Originally created 04/02/02

Mike Davis is already a winner



ATLANTA -- Sometimes, the bus was too hot.

Other times, it was too cold.

"And sometimes," Indiana coach Mike Davis said, "the bus driver would get sleepy and start weaving back and forth. And I was like, 'Hey, get me out of here."'

A dozen years and thousands of miles later, Davis is out of there. Out of the jobs in those out-of-the-way places where he learned to coach between doing the team's laundry, running errands and sweeping the floor after practice. In that sense, he's already a winner, no matter how Monday night's national championship game turns out.

In the CBA, during stopovers in Chicago and Wichita Falls, Texas, his salary was $150 a week. In Venezuela, his contract was day to day. Davis couldn't believe his good luck when he landed on the staff at Alabama as an assistant, because somebody else was in charge of washing clothes and driving to the grocery store.

At tiny Miles College in Alabama, where he broke into the business and did everything but drive the team bus, he made $200 - for the season. To supplement his income, Davis sold T-shirts out of the back of his car at flea markets. In the bargain, he learned a basic lesson about survival: Always get the money up front.

"I learned a lot about people doing that," the Indiana coach recalled on the eve of the biggest game of his life. "It kept me focused, because here I am."

Now the travel is first class, the paycheck reflects his lofty station in life and the clinics where Davis speaks are packed with assistants hanging on every word. Some people wonder whether the success came too fast, whether a man with only 12 years in the business, and just two in charge of his own program, has to be unusually good - or just lucky - to reach the head of the line.

But Maryland's Gary Williams, who waited 24 years for his first shot at the national title, is not one of them.

"Look at the job he's done," Williams said. "There's a situation where he had to do some things in addition to just being a basketball coach to be successful. He's taken a lot of pressure on and handled it very well. I think that gets through to his team."

Nearly every successful college coach has a story that involves sacrifice.

But only one of them had to follow Bob Knight.

"It's like UCLA with Coach Wooden or Alabama with Coach Bryant," Davis said. "It will always be there."

Almost on cue, the General himself turned up at a suburban Atlanta bookstore Friday evening to sign copies of his new autobiography. It was another reminder of how Knight's absence haunts the program now the way his presence once did.

He's chosen to ignore Davis, his former assistant and chief recruiter, these past two seasons. And refused to pass along congratulations to the players who gave him all they had, whose run through this NCAA tournament has been one of the most unlikely in a long time. But withholding his blessings hasn't been Knight's biggest failing. Some 18 months after his firing, he's still trying to claim more than his fair share of the credit.

"I knew I should have left there, but I felt this team had a chance to be a national contender this year and I wanted to see it through," Knight said last week.

When those remarks found their way back to Davis, the memories of all those other slights must have come creeping back. The spiteful e-mails about these kids being Knight's recruits, the callers on talk radio who ridiculed the offenses or defenses he ran.

Davis knows this run through the NCAA bracket has only sidelined his critics, not silenced them altogether. What's changed is that he understands the push-and-pull are part of the job.

"The ghosts will never go away, but now I understand it's not about me," Davis said. "It's about being the guy who followed Coach Knight."

His kids understand that, too.

"There used to be 50 fans at the bus every time we were going to load up that would be there to wish us good luck my first two years," Hoosier senior Dane Fife said. "When coach Davis got the job, they were nowhere to be found and I haven't seen them since. I think that's sad."

Davis does, too, but he's already come so far, and overcome so much real adversity, that he won't devote any more time or effort worrying about it.

Davis was a stutterer who overcame paralyzing fear to speak in front of a group, a great athlete who figured out he'd never be better than a middling pro. He became a father who lost a young daughter, yet somehow kept his faith and his family pointed in the right direction, and a teacher who saw firsthand how well intimidation worked but extended his students freedom, anyway.

Davis looks around him and sees the rewards piled up on every side.

"Sometimes," he said, "I feel like I'm stealing."

Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org