Central Michigan's Keno Davis: A Chip off the old block

November 9, 2012 | Written By: Keno Davis

Detroit Free Press

November 7, 2012

Central Michigan's Keno Davis: A Chip off the old block

By Mark Snyder
Detroit Free Press Sports Writer

When Central Michigan athletic director Dave Heeke set out to find a new basketball coach, he had to face reality.

His first basketball coaching hire, Ernie Zeigler, approached the job from the outside, examining how other programs succeeded.

Over Zeigler's six years, during which the Chippewas were 75-111, Heeke learned a valuable lesson: Central Michigan can't live like everyone else.

"It's a niche program," Heeke said this summer, "a niche approach to having a system that brings in the right players."

He described Zeigler's approach as, "Let's just bring in a lot of players and see where we can get."

To be fair to Zeigler, that was what Central asked for when it hired the noted recruiter who would bring players to Mt. Pleasant who wouldn't come before. He brought in players, but it never added up to on-court success.

So when Heeke fired Zeigler after last season, he sought a coach who would build.

Heeke was selling a more attractive job than he was six years earlier, months after he took over as AD. Now he could offer a renovated Rose Arena (now the McGuirk Arena) with an attached, dedicated practice facility, and more financial support.

One of Central Michigan's best selling points came from a rival, Ohio University, which reached the NCAA tournament's Sweet 16 -- a reminder to all that a quick turnaround is possible.

So Mt. Pleasant was attractive. And Keno Davis was available.

A proven winner

There aren't many accoutrements in Davis' windowless, corner office in the McGuirk: A big-screen television for watching film, a prominent desk, couches, white walls and a few photos.

No frills -- except for three large trophies behind the desk.

In the Central Michigan athletic department, especially in the men's basketball program, those are foreign objects.

The Chippewas have reached one NCAA tournament in the past 25 years, and that was a decade ago. In the past 21 years, they've had four coaches who have combined for a 211-388 record and .352 winning percentage.

So when Davis, 40, unpacked those trophies -- as national coach of the year in 2007-08 when he led the 28-5 Drake Bulldogs -- there was instant credibility.

"You saw what he did at Drake, a consistently underperforming program -- I don't think they'd had a winning season for 20 years," Heeke said.

After one year as head coach at Drake (and four as an assistant), Davis jumped to Providence, only to be fired three years later.

But Heeke had a wide view of Davis while watching him try to compete with the Big East monsters with few resources and player limitations. Heeke also saw in Davis -- who spent a year analyzing games on the Big Ten Network -- a Midwest familiarity.

Meanwhile, Davis, who was fired at Providence with five years remaining on his contract, had the flexibility to be selective, and he felt Central Michigan was a perfect fit.

Charting his own course

Davis barely knew there were other professions when he was growing up.

His father, Tom Davis, had three college head coaching jobs in Keno's first 14 years, before finally finding the right fit at Iowa, where he coached in 1986-99.

His son stood by, never running wild on the court but always around it, watching and listening, understanding the demands on his father and his family.

Never a star player, even in high school, Keno may have been good enough to play at a smaller, nonscholarship college, but instead he chose Iowa, where he was a student assistant.

"I didn't want to be on the team," Davis said, "I didn't want to have a uniform. I didn't deserve it."

Staying in Iowa City reinforced his career path. He spent eight years as an assistant at Southern Indiana and Southeast Missouri State, paying his dues as coaches without famous fathers would.

When his father took the job at Drake in 2003, Keno joined as an assistant and, 2 1/2 years into the job, the Drake administration made him the coach-in-waiting.

That positioned him to spend a year and a half recruiting players who would fit his up-tempo, pressure style, the one he learned alongside his father.

"Having your father in a fishbowl that Iowa is with basketball, football and wrestling ... everybody's going to know who you are," Keno said. "That's kind of the negative, but there are a lot of positives.

"It's the only way I've ever known. I was going to be scrutinized if I changed something my father didn't do offensively and defensively. One of the best pieces of advice coaching-wise from him was, 'You've got to go with what you believe.' "

Handed the keys in 2007-08, he only had to start the car.

