Dr. Tom back practicing at Drake

Originally Published: November 20, 2003
By Jeff Shelman | Special to ESPN.com

Tom Davis didn't have to do this, he wasn't looking to do this.

After all, he was both retired and happy. The former Iowa coach read books, he played golf and traveled. While he still lived in Iowa City, he wasn't immediately recognized and he enjoyed the anonymity.

"I really enjoyed the last four years being out of it," Davis said.

So then why after going four years without losing a single game (or getting a bad call) is Davis back in coaching? Why did he agree to try to rebuild a Drake program that's gone more than three decades without reaching the NCAA Tournament?

"I didn't plan on it," Davis said with a laugh. "I got to do a lot of things that in coaching you never get to do. Then the athletic director called and said, 'Would you like to consider this?' We talked over the phone for three, four days in a row, and he told me what his thoughts were.

"I knew of the situation because I was just down the road, and you know what Drake is all about. I had a pretty good idea of the problems I would be confronting. I thought, 'Why not?' It's been fun."

I tried, on purpose, I stayed away from the Iowa program. I think it's hard if you leave any program, it's hard because you don't want to be intrusive with what's going on with the team. I purposely kept a distance.
Tom Davis, Drake head coach

Tuesday night, however, might not have been a lot of fun for Davis. Tuesday night, he acknowledges was going to be weird. That's when Davis, who spent 13 seasons coaching Iowa, returned to Carver-Hawkeye Arena for the first time since being forced out of his job after the 1998-99 season. His Drake squad lost, 74-56.

Davis has lived in Iowa City for the past four years, and current Hawkeyes coach Steve Alford said Davis has been very gracious to him. But, while Davis has been willing to answer Alford's questions, he hadn't actually stepped foot in the building he used to work in.

"I tried, on purpose, I stayed away from the Iowa program," Davis said. "I think it's hard if you leave any program, it's hard because you don't want to be intrusive with what's going on with the team. I purposely kept a distance."

It also didn't help that the ending wasn't how Davis would've drawn it up.

"No, not at all," Davis said. "But that's part of our business. That's part of what we go through."

Davis' Iowa teams won at least 20 games nine times and reached the NCAA Tournament nine times, missing the postseason just twice during his tenure. But the Hawkeyes' perceived lack of Big Ten success in the '90s, coupled with Davis not keeping the best in-state talent in Iowa, ultimately overshadowed his 269 wins with the Hawkeyes.

So now, Davis -- who previously coached at Lafayette (116-44), Boston College (100-47) and Stanford (58-59) -- is trying to bring life to a Drake program that has become a bottom dweller in the Missouri Valley. A year ago, Drake was 10-20 overall and 5-13 in the Missouri Valley. This season the Bulldogs aren't picked to finish last in the conference, but they are certainly close. And those projections were made before Luke McDonald, the program's leading returning scorer and potential All-Valley performer decided against playing his senior season.

The small private school hasn't finished above .500 since 1986-87, it went 5-50 during a two-season stretch in the mid-'90s, and the Bulldogs haven't reached the NCAA Tournament since 1971.

"I'm not doing it for ego purposes; I'm not doing it for the money," said Davis, who joked that he doesn't know how long he's under contract. "I'm doing it for the challenge. It's kind of neat to do. We'll see what we can do, and if we can do something that will stand up in terms of Drake's development and basketball growth. It would kind of be nice to be part of it."

Part of what makes the Drake job more difficult are academic standards higher than required by the NCAA. Former coach Kurt Kanaskie, who was 62-136 in seven seasons, often clashed with the administration over the school's rule that requires players to have at least a 2.0 grade-point average to be able to play. The Bulldogs repeatedly have lost players at the midpoint of seasons.

Davis hopes his prior experience at schools with high academic standards will help him at Drake.

"That doesn't mean it's going to be easy," he said. "I'm still going to be at odds with the administration and every decision isn't going to go my way."

Still, Davis thinks it can be done at Drake. After all, teams from Gonzaga, Butler and Creighton have proven that small, private schools can be competitive if they get support and cooperation from the community.

"There are people who question whether Drake really wants to get it done," Davis said. "There are people in the community who wonder. Obviously my being here puts the question aside. They wouldn't bring in a veteran coach if they didn't want to do a good job. That answers some critics. But the university community, the city of Des Moines, the business community has to step up and be a part of it."

The arrival of Davis has increased interest in the Drake program in Des Moines, and his style of play should keep fans entertained even as the Bulldogs lose games.

"Obviously we're going to run, we're going to press and get after you," said Davis, whose 543 coaching victories rank 11th in the country among active coaches.

"It's a neat experiment to see what we can do," Davis said. "I don't know what I'm doing half the time. There isn't a blueprint. You just go day-to-day and try to do a little better."

Games to Watch
Michigan State at Kansas

This is the first truly high profile game of this college basketball season. Since 1999, the two teams have combined for five Final Four appearances and two trips to the national championship game. First-year KU coach Bill Self and Spartans coach Tom Izzo went back-and-forth when Self was at Illinois. The two split six meetings in the Big Ten.
Oklahoma State vs. Colorado State
at Tulsa, Wednesday

This is the first true test of the season for a Cowboys team that's floating a bit under the radar in the Big 12. While Eddie Sutton's team doesn't have the preseason cache that schools such as Missouri, Kansas, Texas and Oklahoma have, OSU is still ranked in the nation's top 25 and will be difficult to beat -- especially with the arrival of Baylor transfer John Lucas. A Rams team that returns 7-footer Matt Nelson will be a good early test for the Cowboys.
Iowa vs. Louisville, Saturday
Indiana vs. Xavier, Saturday
Michigan vs. Butler, Sunday
These three games at Conseco Fieldhouse are all interesting matchups. Can Iowa handle Louisville's pressure defense and prove it is a legitimate NCAA Tournament contender? Can Indiana, fresh off of a loss at Vanderbilt, avoid a two-game losing streak? Will Michigan coach Tommy Amaker regret scheduling a Butler team that is as solid fundamentally as any team in the country? Can the Bulldogs make the Wolverines their next major conference victim?
'79 Final Four revisted

Most of the time, the ever-popular, four-team weekend tournaments on the campuses across the country are yawnfests at best.

