News-Sentinel, The (Fort Wayne, IN)

February 16, 2006
Section: SPORTS
Edition: FINAL
Page: 1S

Freefall from grace

In the end, the Indiana job was too much for Mike Davis, and that's a shame. He's a guy you'd want for your best friend, a guy you'd want around when you were down.

You just didn't want him coaching the Hoosiers.

Davis was too sensitive. He too often coached from fear instead of from confidence. He too often said or did the wrong thing. He never understood what it took to thrive in the high-pressure world of elite coaching (Rule No. 1 - don't worry if everybody doesn't like you). He rarely displayed the toughness when facing adversity to inspire his players (Rule No. 2 - don't complain about the schedule or worry about mean-spirited fans).

That's the bottom line, isn't it? The ultimate definition of a good coach, regardless of system or philosophy, is getting your players to play to their potential and, at times, just a little bit more. That didn't happen for Davis. At least, it didn't in these last 3 1/2 years. In that stretch, the Hoosiers went 55-51, missed out on the NCAA tourney two consecutive years and displayed thank-you-sir-may-I-have-another road submission. This year's 12-3 start morphed into a job-costing 13-9 disaster.

At Indiana, just like at fellow traditional powerhouses Kentucky or Kansas or North Carolina, that's not good enough. It's not even close.

And so Davis is on the way out. He wants to finish coaching the season before resigning. Perhaps he'll get that chance. Does it really matter? The sooner this mess of a season ends, the sooner a new coach is named and new direction established, the better.

What happened to Mike Davis and Indiana? How did a guy who led the Hoosiers to the NCAA title game in just his second year, who parlayed that success into an $800,000-a-year contract, who once was one of the hot young coaches in America, have it slip away?

Let's take a look.

* * *

Davis' fall began on Dec. 21, 2002, at Louisville's Freedom Hall. The Hoosiers were 8-0 and ranked No. 6. They had won the Maui Invitational. They had beaten Maryland in a rematch of the previous season's national title game, which the Terrapins had won.

Davis seemed on top of the world. He had senior standouts in Tom Coverdale, Jeff Newton and Kyle Hornsby. He had the ever-talkative A.J. Moye. He had freshman guards Bracey Wright and Marshall Strickland.

What he didn't have was a victory over Kentucky, and that seemed ready to change. But in the final, furious seconds of a nail-biter of a game, Davis wanted a foul he didn't get. He wanted so badly to win that he ran onto the court while the game was still going on. In the aftermath, the university suspended him for a game.

What had been a special season became a disaster. The Hoosiers went 13-13 the rest of the way and got hammered 74-52 by Pittsburgh in the second round of the NCAA tourney.

Bad team chemistry wasn't helped when Davis called Wright IU's best player. In truth, Wright was the most talented, but he wasn't the best. That honor belonged to the mentally tough Coverdale or, perhaps, the quietly effective Newton. By elevating Wright before his time, Davis helped create a schism that never healed. In fact, over the next two seasons, IU went a combined 29-29.

Missing the NCAA tourney in 2004 after making it the previous 18 years didn't help Davis' popularity. Missing it again in 2005 made him Cream 'n Crimson Enemy No. 1. The sentiment was loud and clear - get rid of him - and Davis agonized over it. He stopped having his name announced before games. He rarely left his house in the offseason.

And yet, Davis had amassed talent, including Auburn transfers Marco Killingsworth and Lewis Monroe, who seemed capable of leading IU to a deep NCAA tourney run this season. Athletic Director Rick Greenspan, with strong encouragement from Hoosier President Adam Herbert, kept Davis after a long talk about the glory of old IU.

All that did, as it turned out, was delay the inevitable.

* * *

Don't blame this on the pressure of replacing a legend. Don't equate Davis taking over for the fired Bob Knight with Gene Bartow replacing retired John Wooden.

Wooden went out with the 1975 national championship, his 10th in 12 years. Knight went out as a perennial early-round NCAA tourney loser (1-6 NCAA record in his last six years). Wooden left on top of his game. Knight was six years past his.

Still, there was turmoil from Knight's dismissal and Davis handled it - for a while. That first year, as an interim head coach, he got the Hoosiers to the NCAA tourney. His second year, they shared the Big Ten title and reached the national championship game. Nobody in America would have done better.

But there was no happily ever after for Davis. He lost the Hoosiers in the second half of his third season, lost the majority of fans in his fourth season and never regained them.

In the end, it wasn't about angry fans or brutal schedules or unfair breaks. It was about performance. It was about overcoming adversity. It was about toughness and tenacity.

Or the lack of it.

So what becomes of Davis?

He is a sensitive man and sensitive men do not do well in the often-ruthless Big Ten coaching arena. But he will learn from this. He will grow from this.

He will be a better coach for this. Someday he'll get the chance to prove it.

Just not at Indiana.

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