Magical season

The Bulldogs were picked ninth in the Missouri Valley Conference. There was one returning starter, and the other returnees were a three-year walk-on point guard, a power forward walk-on, a shooting guard who had averaged 4.5 points as a junior and a small forward who lost his job on the previous year's 17-win team.

Yet they loved Davis, and he loved them back.

"We weren't that fast, we weren't that deep, but we were a pretty tight-knit group," said Klayton Korver, a forward who set the school record for games played. "He gave us a ton of confidence. A lot of coaches are very controlling and 'You run my thing my way.' I thought it was a great coaching job. You guys know what you're doing. He just guided us. Incredible confidence."

All those years of watching allowed Davis to go his own way. He rarely screamed; he always taught and showed no pretense.

"I've tried to be every year more positive than the year before," Davis said. "The most success we've had at Drake that one year, we went in without any expectations, and I told them I wasn't going to yell at them after losses as long as they worked hard.

"I want you to take that shot. I don't care if you miss it, I'm not going to take you out. It was that kind of attitude, that message and nature that allowed a team to have that kind of success. When expectations are higher, you change as a coach and you shouldn't. ... You should reward those teams that bring it every moment."

It energized the players, who had the man who recruited them now guiding them. In mid-December that year, Drake won at Iowa for the first time in 20 years; by late January they were 16-1, cruising through The Valley and ranked for the first time in 33 years. The 20th win came Feb. 2, the first time at Drake since 1971. The MVC conference and tournament titles followed for the first time since that 1971 season.

However, in the NCAA tournament, the No. 5 seed Bulldogs were upset by a last-second, overtime shot in the first round.

Weeks later, Davis took an offer reported to be nearly $1 million per year from Providence.

Lessons learned

The three years in Rhode Island taught Davis what not to do.

Don't bend to recruit players -- recruit the person as well. Embrace where you are -- not where others think you should be. Stay with your strategy. Be patient.

None of those was achievable with the pressure at Providence, yet all seem within reach in Mt. Pleasant.

Heeke gave Davis a five-year contract for $300,000 per year and told him he knows it will take time.

When most of the team left after Zeigler's firing -- including Zeigler's talented son, Trey -- Davis was left with a new scenario: five returning players, only one who averaged more than three points.

For the coaches, that meant filling out this year's team immediately. As assistants, Davis brought former NBA forward Kevin Gamble with him from Providence; a former Southeast Missouri State player, Kyle Gerdeman, from Davis' time there; and former Oakland University and CMU assistant Jeff Smith.

Without a dominant player, playing time, the offense and the defense are all wide open.

"He's more of a player's coach," said guard Austin Keel, one of the holdovers. "He teaches the game more, the fundamentals instead of just going out there to play. He's teaching ways with that criticism you can manipulate the game and produce more."

No one in Mt. Pleasant is expecting this group to compete at the top of the MAC West. Yet three wins on this summer's trip to the Bahamas -- averaging 113 points per game -- provided confidence and optimism, even if it's distant.

Along with the mantra of patience.

"I like that calmness," Heeke said. "We needed some stability, some solid foundational elements to calm things here. It's going to be a process to rebuild ... the program. He's got those shoulders and demeanor to weather the storm."

In Mt. Pleasant, optimism is a rare commodity.

"We need to break the cycle," Heeke said. "We need to have a successful program here. The '70s were a terrific time, but that's a long time ago for college basketball."

Contact Mark Snyder: msnyder@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @mark__snyder.

More Details: The book on Keno

Who: Keno Davis, 40, first-year men’s basketball coach at Central Michigan.

Personal: Son of longtime college basketball coach Tom Davis; Keno was born in Pennsylvania and graduated from Iowa, where his father coached in 1986-99; wife Krista, children Mara and Brady.

Coaching career

1995-97: Assistant coach, Southern Indiana.

1997-2003: Assistant coach, Southeast Missouri State.

2003-07: Assistant coach, Drake.

2007-08: Head coach, Drake (28-5).

2008-11: Head coach, Providence (64-86).


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