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SWAC Preview: Mike Davis prefers challenge of winning at Texas Southern to ‘torture’ of a year off

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

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Mike Davis (AP)

Only once since grade school has Mike Davis not spent the winter either playing basketball or teaching it.

Cut by the Milwaukee Bucks in training camp before the 1983 NBA season, Davis opted to put his basketball career on hold a few months in order to finish his degree.

"That was like torture," Davis said. "I've been around basketball all my life. That experience taught me I can't be doing nothing during basketball season."

Memories of that miserable winter fueled Davis' efforts to find a new coaching gig this offseason after UAB fired him in March. Even though he'll receive $625,000 from UAB this year because he had one season left on his contract, the 52-year-old Alabama native insists he'd have coached a high school or junior high team before he took a full year off from basketball.

Texas Southern spared Davis from a return to the youth ranks in August when athletic director Dr. Charles McClelland hired him as the school's interim coach. It surprised many in basketball circles that a SWAC school could land a man who led UAB to four straight 20-win seasons and took Indiana to the 2002 national title game, but Davis found the job attractive for many reasons.

He recognized the Texas Southern administration's financial commitment to building the basketball program. He and his wife felt comfortable moving from Birmingham to Houston. And he felt the competition and training available in Houston could be beneficial to his 13-year-old son's basketball aspirations.

More than anything, though, Texas Southern appealed to Davis because he felt wanted. Whereas Indiana could never embrace the coach who followed legendary Bob Knight and UAB soured on him as attendance dwindled and postseason success proved elusive, Davis has received an enthusiastic welcome from players, fans and administrators at Texas Southern.

"I think sometimes after a couple years people have tended to take me for granted in the past," Davis said. "They appreciate me here. Everyone I've met is happy I'm here. That's beautiful. When everyone is excited about you being somewhere, that makes you want to get up and go to work."

For Texas Southern, a splashy hire like Davis meshes well with McClelland's vision for basketball spearheading the resurgence of his athletic department.

Texas Southern has long been known more for academic woes and NCAA compliance issues than athletic success, but administrators have invested millions during McClelland's four-year tenure in hopes of improving the school's reputation and emerging as the powerhouse of the SWAC.

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Ten years ago, Mike Davis led Indiana to the 2002 national title game (Getty Images)

They've increased coaching salaries and recruiting and travel budgets in football and men's and women's basketball. They've hired ex-NCAA staffers to beef up the compliance staff and assist in instituting academic reform. And they've drastically upgraded Texas Southern's athletic facilities, leasing the Houston Dynamo's newly built stadium as a permanent home for the football program, installing suites and a new floor in the basketball arena and renovating the locker rooms and offices for both men's and women's hoops.

"We want to increase our status in basketball, and I think you're starting to see that Texas Southern is starting to put the resources in," McClelland said. "Our budget for men's and women's basketball has doubled since I've been athletic director, and it shows our level of commitment. We know resources is the name of the game."

Any progress made by the men's basketball program in recent years appeared to be in jeopardy when coach Tony Harvey abruptly resigned in July. Since Harvey's departure came well after other openings were already filled, McClelland feared he'd have to scramble to find an interim hire and do a full search next spring until a mutual friend in the industry informed him Davis might be interested.

Davis was also considering an opportunity to coach in Venezuela next season, so McClelland wasted little time making him an offer. They first spoke on a Monday. They met in person on campus the following Thursday. And by Friday, Aug. 3, McClelland was standing in front of a podium introducing Davis as Texas Southern's next basketball coach.

"The things Coach Davis was criticized for at other institutions will ultimately be some of his greatest strengths at Texas Southern," McClelland said. "He is a basketball coach, pure and simple. At Texas-Southern, he will be allowed to be the basketball coach and not have to worry so much about the business aspect. That's more my job to worry about attendance, corporate sponsors and bringing in the revenue."

Texas Southern last made the NCAA tournament in 2003, but the program Davis inherits still is accustomed to SWAC success. The Tigers won their first SWAC regular season title in 13 years in 2011 and reached the conference tournament title game in 2010 and 2012.

An NCAA tournament bid is certainly a realistic goal for Texas Southern next season thanks to a solid senior class headlined by point guard Omar Strong. The junior college transfer averaged a team-high 13.3 points per game last season, shot 38.9 percent from behind the arc and erupted for 30 points against Mississippi Valley State in a two-point loss in the SWAC title game.

Regardless of whether Davis flops or thrives in year one at Texas Southern, he'll very likely be back on the bench the following season.

McClelland wants to remove Davis' interim tag and negotiate a longterm contract as soon as possible. And Davis has enjoyed his first two months on the job so much that he insists he can envision himself at Texas Southern the rest of his coaching career.

Asked if he aspires to return to a high-profile league at any point, Davis responded with an analogy that sounds pre-prepared yet heartfelt.

"My best meal I've ever had wasn't at a five-star restaurant or in a big city," Davis said. "It was in my hometown of 5,000 people at my grandmother's house."

In other words, Davis feels at home at Texas Southern. He has another chance to do what he loves and he's ready to embrace it.

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