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Davis making his own mark at IU

For Indiana coach Mike Davis, the specter of his former boss, Bob Knight, remains a palpable presence. But then a Hall of Fame coach with three national championships would be a tough act for anyone to follow.

"The ghosts will never go away," Davis said recently. "What you have are people, I won't say crazy, there's just no words to describe them. Here we are, Big Ten champs and they're not happy. Here we are back-to-back 20 wins and they're not happy. I've tried to put those people out of my mind, but it's very difficult."

It should help that his Hoosiers stunned defending national champion Duke on Thursday to reach the Elite Eight for the first time since 1993 _ something Knight couldn't do in his final six turbulent years in Bloomington _ and set up a South Region finale tonight against Kent State.

Maybe, just maybe, folks will embrace Davis and accept that he's no Bob Knight and never will be.

Davis, 41, couldn't be any more different.

He's tall, trim and more GQ with his tailored jacket and silk tie. No pullover red sweater for him on the bench. He's emotional and animated, but not to the point of, say, hurling a chair onto the court in a fit of pique.

He's spiritually devout, candid, and exceedingly polite, even to the media. And he's disarmingly humble.

"You've got to know Indiana fans," sophomore star Jared Jeffries said. "No matter how many national titles you win, no matter how many Big Ten championships you win, some are going to stay loyal to Coach Knight for various reasons. But he's building a tradition at Indiana and this team is building a tradition at Indiana and I think the people who were with us before loyally are our biggest fans now. The people who are just now jumping on will jump back off when things go wrong."

And lament that Davis isn't Knight.

Knight was nicknamed the "General." In high school, Davis picked up the name "Spoon" for his resemblance to former NBA journeyman Nick Weatherspoon.

"I never played like him; he was a very good player," Davis said.

Well Davis was Alabama's Mr. Basketball in 1979 and became known for his defense and passionate play. He is the only Tide player to win the team's Hustle Award all four seasons.

The Milwaukee Bucks selected him in the second round of the 1983 NBA draft but cut him in training camp. Davis played in Switzerland, Italy and the CBA until 1989, hoping to one day realize his lifelong dream of an NBA career. Finally he recognized that wasn't going to happen, so he turned to coaching, but not for the money.

As an assistant at Division II Miles College, he earned a whopping $200. A year.

Times were hard and that year, they got even harder. His 1-year-old daughter, Nichole, died in a car accident that left son Mike Jr., then 5, with a punctured lung and broken pelvis.

"Losing my daughter was probably the toughest thing you can go through as a parent," he said. "I felt down and out about everything because during that period, things weren't really going well for me and my life. To have that happen really affected me.

"It changed my outlook on things. It really upsets me sometimes in this profession that you have people who think they're somebody just because they win basketball games or they make a last-second shot. Until you find a cure for death, you're not special."

After a year at Miles, Davis moved to the CBA, which taught him some invaluable lessons during the next five years but didn't completely prepare him for the future.

"The CBA is not political," he said. "You don't say things to please people. You don't have press conferences. You normally don't even shake the opposing coach's hand before or after the game. You definitely don't shake the officials hands. You tend to have that warrior mentality."

In 1995, after earning his degree from Thomas Edison College, he landed an assistant's job at Alabama. By 1997, he moved to Indiana. When Knight was fired shortly before the 2000-01 season, Davis became interim coach.

He then found out how different college coaching was.

First, there were news conferences, a daunting, even terrifying chore. Ever since he was a child, he stuttered. He worked for years with an old family friend, Josephine Kennedy, to improve his speech.

"It's really kept me level," he said. "Who knows? If I were winning big and could speak well, boy, I might be too hard to handle. It's definitely not the case. It's good sometimes to have things to humble you."

Although the Hoosiers were 21-13 last season, a first-round loss in the NCAA Tournament to Kent State looked as if it might cost Davis his job.

It didn't, for which he forever thanks the IU administration. But after a 7-5 start this season, the critics continued to question his ability to lead the storied Hoosiers. Insiders, however, saw changes that seemingly boded well.

The players liked playing for him. He was approachable and welcomed suggestions for matters on and off the court.

"He listens to you," junior guard Tom Coverdale said.

And Davis is competitive and feisty, but doesn't demean players.

"They know me," Davis said. "I can get excited sometimes and get carried away a little bit, but they know I don't mean any harm by it. Five minutes after it's over, it's over. A lot of head coaches won't let go, but I can. I just want to win in the worst way."

In the first half of the Duke game, he went from histrionics about calls and 16 turnovers to assuring smiles and winks, tangible signs that he believed in his players.

"The bottom line is Coach Davis has changed this team as far as the offense and he's changed a lot of players on this team; he's developed players into very good players," senior guard Dane Fife said. "He's gotten us to play championship-type basketball. He's proven to most people that he can flat out coach."

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