- The Washington Times - Monday, April 1, 2002

ATLANTA Replacing Brian Dennehy, er, Bobby Knight as the head honcho in basketball-mad, season on the brink-sville Bloomington?
For Indiana's Mike Davis, that was the easy part.
Forget the pressure, the criticism, the loyalists who cling to Knight's legacy like lint to a red sweater. Over a lifetime fraught with adversity, Davis has seen worse including an entry-level job that paid just $200.
For an entire season.
"Here I am coaching for $200 and selling T-shirts out of the back of my car," Davis said of his first job, a stint at miniscule Miles College. "But it's not different than anyone else who's trying to make it. We all will do something."
Davis has done plenty. Beyond leading the surprising Hoosiers, a No.5 seed, to a showdown with top-seeded Maryland in tonight's national championship game at the Georgia Dome, the 41-year-old coach has tackled family tragedy, a debilitating stutter and a long and winding career path that has more in common with CBS' "Survivor" than "The Road to the Final Four."
But first, back to the T-shirts.
In the fall of 1989, Davis signed on as volunteer coach at Miles, a tiny (2,000 students), historically black Division II college in Birmingham, Ala. Looking to embark on a coaching career after several seasons in the CBA, the former Alabama star and second-round NBA draft pick had to take what he could get.
Even if it meant supporting his family of four by selling Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle tees and top-40 cassette tapes from the rear of his dinged-up station wagon.
"I said, 'I don't want to do this for the rest of my life, set up a flea market here, go to a park and do this,'" Davis said. "[But] coaching at Miles gave me some experience. It didn't matter about the money at the time. I mean, it paid off. Because I'm here."
Born in Fayette, Ala., a small town with just under 5,000 residents, Davis has come a long way. When he entered the first grade, his parents divorced, a split that sent his father to Denver and left his mother to raise Davis and his older brother, Van, while sending her other three children to live with relatives.
As a child, Davis battled a stutter so severe that he sheepishly asked his football coach to switch him from quarterback to running back even though he had the strongest throwing arm on the team.
"I wanted to be this big-time quarterback, but I moved because at running back you don't have to say a word," he said. "I stopped playing football in the eighth grade because it was just too embarrassing."
Davis moved on to basketball, and embarrassment gave way to accomplishment. Named Alabama's Mr. Basketball as a high school senior, Davis served as a defensive stopper under former Tide coach Wimp Sanderson, checking future pros like Charles Barkley, Dominique Wilkins and Dale Ellis.
Following his senior year, Davis was drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks. However, he was cut just one week before the start of the NBA season and spent the next several years playing in Switzerland, Italy and the CBA.
Davis retuned to the CBA in 1990, where he served as an assistant coach under current Indiana associate head coach John Treloar in Wichita Falls, Texas.
The next year, his year-old daughter, Nicole, was killed in a car accident, a subject Davis prefers not to discuss.
Davis returned to Alabama as an assistant in 1995. Two seasons later, Knight brought him to Indiana. Along the way, Davis never earned more than $35,000 in a single season.
At one point, he coached a club in Venezuela.
"I remember seeing Gatorade bottles flying over your head during games," Davis said. "It's different over there. If you lose a couple of games, they'll fire you. There's no contract, you're just working. It's an experience."
Davis walked a similar tightrope following Knight's ugly dismissal in September 2000. Tabbed as Indiana's interim coach, Davis struggled to escape his former boss' shadow not to mention the ire of Knight's diehard supporters.
It wasn't always easy. Though Davis led Indiana to 21 wins in his initial season four more than any other first-year coach in school history, including Knight he was bashed following a first-round NCAA loss to Kent State.
When the Hoosiers struggled early this season, dropping five of their first 12 games, Davis publicly questioned himself and his team. After a loss to Butler, he wondered aloud whether the officials were attempting to "hose" his team, earning a $10,000 fine from the Big Ten.
"It was very difficult for me because I had never been a head coach before," Davis said. "I've never been really criticized before. Sometimes I took it personal."
Fortunately, the Hoosiers quickly righted the ship, winning nine of their next 11 games en route to a share of the Big Ten regular-season title, Indiana's first since 1993. Davis then scored the biggest win of his career with Indiana's Sweet 16 upset of top-ranked Duke.
"I think he understood that coming into the job that there were going to be high expectations," Indiana guard Kyle Hornsby said. "I know that Coach Davis was up to that challenge. He's willing to tackle any kind of problem. That's the kind of guy he is."
And with one win between him and a national championship, he's a long way from $200 a year.
"[If we win], well, I hope I get a raise," Davis said with a smile.


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