Presiding over a late-afternoon, mid-week practice at Bartow Arena, the new leading man of the UAB Blazers stands silently on the sidelines watching his inherited team run one of his signature half-court offensive sets.
The movement on the court looks as much like rehearsal for a stage play as basketball practice, with Davis as both playwright and director. His assistant coaches serve as stagehands, moving in and setting up props in between scenes. Having labored over the script in the off-season, Davis watches intently as his vision manifests itself in real time.
Offensive drills are run almost in mime, with players focusing more on where they line up on the court than who is lining up across from them. Correct position is crucial and movement away from the ball dictates how successful, or unsuccessful, an offensive set will be.
"Hold it!" Davis breaks his silence and raises his voice to a yell for the first and only time in the two-and-a-half hour session. "I don't hear any talking. I don't hear any freakin' talking!"
The players have spent 15 minutes running through one of Davis’ scenes, mostly in silence — and that absence of sound is fingernails on a chalkboard to every basketball coach who has ever blown a whistle.
Davis wants to hear players calling for the ball, pointing out defensive positions, signaling who's going to pick up the rebound and so on. After making his point, Davis directs the cast to run the play again, and this time, the chatter can be heard up in the cheap seats. A paradox, perhaps, for a soft-spoken coach to demand more noise, but “Do as I say, not as I do,” might as well be the opening line of this drama.
Although this is Davis’ first season with the Blazers, he already interacts with his players in a fatherly way, teaching by example rather than negative enforcement. But as tight-lipped as he is, there is no doubt that Mike Davis is in control here: He utters, “Stop!” and the squeaking of new sneakers and thud of the ball on the hardwood ceases immediately. Even visitors in the arena pause their conversations for fear of interrupting the head coach.
This level of respect represents a remarkable turnaround for a man who, until recently, endured some of the loudest and most vitriolic criticism any basketball coach has ever had to live through.
Away games & homecoming
Davis left Alabama in 1983 to pursue an NBA career, but wound up playing and coaching nationally and internationally for the next 15 years. His big break came in 1997, when the legendary and temperamental Bob Knight, who had coached at Indiana since 1971, hired Davis as an assistant coach.
Three years later, Knight, who earned as much notoriety for his temper as he did for his three national championships, was fired after lashing out and grabbing an Indiana student who casually addressed him by his last name. Despite a history of unbalanced behavior, which famously included an incident in 1985 when he threw his sideline chair onto the court in protest during a game versus Purdue, Knight was revered by the vast majority of the Indiana faithful.
Students planned to riot unless then-president Myles Brand named Davis, Knight's prodigy, as the next head coach of the Hoosiers. When Brand relented to the noise, Davis suddenly found himself a considerable distance away from shooting baskets in Fayette.
But what most fans in Bloomington did not realize was that the man for whom they campaigned so passionately knew from day one that he was not the man they were looking for. A lot of coaches would have loved to lead such a legendary program, but Davis took the job strictly as a stepping-stone. Such valuable coaching credentials were bound to help him get a job he really wanted — as opposed to babysitting a program reeling in the aftermath of Knight’s firing.
"I knew that it really wasn't where I was going to be in the long run," Davis says. "I just knew there was something else for me. I knew that from the first day I was there. I was just happy to have the opportunity to be a head coach."
Reluctant or not, Davis started his tenure beautifully. In just two years the team ascended to the sport’s biggest stage again, playing in the NCAA title game. Top-ranked recruits lined up to sign on the dotted line. Fan excitement was at an all-time high. Knight and his antics were all but forgotten.
But in 2002, Davis' Hoosiers became the first-ever Indiana team to lose a championship game. And, despite the requisite coaching extension offered in the wake of the otherwise phenomenal season, some fans wondered if Davis could, in reality, ever capture the game's highest prize. Two years later, the team fell into mediocrity, and went on to suffer through their first losing season in 30 years.
Criticism of the coach grew louder, forcing the university to issue
Davis an ultimatum: win now or suffer the consequences. Davis' family took the brunt of an almost incessant barrage of hateful speech during games inside Assembly Hall, causing the coach's youngest son, 8-year-old Antoine, to live in fear of Hoosier home games.
"He still hasn't gotten over it. He still doesn't want us to play any games because of his memory of games he attended at IU," Davis says, looking on as Antoine tosses a small football around with one of the UAB basketball trainers. "People don't understand when they criticize someone how it affects them, their family, their kids.
“It takes a toll, it weighs on you," Davis says. "You begin to feel like you're on an island all by yourself — don't want to talk, don't want to hear the things that people are saying about you. Eventually, you just wind up going into your own little world. It's just not a healthy routine.”
Robert Vaden, a junior who followed Davis to UAB after transferring from Indiana, said that the pressure on his coach was excruciating for his fellow players to watch.
“It was very tough on him, because no matter if we won by 30 or lost by two, he was criticized,” Vaden says. “I mean, it's hard to coach when you know that you're going to be criticized no matter what you do. Man, it was hard enough just to follow Coach Knight.”
To escape the pressure cooker he was coaching in, Davis stayed home as much as possible, only showing up on campus when it was absolutely necessary. But when the team continued to struggle in 2005, Davis finally decided he and his family had suffered enough. He resigned in February 2006, just weeks before the final game of the season.
