Perhaps the best way to appreciate the job that Larry Davis has done as Cincinnati’s acting head coach is to turn the clock back 20 years.
In 1995, Duke’s roster included two future first round draft picks in Cherokee Parks and Trajan Langdon and the Blue Devils got off a 9-3 start. But on January 23rd, Mike Krzyzewski announced that he would miss the rest of the season due to severe back pain. Duke went 4-15 under Coach K’s replacement Pete Gaudet.
When Mick Cronin was sidelined due to a non-life threatening vascular condition on the morning of the VCU game, it looked like the Bearcats might suffer a similar fate. That day they were routed at home by the Rams 68-47.
“That was a tough day for everybody,” said Davis. “It was like you were in a fog. It was surreal. It was like, ‘Did this really just happen?’”
Two weeks later, Coach Cronin announced that he would continue to lead the program in a general manager’s role but would not take part in on-court activities for the rest of the season leaving his top assistant in charge.
“He’s given me a good life for the last nine years here,” said Davis. “I texted him and said, ‘I won’t let you down.’ I want to do well for the kids, and selfishly for myself, but most of all I don’t want to let that guy down. He’s been great to me, and he deserves to have all of us give our very best effort to keep this program rolling until he gets back. I do feel a great sense of wanting to do it for Mick.”
Davis is 15-7 since Coach Cronin was sidelined, and has put the Bearcats in position to return to the NCAA Tournament for the fifth straight season.
“I think the mark of a really good coach is when you can take a game that is not going your way and make the right adjustments to win a game that you were not going to win,” said Coach Cronin. “And on a bigger scale, when the season is not going your way to be able to make the necessary changes to right the ship. He’s done a tremendous job of that and he’s had to do it multiple times.
“He had to take a team that lost its coach and make sure there was no panic at first. And then, once you get into the season you’re going to have the normal ups and downs that everybody has. And he’s done a great job of navigating that along with the rest of the staff.”
Davis has been helped by Cronin’s continued presence around the team.
“Coach Cronin still being around is big,” said freshman Gary Clark. “I never thought, ‘Oh crap, the season is going to go down the drain.’”
“Coach Cronin has done a great job of being the leader and having the staff follow his lead,” said sophomore Troy Caupain. “The assistants are basically like mini-Cronins when it comes to making decisions and I think that’s helped us a lot.”
Davis was the head coach at Furman for nine years before coming to Cincinnati, and Cronin had confidence that he could prevent the team from collapsing.
“Larry has tremendous toughness,” said Cronin. “That’s why I have so much respect for him and that’s why I tried to hire him as soon as I could when I got the job at Cincinnati. I knew how hard rebuilding the program was going to be and I needed a guy who could be in a foxhole with me. Trust me, in college basketball there is no more of a ‘foxhole’ guy than Larry Davis.”
Their initial season together tested Larry’s toughness.
“The first year was just crazy – I don’t think people really have a true appreciation for what we walked into,” said Davis. “We were wiped out. We didn’t have anybody and had to spend every minute just getting eight guys to be able to practice every day much less win. There was so much pressure day after day after day after day. You didn’t get any sleep and were constantly worried and I was exhausted.
“I woke up one day after the season and I literally could barely move.”
Davis had mononucleosis. As an assistant at Delaware in the 1980’s, Davis was involved in a serious car accident that knocked out two teeth and required more than 60 stitches. He missed one day of work. This time his recovery would take much longer.
“My doctor said, ‘You can either listen to me and go home and get in bed and plan on being there for the next two to three weeks, or you can fight it and end up in the hospital for a month,’” said Davis. “I went from 185 pounds to 155 and thank goodness the boss I work for understood because I was out for almost three months.”
That’s roughly the amount of time that Cronin will miss this season and the Bearcats haven’t missed a beat.
“I couldn’t be happier for our program, our kids, and Coach Cronin that we’ve been able to maintain what he worked so hard to build,” said Davis. “Throughout all the ups and downs this year, the one thing he kept emphasizing was, ‘No matter what, we can’t lose our culture.’ Our culture is toughness, work hard, practice hard, defend, and rebound. I think we’ve been able to maintain the culture and that means we can continue forward when Mick comes back. That part of it is very satisfying.”
“It’s almost the same as if Coach Cronin were here,” said Clark. “The ‘Bearcat Way’ is to play hard – they basically built the program from nothing by getting guys to play hard.”
On Thursday, Larry Davis was not named the American Athletic Conference Coach of the Year – that honor went to Temple’s Fran Dunphy. But considering the difficult circumstances he inherited, it’s hard to imagine any coach in the country doing a better job than Davis.
Just ask Duke fans that remember 1995.
“I’d be less than truthful if I said that it hadn’t been very stressful,” said Davis. “But I’ve worked my whole life to be in position to be with a great program like Cincinnati and this year I’ve had the privilege to move one seat over.”
“He deserves a tremendous amount of praise for the job he has done,” said Cronin.
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