He has known this was a possibility since the day he left ESPN to join Roy Williams’ staff in 2012. Yes, it has been that long.
It’s possible you still remember Hubert Davis more as an ESPN basketball analyst than as an assistant coach for the North Carolina Tar Heels, largely because that’s how he allowed it to be.
On television, he had no choice but to be obvious, because the camera was on him. He was compelled to give his opinions on developments in the sport, to break down plays, to banter with the other personalities on the network set, whether in Bristol or one of the “GameDay” visits to a top college campus. That was the job.
As an assistant, he has been relatively withdrawn. He’ll not have that choice any longer. He has the best job in college basketball now: He is the head coach at the University of North Carolina, the program that has produced a national champion every 7.8 years since I entered this business in 1982, that gave us Michael Jordan, Tyler Hansbrough, Phil Ford, James Worthy, Billy Cunningham, Vince Carter and so many other greats that I merely could list them all and fill the rest of this column.
It is a job that demands not just an adept strategist, but also a master salesman. Because even if the folks at Mercedes can sit there in their dealerships with the understanding the company’s reputation does a lot to sell cars, they still do a lot of “The Best or Nothing” television commercials and do what they can to close the deal.
That Davis has not been compelled to sell himself could be a product of not needing or wanting to market himself to athletic directors around the nation searching for head coaching candidates.
You did not see his name on many lists of candidates for this open position or that, in part because he did not court that sort of engagement and in part because there seemed to be an understanding he was waiting to see how North Carolina would handle the eventual retirement of Hall of Famer Roy Williams.
When he made the stunning move to leave a prime position on ESPN for an assistant coaching job that likely meant more work and more hours, there was the initial sense that he well might be Williams’ successor. When Williams announced his retirement last week, there was no reason to doubt that still was in play, save for the fact Davis has done little publicly to make everyone aware he wanted the job and warranted the opportunity.
Davis is not one of those who is arriving from the NBA with a terrific understanding of how to coach basketball — but not necessarily how to coach college basketball. He understands the recruiting game. He has experience scouting prospects. He knows about the politics and dynamics of college athletics. He has seen its greatest rewards (the 2017 NCAA championship) and its darkest challenges (the academic scandal that made the back-to-back Final Four seasons of 2016 and ’17 far less pleasant than they might have been).
He has prepared himself well for the responsibility of becoming a head college basketball coach, but to start at such an elevated position is a challenge all to itself. The past two coaches who took the Carolina job with limited to no background as a Division I head coach — Bill Guthridge in 1997, Matt Doherty in 2000 — did not perform well.
One can look at Guthridge’s two Final Fours and claim otherwise, but that’s like saying Steve Alford did a good job at UCLA because the Bruins reached three Sweet 16s. One can look at Doherty recruiting the core of the 2005 NCAA championship team and say he did not fail. There is more to each case. Recruiting under Guthridge collapsed to where the Tar Heels went 8-20 in Doherty’s second season. The operation generally declined under Doherty to the point, insiders told Sporting News at the time, multiple players from that championship core were ready to depart Chapel Hill.
This may not be a job for the inexperienced. It will be upon Davis now to demonstrate it is not his background that will determine how he is judged, but rather his performance. He’ll need to sell himself with his words and with his work.
The camera is focused on Davis now, and it’s not going anywhere.