coach chatter.
"I don't know anyone that could handle this situation ," Davis told me last year in an interview for ESPN's "Outside The Lines."
"It's just the day-to-day pressure that you have. I have not had one interview that didn't question me about my job, my future here at Indiana. And so that tells you the picture, it paints the picture, tells you the story."
In the annals of the sport, only one coach might have stepped into a tougher spot than Davis did when he succeeded Knight. That would be Gene Bartow, who replaced the greatest of them all, John Wooden. Bartow lasted two years at UCLA, went 52-9 and took the Bruins to the Final Four, then fled for the starter-upper program at UAB.
That tells you how hot the chair was in Westwood. But it could have been only a few degrees toastier than the one Davis sat on in Bloomington. Here's why:
Davis was nobody's idea of a hand-picked successor. He hardly came with the stamp of approval from the man he replaced. He was a program outsider with a blank résumé.
He was a stopgap choice to prevent a crippling player mutiny and mass transfers. The coach he replaced had no interest of making the transition easy for him. And a huge swath of the fan base was in full revolt.
There were thousands of empty seats at some early games. Shortly after Knight resurfaced at Texas Tech, you could buy Red Raider gear all over the state (you still can find it in Bloomington).
The Last Six Seasons
|Mike Davis||2000-2006||Bob Knight||1994-2000|
Every early Davis misstep -- and he had some doozies -- became a referendum on his unfitness to coach the Hoosiers. Every early Davis accomplishment -- and there were some huge ones -- was accomplished with Knight's players.
(Memo to the Knight Militia: That Indiana Final Four run of 2002 that allegedly was done with Knight's players? Ask Jared Jeffries, Jeffrey Newton and A.J. Moye who recruited them to IU and who was the biggest human reason why they came. They'll say Mike Davis. Ask Tom Coverdale -- a "Knight player" -- how much success he was having while stapled to the bench under Bob. And ask Dane Fife -- another "Knight player" -- how much freedom and confidence he had to shoot under Bob.)
It's abundantly clear that Davis never came close to matching Knight's three national titles. But it's also clear that Knight, in his final years, never matched Knight in his glory years. Knight's record in his final six years (123-69, 60-42 in Big Ten play, zero Final Fours) is not hugely better than Davis' record in his six (109-76, 51-40, one Final Four).
The trick is getting some of the hard-ankle Knight loyalists to admit all that. (Some of them still think he's coming back. This just in: He's not.)
"I'm not really sure he was given a fair shot," senior Sean Kline said. "He may think he was, but I really don't feel like he was, from a fan standpoint."
Loyalty to Knight might have delivered the harshest blow to Davis' long-term viability at Indiana. Bloomington North High School star Sean May, whose dad was an IU hero under Knight, chose North Carolina over the hometown Hoosiers. There has been considerable speculation over the years that Knight and/or Scott May steered Sean away from Bloomington.
Given the way it turned out -- national title, Final Four Most Outstanding Player, first-round draft pick -- you can hardly second-guess May's choice. But imagine what he would have meant to Indiana. Davis would not have been 29-29 over the previous two years, nor is it likely he would have faced win-or-else pressure this season.
But as Bill Parcells likes to say, you are what your record says you are. And Davis' record in recent years is beneath Indiana's standards. You simply cannot miss the NCAA Tournament three years in a row at IU, and currently the Hoosiers are very much in danger of doing just that. At 13-9, 5-6 in the Big Ten after a dispiriting loss to Penn State, they'll live the rest of the season on the bubble.
Even White's foot injuries (he's played just five games) are not a valid excuse. This was a no-excuse season, a time to rise above the program's recent malaise, and it hasn't happened.
Davis was smart enough to see the resignation legalese on the wall. That's why he initiated termination talks with school president Adam Herbert two weeks ago -- even earlier than suspected. And that helps explain the silly statements and bizarre behavior -- always a part of the Davis package -- that intensified in the past week.
He missed the Iowa game with the stomach flu, then took shots at the fans in telephone interviews afterward. He piped up Monday and said Indiana needed "one of its own" as coach. On Tuesday and Wednesday he danced around resignation rumors and questions about his future at IU.
Finally, Thursday, Davis was able to let it all out. His stay in the impossible job was over. His difficult duty as the bridge between the Knight Era and Whatever Is Next is done. He's grown immensely, even if he could never grow enough to fill Bob Knight's void.
"The healing process should be over," Davis said. "It's time for closure on this."
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.