Hubert Davis carves out a place in UNC basketball history
“It was the first time I can remember in 11 1/2 months that I could breathe deeply, and it just came out,” Davis said. “It’s not just this year. That’s all.
Davis restored the Tar Heels after two seasons of unusual struggle and turned them around after a midseason dip. They earned a No. 8 seed for their erratic season, but Davis has helped a diverse roster of talent coalesce over the past two months. He repeatedly told his players that he wanted them to experience what he had as a Tar Heel: a trip to the Final Four. When it came, he couldn’t stop the tears.
“It shows how much he cares about us and cares about the game,” sophomore goaltender Caleb Love said. “We have always known about his passion, and we carried it with us. We feed on him and his energy. That’s why you see us playing so hard for him.
Davis told his players that he played 12 years in the NBA, but his most cherished basketball experience was playing in the Final Four — although in 1991 he lost. “I desperately want you to have that experience,” Davis told his team. “I want you to get to the Final Four. I want you to get to the end game. I want you to do this.
Envy brought Davis back to practice. For four years after his NBA career, Davis analyzed college basketball on ESPN’s “College GameDay.” He joined Williams’ staff in 2012. He described coaching as “an act of service”. He consistently deflected questions about his own satisfaction in March, instead celebrating the “stories” and “testimonials” his players create during their run.
“If I’m just coaching basketball, then I have to quit or get fired,” Davis said Sunday night. “I’m not just a basketball coach. My job is to help them, teach them and take care of them.
Davis has been “the right person for us right now,” North Carolina athletic director Bubba Cunningham said Sunday night. As obvious as it may seem now, Davis’s rise was far from certain.
When Williams retired, North Carolina expected to hire a replacement with head coaching experience. Davis deserved to be seen as a nine-year-old wizard with deep basketball intelligence, NBA experience and a deep connection to a proudly island and family program. At first, Cunningham thought he might need to explain to Davis why he would be ignored.
“It was the first conversation I had with him,” Cunningham said. “I said, ‘My predisposition to looking for a head coach for Carolina basketball is someone with head coaching experience. It was our very first conversation. And I needed to be convinced that it wasn’t too big a step. And he demonstrated all year that it was not too big a step.
Cunningham never wondered how Davis would perform during games. In all the other roles a head coach has to play, the kind of responsibilities that can only be mastered with experience, he has seen Davis adapt and grow.
“These are all non-game basketball decisions,” Cunningham said. “It’s recruiting. It’s the parents. This is scheduling. They are agents. It’s everything related to that that the head coaches deal with every day in addition to game planning, training planning, things of that nature. Until you sit on this chair, you really don’t understand. Everyone I’ve hired has talked about it. It’s very different from what they had expected. Your time is not yours. It’s 24/7, and the things that come your way, you can never imagine.
As Davis evolved, he led the Tar Heels through a crossroads of programs. Carolina’s pivotal season came the week after a debacle on the court. On January 18, the Tar Heels lost by 28 to Miami. Four days later, Wake Forest throttled them by 22. They had collected 183 points in two games and the questions poured in at Chapel Hill. North Carolina had won 14 games in 2019-20 and 18 in 2020-21, which they capped with a loss in the first round of the tournament. In late January, the Tar Heels swung into another substandard season.
During training the following Monday, the players braced themselves for a boost from their coach. Instead, they listened to Davis tell them how good they were, that the season could still end the way they wanted, that they needed to believe in each other.
“Coach Davis came in super positive, and we weren’t expecting that at all,” senior guard Leaky Black said. “We expected him to come in hot and chew us up, but I feel like he was super positive. That was a turning point for us.”
The Tar Heels have won their next four games, and they are 16-3 since the loss at Wake Forest. A slide into mediocrity has been forgotten. “He just seems to come back to life and go back to how he was before my freshman year,” junior center Armando Bacot said.
The pleasures and perks of running North Carolina can also be burdens. The UNC head coach will always have the support of a fleet of loyal and famous alums. He can sell and use a unique tradition. But he will also feel the pressure not to let them down, to stand up for what some of the most legendary figures in sports history have built.
The Tar Heels surged at the end of the year in part because Davis figured out how to imprint his personality on the program. He wanted to coach with the values of Smith, Guthridge and Williams, but that didn’t mean coaching like them. Bacot praised Davis’ willingness to teach the NBA’s favorite tactics.
“Keep what’s good, but don’t get stuck,” Cunningham said. “Change what needs to be changed to be modern and current. And I think that’s what Hubert brings – a current mentality to the historic tradition and the success that we’ve had.
On Sunday night, Davis was asked about the “symmetry” of following Guthridge as a rookie coach in the Final Four. Davis choked up and fought back tears as he explained how Guthridge, who died in 2015, believed in him.
“I want all the players that have played for Coach Smith, Coach Guthridge and Coach Williams, I want them – whether it’s in person, on TV, in highlights – I want them can identify themselves and say, ‘This is Carolina where I’ve been,'” Davis said. “It’s really important to me that this program, with my own personality in my own shoes, looks exactly like the program that Coach Smith, Coach Guthridge and Coach Williams led.”
On the center court stage on Sunday night, Davis spotted Williams in the crowd, pointed to him and said, “Thank you.” He could add it to all the memories accumulated during his 11 and a half months in a very big job. At the end of the season, Davis plans to sit by a pool and reflect on it all, on those moments that overwhelmed him on Sunday night and those that are yet to come.
“I remember the feeling of coming out of that tunnel for the press conference,” Davis said. “I remember getting on the bus for the first time and sitting in the front for the first time. It was different. I remember the first training and coming to midfield and to have a training plan. I remember coming out of the tunnel for the first time as a head coach. I remember going on the road. I remember everything.”