Davis trades Drake's Valley for PC's valley
PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- Keno Davis just sailed through the most pressure-packed year of his life.
He succeeded his father, Dr. Tom Davis, at Drake and led the Bulldogs to improbable Missouri Valley Conference regular-season and conference-tournament titles for the first time since 1971, after Drake was picked to finish ninth in the 10-team league. In the preseason, Davis even picked his own team to finish eighth.
Last season the Bulldogs were ranked in the top 25, won 28 games and earned a No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament (Drake's first bid since '71). Davis was a consensus national coach of the year winner in his first year as a Division I head coach.
He was only 36 years old.
"We were building a program and I felt like I couldn't let down the people who had believed in us," said Davis, who was an assistant to his father for four years before taking over the program. "I wanted to prove to people that I didn't get this job because of my name. I wasn't guaranteed this job until three years into being there. I felt like I earned the position."
Taking over for your father -- whether you are Keno Davis, Tony Bennett, Pat Knight, Sean Sutton or Joey Meyer -- can be one of the hardest first coaching jobs. Bennett took Washington State to the NCAA tournament in his first season as head coach and was honored with national coach of the year. Knight will deal with that pressure this year in his first full season as Texas Tech head coach. Ultimately Sutton and Meyer were bounced out of Oklahoma State and DePaul, respectively, because the administrations wanted a break from the past.
Davis, on the other hand, has a whole new set of pressures on his plate. Instead of planning for an encore performance at Drake, Davis finds himself trying to rebuild a Providence College program that finds itself near the bottom of the Big East Conference.
And if you ask Davis, he's as surprised as anyone that he's at PC.
Davis didn't want to be a carpetbagger. He didn't want to just win and get out. More Iowan than anything else -- Keno went to high school and college in Iowa, after Dr. Tom relocated there after stints at Boston College and Stanford -- Davis had planned to stay put: He wasn't looking to cash in on his magical ride. He said he had calls from other schools, but nothing seriously interested him.
Then, on April 13, the phone rang.
Bob Beaudine, who heads his own search firm in Dallas, called Davis on behalf of Providence College.
"They wanted me in that day, the day of the [Drake] team banquet but I couldn't do that," Davis said. He went early the next day to meet PC athletic director Bob Driscoll in Boston. Davis and his wife, Krista, were in meetings all day, had dinner in Newport, R.I., and toured the PC campus under the cover of darkness that Monday night. PC needed a decision by Tuesday morning.
Davis woke up in Boston with the realization that he had a financial decision to make. Drake had a five-year rollover contract for him; PC offered him a seven-year contract and with it the ability to triple his salary. Drake isn't in the same financial category within the Missouri Valley as Southern Illinois, Creighton and Wichita State -- where salaries that can get above $700,000 are now the norm.
Davis said there are mid-major programs that can offer good financial deals, but there is a "big disparity," among others.
Davis admitted that his father did the majority of the legwork required to set up Drake for Keno to take over and be successful. Everything clicked. A former walk-on, Adam Emmenecker played the best basketball of his life last season and was the MVP of the Valley. The Bulldogs had to play three games against Valley teams in January without their top scorer after Josh Young was injured. They won all three games.
While everyone waited for the Bulldogs to fail, they won the Valley tournament in three straight days. The Bulldogs were so beat up at that point, Davis said they barely practiced. All went right, except for the buzzer-beating 3-pointer that Western Kentucky's Ty Rogers buried to beat the Bulldogs 101-99 in overtime in Tampa in the best first-round game of the NCAA tournament.
"To leave after one year as a head coach was a tough thing to do, but I had to understand that in our business you're only as good as you were the last year and the opportunity to go to the Big East and also get a seven-year contract was something I couldn't turn down," Davis said.
Davis said the pressure to win at Drake, in a competitive Missouri Valley, is high. He said he thinks there could be even more pressure to win in the Valley, where NCAA bids can be sparse (Drake was the only team to receive a bid last season after nine consecutive seasons of multiple bids), than there is in the Big East.
