Pam Lambert
March 05, 2001 12:00 PM

Glancing up from her bins of fried chicken, the white-haired server at the MCL Cafeteria in Bloomington, Ind., smiles. “You’re Coach Davis, aren’t you?” she asks. Mike Davis, 40, interim basketball coach at Indiana University, smiles back. “I want you to know we all think you’re doing a wonderful job,” she says. “Change is good. You can’t drive the same car all your life.”

Maybe not. But around Bloomington there seem to be plenty of fans who would rather have kept the old Cadillac, even if it had blown up a few times. It has been five months since the university’s dismissal of volcanic coach Bobby Knight—he of chair-and-tantrum-throwing infamy, who over 29 seasons led the Hoosiers to three national titles—and hard-shell Knight loyalists have been on Davis’s case ever since. “It’s probably one of the toughest situations in America—you’re replacing a total icon,” says ESPN and ABC basketball analyst Dick Vitale. “Mike has stepped into a real pressure cooker.”

Yet even with a young, inexperienced team, Davis has turned in a respectable 16-11 record. And the sniping from Knight partisans? “That’s very disappointing to me,” says Davis. “I try not to let it affect me.”

Instead of listening to the naysayers, Davis tries to focus on his players, many of whom he recruited. “I would like to see him back here next year, and I know all the guys on the team would too,” says junior forward Kirk Haston. Although Davis is soft-spoken when compared with Knight, Haston says they are similar in more ways than they are different. “They both worked their way up,” says Haston. “They never had anything handed to them.”

Davis is certainly no stranger to adversity. Growing up poor in Fayette, Ala., he and his older brother Van shared cramped quarters with their mother, Vandella, an office worker, while his other brother and sister were forced to live with relatives. Through fourth grade, Davis attended a segregated school that didn’t offer organized sports. But after the town’s black and white schools merged, he quickly became a standout in baseball, basketball and football.

Later, Davis attended the University of Alabama on a basketball scholarship and won the conference’s “Mr. Hustle” award four years running. “Mike played with such great emotion and intensity,” says Vitale. “He was a coach’s dream. You never had to worry about him giving his best.”

But Davis’s best wasn’t good enough for the NBA. Though drafted in 1983 by the Milwaukee Bucks, he was cut before the start of the season. “I wanted to have the opportunity to do something for my family,” says Davis (who in high school had fathered a daughter, Lateesha, now 20). “When I didn’t make it—boy, that was crushing.”

After two seasons of pro ball in Europe, Davis married his college girlfriend, Theresa, had a son, Mike Jr., in 1985 and returned to the U.S. Shortly after the couple welcomed their second child, daughter Nicole, in 1987, they separated. Then, one morning in 1990, Davis—working as an assistant coach at Miles College in Birmingham—got devastating news: Theresa had lost control of her car while driving the children to school. Two-year-old Nicole was killed. Mike Jr., 5, broke his pelvis and would spend a year in recovery. “Oh, it was tough,” says Davis. “For a long time I couldn’t hold a baby or even look at a baby.”

Today the sweet music of childish laughter rings again through the Davis household. The source is 2-year-old Antoine, Davis’s son with his second wife, Tamilya, whom he married in 1995. “You can’t ever replace a lost child,” says Tamilya, 31, a high school geography teacher. “But I think the birth of Antoine helped to ease the pain.” Davis also cherishes his time with Mike Jr., now 15 and a budding basketball star. “We’re like one heartbeat,” says Davis of his relationship with his older son, who moved in with him 3½ years ago when Davis accepted Knight’s job offer. “I’ll call him up after my games, and he’s always upset if we lost.”

If these past few months have been difficult for Mike Jr., they have surely been more so for his father, whose interim contract expires at the end of the season and who has had to listen to constant rumors about big-time coaches mentioned as replacements—among them Rick Pitino, lately of the Boston Celtics. Although Davis has been told he’s a candidate for the job on a permanent basis, no decision will be made until after the season. “You can bring who you want to,” he says. “But the only difference between a Rick Pitino and a Mike Davis would be how much money you pay them. I’m going to win here.”

Pam Lambert

Champ Clark in Bloomington

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