The host team -- usually a major conference school -- recruits three opponents for two nights of games. While some schools to bring in decent competition, the opponents are too often of the hyphenated or directional variety and the average RPI of the field is well into triple digits. As a result, season ticket holders get to pay good cash to watch their school essentially name the score.

But give Michigan State credit for bucking the trend this season. This weekend's Spartan Classic is actually going to be pretty cool.

Twenty-five seasons after the Spartans defeated Indiana State for the 1979 NCAA title at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City -- the Magic vs. Bird championship game that remains a legendary part of the sport -- Michigan State is going to "recreate" the weekend.

All four 1979 Final Four schools -- Michigan State, Penn, Indiana State and DePaul -- will play this weekend at the Breslin Center. The Spartans and the Quakers will play in one semifinal while the Blue Demons and Sycamores will meet in the other, just like what happened nearly 25 years ago. The odds are not in favor of Michigan State and Indiana State meeting in the finals, but the format is much more interesting than many of the other "tournaments" out there.

Buy one, get one free

Two-for-ones. It's a promotion very popular with college students when they arrive at their favorite campus drinking establishment. It's a popular grocery store promotion with the soccer mom crowd.

But it's probably not the ideal way to distribute college basketball tickets.

But that's what the Gazelle Group did with tickets to the Guardians Classic in Kansas City both for Monday night's semifinals and for Tuesday's championship game. Why? Well, the NCAA's 2-in-4 rule for participation in exempt tournaments is certainly a factor. As is the case with other tournaments across the country, the NCAA's rule limiting teams to two appearances in an exempt tournament every four years has certainly impacted the strength of the Guardians field.

Had the injunction against the NCAA remained in place and teams could've played in whatever tournaments they chose, the Guardians field likely would have included both Kansas and Michigan State.

When the event was founded two years ago, the Guardians final four was an impressive group. Missouri defeated Iowa for the championship while Memphis and Alabama met in the third-place game. While last season's event was somewhat watered down, Creighton defeated Notre Dame for the title, giving the Bluejays instant credibility that lasted through the season.

This season, the last four teams remaining in an awkward 12-team format are Richmond, San Francisco, South Carolina and Southwest Missouri State. Tonight, South Carolina and Richmond will play for the title while SMS and San Francisco will meet for the second time in eight days.

SMS defeated the Dons in the tournament's second round, but San Francisco advanced as a "wild card" through a system put into place when a 16-team field didn't materialize.

While the event is important for schools such as Richmond -- which gets an opportunity to play a high major school without having to play a road game -- the event hasn't exactly become a must-see in Kansas City.

Even with the "buy one, get one free" promotion, the listed attendance for Monday's semifinals was only 1,451 fans.

Around the Midwest

  • What's the deal with these freshman and their double-doubles? Aren't they supposed to be difficult to obtain? It doesn't seem to be the case at either Texas or Minnesota.

    Coming off of the bench for the Longhorns, Texas freshman forward P.J. Tucker is making the most of his playing time. In UT's season-opening victory over Brown, the 6-5 Tucker scored 18 points and grabbed 13 rebounds in only 21 minutes of action. In the process, he became only the third Texas player to record a double-double in his freshman debut. On Monday night, he followed that up with an 18-point, 11-rebound performance in 21 minutes against Sam Houston State.

    Meanwhile, 1,175 miles north on Interstate 35, Kris Humphries has been spectacular in his first two games for the Gophers. A one-time Duke signee, Humphries opened his collegiate career with a 26-point, 15-rebound performance as the Gophers defeated Missouri-Kansas City in the first round of the Preseason NIT.

    While the Gophers fell at Utah in the tournament's second round, Humphries, scored 20 points and grabbed 10 rebounds against the Utes. As a result, Humphries became the first freshman to win Big Ten player of the week honors in his first week in the league.

  • Colorado will redshirt freshman Kevin Smith, a 6-7 forward from Oklahoma City. Smith missed his senior high school season after foot surgery. The problem was that doctors operated on the wrong foot.

  • The Big Ten -- a conference expected to be significantly deeper -- is off to a slow start this season. After Indiana lost at Vanderbilt and Ohio State lost to San Diego State at the Maui Invitational, five of the league's 11 teams had lost a game and the league was 9-6 overall. With this week's schedule including Michigan State playing at Kansas, Purdue facing a potential game with Duke in the Great Alaska Shootout and Iowa taking on Louisville, it's likely fewer than half the league's schools will enter December undefeated.

    Quote to Note

    "I've never coached in a game where we have been treated (by officials) with the lack of respect we were treated with in this game."
    -- Ohio State coach Jim O'Brien to The Columbus Dispatch after the Buckeyes were defeated at San Francisco. Despite being limited to a voice little louder than a whisper, O'Brien received two technical fouls and was ejected from the game. He received the first for writing, "This is sad" on a white board generally used for diagramming plays and showing it to an official.

    Jeff Shelman of the Minneapolis Star Tribune (www.startribune.com) is a regular contributor to ESPN.com