"The best conference to get [into the NCAA tournament] is the Big East," Davis said. "Missouri Valley doesn't like to hear this but it's a mid-major conference and you've got to be in the top one or two or, maybe in a great year, be in the top three to get in the NCAA tournament."
PC sold Davis on its commitment to winning. The Friars have plenty of tradition. No one would debate that point. The renovation of the Dunkin Donuts Center, in downtown Providence -- which is one of the best small city downtown areas in the Northeast -- helps the job. So, too, does the ongoing rebuilding of offices and locker rooms on campus that should eventually offer up the comfort that most Big East programs enjoy. Before the renovations, PC had arguably one of the worst on-campus facility situations in the 16-team Big East. It's never going to be No. 1, but at least it's becoming much more competitive.
Tim Welsh slogged through 10 years at Providence and wasn't afforded the same kind of refurbishments that Davis will have this season. That's normal for a new coach. Welsh also left Davis a ready-to-win situation: The Friars return six seniors and junior guard Sharaud Curry, who played in only one game because of a broken foot. The Friars finished with a 15-16 record overall, and went 6-12 in the Big East to end in 12th place but should be competing for an NCAA berth this season.
"In any other league with what we have back, and with Curry healthy, we'd be picked higher, but in the Big East it may be only 10th," said Davis. The Big East is expected to be top 25 rich, and it's possible that it starts the season with four top-10 teams: Connecticut, Pitt, Louisville and Notre Dame.
The hope for Davis is to make the talented Friars as much of a perimeter threat as Drake. The Bulldogs were a proficient 3-point shooting team, with their top four players shooting over 34 percent, two of them over 43 percent.
"The style goes great with us since we like to shoot 3s," Curry said. "We like to run up and down and fast break and shoot 3s so we'll complement his system well."
Davis will face pressure to lead the Friars to the NCAA tournament after Welsh was fired. The team has the personnel, returning Curry, Geoff McDermott, Weyinmi Efejuku, Jeff Xavier and Brian McKenzie; all save Curry were in double figures in scoring last season. With Curry injured, PC lacked a true point guard -- which obviously knocked the Friars down a peg in the Big East.
But Davis may actually be under more pressure prior to the season: He has to recruit well before the first tip, because the Friars lose too much in this senior class. If Davis doesn't sign a stellar recruiting class in November, PC could be in for a long rebuilding process.
So far, the Friars have three commitments: Kadeem Batts, a 6-foot-7 forward out of McEachern High in Georgia, 6-2 shooting guard Antoine Allen out of Notre Dame Prep (Mass.) and 6-3 shooting guard Duke Mondy out of Catholic Central High (Mich.).
Like at Drake, Davis said he's trying to sell the vision of what PC will be, without being able to show recruits a finished product. He said he knows the Friars won't land McDonald's All-Americans but is confident that once a player visits PC -- even if he's a tier below elite-prospect status -- he'll be sold on the upgrade in facilities.
"It's an important time in the next two classes," Davis said.
"He's done a great job already and his track record speaks for itself," Curry said. "He gets the most out of the talent. It shouldn't be a big problem."
Curry said he followed the Bulldogs while he was injured, knowing that Drake was one of the surprise teams last season. He said he knew they did better than projected.
"I knew right away this was a good hire for the school," Curry said.
Davis won't yell and scream. He expects his players to be self-motivated. McDermott said there is more attention to detail in individual workouts, and there is a lot more shooting. Whether it was intended or not, there is definitely a sense of optimism around the program.
"Sitting in a restaurant in downtown Providence last week, Davis talked about what it would mean for him to succeed in the Big East -- another place his father found success, with Boston College in the early 1980s.
"It would mean a lot and I'd be lying if I said it didn't," Davis said of following in his father's footsteps. "When I won the AP coach of the year it maybe meant the most to me since he had won it."
When PC called, the first phone call Keno made was to his father. Dr. Tom didn't tell him to take the job immediately, but Keno said his father knew once he got to Providence that Keno couldn't turn it down.
"I had incredible success, the whole year was a surprise, I loved Drake," Davis said. He said he was fortunate to be coach of the year and coach of the conference, but it never entered his mind that it would be possible to come out after one year and "go to the best conference in the country -- the Big East."
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.