Despite the near-constant criticism, Davis managed to finish at Indiana with a 115-79 overall record, including four NCAA Tournament appearances with the Hoosiers. Coaching offers poured in following Davis’ resignation, but rumors of a vacancy in Birmingham sounded like the opportunity Davis had secretly pined for back in Bloomington. In the midst of a third-straight NCAA tournament run, UAB’s Mike Anderson, who was in the midst of a third-straight NCAA tournament run, was listening to offers from the University of Missouri. Once Anderson had made his move final, Davis signed on as the Blazers’ new head coach after only a few days of negotiation.
“I love it here, my family loves it here," Davis says with a growing smile. “ Even Antoine loves it here — he just still doesn't want to play the games. My wife is happy. My oldest son is happy. I don't want to be anywhere else.
“I'm at home here, and I'm getting an opportunity here to start anew, to build a program the way I want to build it," he says.
Feeding the fire
Mike Anderson was hired in 2002 and restored the Blazers to national prominence, leading the team to three straight tournament runs, including an improbable Sweet 16 appearance in his second season. A disciple of former Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson and his philosophy of “40 Minutes of Hell,” Anderson adapted the strategy into his own signature "Fastest 40 Minutes in Basketball." Abandoning the traditional half-court offense and defense, Anderson transformed the squad into a fast-breaking, full court-pressing, Tasmanian devil of a basketball team. That style of play breathed new life into the Blazers and brought UAB a new taste of the program’s former success. But that's not the way Mike Davis plays basketball.
"It's been a challenge to teach these guys my style of basketball," Davis says. "I'm a half-court, defensive guy, that's my system. Playing great man-to-man defense is the way I got to the championship game.
“Our guys at times this season have fallen back to what they've been taught in the past, which was successful for them," Davis says. "And you can't fault them for wanting to do that. It's a good system, but it's not the way I do things. You can see that they still want to press and trap sometimes, so it's going to take a little time to change things. I've just got to be patient while I get the pieces in place.”
With the current senior duo of Mo Gibbs and Wen Mukubu leading the way, as well as the inspired play of point guard Paul Delaney, this year's squad is talented enough to win under just about any coach's system.
Delaney, a senior from Decatur, Ga., sees the team adapting well to the new scheme Davis and his assistants are trying to employ. He sees the new system working to capitalize on the team's current strengths while adding a new offensive dimension.
“I think we will adapt well to his system," Delaney says. "A lot of people believe we will completely stop looking for the fast break, but that's not the case. What Coach Davis and his staff has done is bring in more offensive sets for us to run and for us to score out of. We're learning to be more patient."
Right now, patience is the key. Patience for the players as they adapt to a new style of offense and defense. Patience for the coaching staff as the players panic and revert back to their presses and traps. Patience for the fans as the staff and the players strive to get on the same page in time to compete in their fourth straight NCAA tournament. But no matter how long this year's team takes to find its identity,
Davis knows that next year's nucleus is already taking shape.
Building the Blaze
Vaden followed Davis from the Hoosiers, where he was one of the most valuable players in the Big Ten Conference. As a freshman in 2004, Vaden was the team's third leading scorer and a member of the conference's All-Freshman team. Before leaving the Hoosiers, Vaden had started all 60 games of his career.
Sharpe transferred from Mississippi State after averaging 9.3 points and five rebounds per game last season. The highly-sought after recruit from Parker High School was wooed by virtually every major program in the Southeast upon his graduation.
Both players will undoubtedly help the UAB squad next year, not only because of their talent, but by virtue of beginning their careers as Davis disciples. Vaden should especially make an impact, not just because of his experience with Davis at Indiana, but because of the special bond they have formed during the past few years. Like the rest of his teammates, the 6'5" forward watched as his new mentor was crucified by the local and national media. In the end, the players endured almost as much hardship as Davis' family.
“We tried to act like it didn't get to us, but when you have it two years nonstop, it's going to get to you," Vaden says. "We tried to block it out, but we heard it everyday.”
Now Vaden, like Davis, is starting to feel at home in a previously unfamiliar place and is enjoying the new experience. He sees the effect that coming home has had on his coach.
“He's in the gym all day, walking around happy and smiling," Vaden says, shifting his glance to his coach standing on the baseline. "In Bloomington, if he wasn't at practice, he was at home with his family."
Now his home and his family are here, inside Bartow Arena, where the fans have already loudly expressed their support for their new head coach and native son — sometimes by cheering and sometimes by respectful silence.
Young Antoine, still unsure about his dad's team playing in front of the home crowd, smiles and slaps hands with just about anybody who walks by him wearing green, gold or white.
Davis's wife, Tamilya, sits courtside, watching as her husband directs his players in several impromptu performances until no detail has gone unscrutinized. Her gaze hardly leaves her young son or her husband, both of whom have seen the worst of what college athletics can embody. Her hopeful gaze suggests that her family might finally get in Birmingham what they never could in Bloomington: the special peace and quiet that follows the approving roar of the crowd.
For Mike Davis, the words of encouragement he hears on a daily basis are louder than any of the criticism he spent the last six years listening to.
"I don't want to be anywhere else but here," he says. "I can feel the difference in being here from where I was. You know, sometimes you just need to be somewhere where you'll be embraced, somewhere where people will be excited about you being there. I feel like I'm at that place now.”