Keno Davis recalls getting on the school bus as an eighth-grader and being greeted by his middle school classmates chanting “USSR.”
Tom Davis, Keno Davis’ father, and the Iowa Hawkeyes basketball team had just lost an exhibition game to the Soviet Union National Basketball Team prior to the 1986-87 season.
“All of the sudden,” Davis said. “I knew that Iowa basketball was big.”
Occurrences such as these were a theme in Keno Davis’ life growing up as the son of an NCAA Division I basketball coach.
His first memory of the game is as a ball boy at Boston College where his father coached from 1977 until 1982. As ball boy, Keno Davis returned rebounds to players during warm-ups and wiped sweat off the court between offensive possessions.
He also recalled being at practice and watching basketball games court-side as his father worked. He attended multiple NCAA Tournament games, including the 1987 Sweet 16 matchup between Iowa and Oklahoma.
By the time Keno Davis was a young man, he was hooked.
CMU assistant basketball coach Kevin Gamble made the game-winning shot with five seconds left in overtime to win the game for the Hawkeyes. A 14-year old Keno Davis can be seen in a video replay celebrating at the end of the Hawkeyes’ bench as Gamble’s shot sent Iowa to the Final Four.
Andrew Kuhn | File Photo | Central Michigan Life
Central Michigan University head basketball coach Keno Davis yells to his team during a basketball game.
Tom Davis began his head coaching career at Lafayette in 1971. He was a head coach at five different schools during his 36-year coaching career, including Boston College, Stanford, Drake and most notably, Iowa.
Because the family was forced to move each time Tom Davis took a new job, his son was exposed to a variety of American cultures and basketball philosophies.
“Even when we were taking vacations, it was revolving around a speaking engagement or a recruiting trip,” Keno Davis said. “Even before I ever had an idea that coaching or basketball would be part of whatever I decided to do as a profession, I was getting experience and seeing behind the scenes.”
Watching his father go through the ups and downs of being a college basketball coach was not always easy.
“I got to experience the good and bad days that a coach has — the whole roller-coaster of emotion,” Keno Davis said. “Experiencing it as a child, up until going into college was good background for me to get a full understanding and awareness of everything that I might be getting into.”
He played basketball at Iowa City West High School. Keno Davis made the team, but did not see a lot of playing time until his senior season.
“During that time in high school, everybody knew who I was,” he said. “It never really bothered me and I didn’t think too much of it because of my experience growing up.”
When a career as a player did not appear realistic, Keno Davis was determined to stay involved in the sport he loved.
Joining the coaching staff
Because of the opportunity to help out with the basketball team, Keno Davis attended the University of Iowa.
“I was never a great basketball player at all,” he said. “I had the opportunity to go to a smaller school to play. I was a better golfer at the time and had some opportunities to play golf at the college level.”
Keno Davis became an undergraduate assistant coach for Iowa before the 1991-92 season during his freshman year.
The first advice he received while starting as an undergraduate assistant coach was simple: Learn as much as possible.
“It’s a really good piece of advice and it’s simple,” he said. “As a young, aspiring coach, you are better off when you are learning to take one little thing from each coach that you really like. I was able to be able to learn from other coaches that I worked with and work for.”
Scouting opponents was one of his major roles as an undergraduate assistant coach. He worked with Frank DiLeo, an assistant coach, to scout teams.
“We made a scouting trip to Drake, and there was an out-of-bounds play (an opposing team was running). I started jotting it down and getting all the details. Keno looked at me and said ‘Wow, you can get all that?’” said DiLeo remembering one scouting trip. “He came along to learn and realized that he did have things to learn even though he had been around basketball (his entire life).”
Keno Davis said he remembered the trip and remembered how impressed he was with how DiLeo captured the details in the scouting report.
“They ran the play and (DiLeo) had the name of the play, every player in the right position, the exact footwork and timing,” he said. “That was pretty impressive to me to be able to do that. This is not something you can’t do the first time. You have to have experience in doing it.”
Through experience, Keno Davis was able to learn what worked, what didn’t work and how players responded to different styles of coaching.
Father, Son and Basketball
To Keno Davis, basketball is about more than winning or losing. It’s about family.
He said he talks to his father after every game he has ever coached, but their relationship is far more than coaching and basketball.
“We have an incredible relationship outside of basketball,” Keno Davis said. “To be able to talk to somebody about the profession and the different games and have a different perspective helps him stay involved with the game and it gives me a great resource to be able to lean on someone.”
Keno Davis and Tom Davis reunited on the court when his father came out of retirement to coach at Drake in 2003.
It was the first the father and son’s paths crossed as coaches.
“When we first took the job, we had a hotel room that we were living out of. We would get up at the crack of dawn and go into the office until it was time to go to sleep,” Keno Davis said. “We were able to set the foundation through a lot of hard work for what the program would be in three to five years.”
During that time, he said he learned some profound lessons from his father about the game and life.
“That experience had a lot of value to me,” he said.
After being a head coach at Drake for four seasons, Tom Davis retired and allowed his son to take over in his first head coaching job after the 2006-07 season.
During the 2007-08 season, Keno Davis led Drake to a conference regular-season title after being projected to finish ninth in the Missouri Valley Conference. After coaching the Bulldogs to a 28-5 record, Keno Davis was named the Associated Press Coach of the Year.
Tom and Keno Davis are the only father-son duo to win the award. Tom Davis earned the award during his first season at Iowa in 1986-87.
“Because (we both won the award), it meant a lot more,” Keno Davis said. “To have something that you share with your father.”
During the 2007-08 season, Tom Davis sat across from the bench to watch his son’s team.
“He would sit at the media table and watch as a fan, but also (because) ‘once a coach, always a coach,’” Keno Davis said. “After games, I was looking for feedback. He wouldn’t give it to me because he was afraid that I would think that he was trying to coach the team.”
But Tom Davis didn’t give his son the notes he took during games. He wanted his son to know Drake was his team.
“I almost had to force it out of him,” Keno Davis said. “He was worried about our relationship versus the professional relationship.”
As he took over that team, Keno Davis said he never felt any stress or pressure to coach as well as his father.
As he prepares to lead the Chippewas in his fifth season in Mount Pleasant, Keno Davis will not forget the man who helped shape him into the coach and person he has become.
“He had so much success and had the longevity of his career,” he acknowledged. “I don’t think anybody thought that would be possible. I don’t think it’s possible to have that many wins and success over the time that he did it.”
Through the ups and downs of both of their coaching careers, father told son one thing above all else: Coach what you believe in.
“Don’t do something because the fans want you to or something that an administrator wants you to do,” Keno Davis said. “At the end of the day, you are going to be judged for the kind of program you have and how successful you can be.
“You have to focus on what you believe in.”