A family affairBy RICK CLEVELAND - MISSISSIPPI TODAY,
SEC Coach of the Year runs in Davis family
Kermit Davis Jr. has earned Southeastern Conference Coach of the Year honors in his first season at Ole Miss. That’s a big deal – a really big deal – but SEC Coach of the Year in your first year on the job is not unprecedented.
No, it’s not even unprecedented in the Davis family.
Forty-eight years ago, Kermit Davis Sr. was SEC Coach of the Year at Mississippi State. That’s right, the elder Davis – often called Big Kerm now – took over a team that had finished 6-18 and dead last in the SEC the year before and improved the Bulldogs to 15-10 and 9-9 in the SEC.
This season, Kermit Davis Jr. took a team picked to finish 14th of 14 in the SEC and surprised most everyone by going 20-11 (10-8 in the SEC). Next week, when the NCAA Tournament begins, Ole Miss will be playing somewhere.
“You bet I’m proud,” 82-year-old Davis Sr. said Tuesday. “I’ll tell you this much. It’s a lot harder watching your son coach than it was coaching myself. Kermit has worked at it. I mean, he has really worked at it. I’m so proud to have him back coaching in Mississippi, coaching so close to home. My wife Nancy and I are enjoying having all three of our children – Kermit, his brother Bill, his sister Jennifer – all within a few miles of one another. I’m proud of the way Ole Miss people have accepted Kermit. I’m proud of his team, his coaching staff. But if you ask me what I’m proudest of it has to be how hard Kermit works. He never stops working.”
Kermit Sr. was State’s point guard for Babe McCarthy.
If you are reading this, you likely know about the Mississippi State-Ole Miss rivalry. You know how perfectly sane, normal people can become absurdly, blood-boiling crazy because of the competition between the two.
And you should also know this: Big Kerm is as maroon Bulldog as they come. He played on some of Mississippi State’s greatest basketball teams, helped Babe McCarthy recruit the great Bailey Howell to Dear Ol’ State. He coached there seven seasons and later helped raise athletic funding with the Bulldog Club.
Funny story: Kermit Davis Sr. had all but committed to play basketball and baseball at Ole Miss. Then, after one of his last high school basketball games, he bumped into Babe McCarthy, who was officiating at the time.
“Nice game, Davis, where you going to college?” Babe asked him.
“I think I’m going up to Ole Miss and play for Country Graham,” Big Kerm responded.
“Well, you might want to think about that,” Babe told him. “I happen to know who the next basketball coach is going to be at Mississippi State and I also happen to know he is interested in you.”
Like his son, Kermit Sr. taught as he coached and Mississippi State guard Rich Knarr was an attentive student in 1973.
A few days later, Big Kerm learned who was going to be the next MSU coach: Babe McCarthy, himself. Big Kerm signed on. And here’s the rest of the story: Babe asked Big Kerm if he knew any good tall players who were looking for a place to play college ball. Big Kerm answered that his old junior high teammate Bailey Howell was a mighty good player and hadn’t signed with anybody yet.
Bailey Howell ended up being the greatest Mississippi college basketball player ever, an international basketball Hall of Famer. He averaged 27 points and 17 rebounds for his career. Big Kerm, the point guard, made sure Bailey got the ball where he liked it.
Kermit Jr. – or Little Kerm – was a gym rat beginning with when his daddy was the highly successful coach at Tupelo High School. Little Kerm and his younger brother, Bill, were fixtures at practices and at games.
Kermit Davis Jr. has adjusted well to red and blue.
“Both of them were ate up with basketball,” Big Kerm said. “But that was especially true of Kermit. He couldn’t get enough of it.”
When Humphrey Coliseum was under construction Kermit Davis Jr. and brother Bill took some of the first shots at the baskets. They were at practices, at games, and sometimes served as ball boys.
“I remember one road trip to Kentucky when Kermit went with us,” Big Kerm says. “Joe B. Hall was the Kentucky coach and, of course, they were really good. But, we were really playing well. Had ’em by five with about three minutes to play and had the ball. And then one of the officials made a really bad call, called charging on Ray White I believe. It was awful. They came back and beat us in overtime. It was hard on all of us, but I didn’t think Kermit would ever quit crying. I mean, it was awful. He just cared so much. I guess I always knew he was gonna coach. He just cared about it so much.”
That’s not to say Big Kerm did not want his oldest son to have other options. When Kermit Jr. signed to play basketball at State, he was hell bent on becoming a coach. Big Kerm suggested – or maybe insisted – that Kermit Jr. major in business and finance, just in case the coaching thing didn’t work out.
Big Kerm knew his son was smart, knew he’d work hard and figured he could make a good living in business. Big Kerm also knew his top salary as a basketball coach at State had been $25,000 a year. Coaches weren’t getting rich back then, even SEC coaches of the year.
Says Big Kerm, “I kid Kermit about it now. Hell, he makes more in half a week than I made in a year.”
This signed (by Kermit Jr.) photo from the bench at a Middle Tennessee State-Louisville game hangs on the wall in Kermit Sr.’s home office.
But it was a long, winding road to the four-year, $10 million contract Davis signed last year with Ole Miss: From Southwest Community College, to Moscow, Idaho, to an ill-fated year at Texas A&M. Then, it was back to junior college, an assistant’s job at Chippola (Fla.), then to an assistant’s job at Utah State, then back to Idaho, then an assistant’s job at LSU, and then to a 16-year stint as head coach at Middle Tennessee State where he finally beat the big boys often enough to get their attention.
“It’s a crazy business,” Big Kerm says. “It gets really tough sometimes. Kermit just kept working, kept believing, kept coaching. He learned from good ones: Bob Boyd, for sure, at State, and Tim Floyd, at Idaho. Those two meant a lot to him, taught him a lot.”
Kermit Jr. also learned much from Kermit Sr., beginning when the basketball was almost as big as the little boy bouncing it. Junior looks like Senior, seemingly more with each passing year. Take it from someone who has watched the two seemingly for forever: They smile alike, talk alike. They are people persons. And, yes, they do share an intense love of the game and of competition.
“We still talk basketball a great deal,” Big Kerm says. “I’ll tell you what. Nowadays, I learn a lot more about it from him than he does from me.”