My first two reactions to what is being called a home run hire of Hubert Davis joining the Carolina Basketball staff were “Wow!” and “Why?”
Huuuuubert is a near-legendary figure in Tar Heel history since the nephew of former UNC great Walter Davis came in as a lightly recruited guard out of Virginia who Dean Smith discouraged from accepting his scholarship offer because Smith doubted Davis could play in the ACC.
After Davis’ very first practice as a freshman in 1988, long-time assistant coach Bill Guthridge said, “Hubert is a lot better than we thought.”
Davis’ Tar Heel love story began at 6 when he sat on his uncle’s lap in the back seat as Walter and Phil Ford drove back from the 1976 Olympics in Montreal after Smith’s UNC- and ACC-dominated USA team had recaptured the Gold Medal.
He went on to become Carolina’s all-time 3-point marksman (so maybe some of that can rub off on Bullock-Hairston-McDonald-Strickland & Co.). His career best percentage of .435 was capped by an incredible performance as a senior in the 1992 regular-season finale at Duke when Davis drained 6 of 8 treys on his way to 35 points. The second-team All-ACC guard was the 20th pick in the NBA draft that June by the New York Knicks and went on to a 12-year pro career in which he reportedly earned more than $16 million.
Hubert was always around Chapel Hill during his pro off-seasons and his family eventually settled into a luxurious home on the eighth fairway of the Chapel Hill Country Club. Davis, 42, and his wife, Leslie, have three school-age children. For the last seven years, Davis rose steadily in the ranks of ESPN, becoming one of the World Wide Leader’s top basketball analysts and a co-host of the Game Day production on Saturdays, December-March.
Perhaps he got tired of sitting between the shtick being fired back and forth by Dick Vitale, Digger Phelps and Bob Knight, although he and Jay Bilas always executed an entertaining Carolina-Duke analysis before those games.
“I’m thrilled for Hubert,” Bilas said Thursday from Charlotte. “I did not know he was talking to Roy, but the move doesn’t surprise me. Hubert has always expressed an interest in coaching. He has an unbelievable basketball mind and he’s been so devoted to the university. I think it was a career and lifestyle decision, because as much work as he’ll be taking on he’ll be traveling less and get to spend more time with his family. As a broadcaster, every game is a road game.”
Besides traveling to campuses and arenas throughout the season, Davis made regular trips to the ESPN studios in Bristol, Connecticut, which had to get old after a while. Bristol is a suburban outpost hours from anywhere and its leading industry by a long shot is the sprawling ESPN compound.
Still, Davis appeared to be living the dream life with a wonderful family in his favorite town. He was virtually “off” from April through October and gave his time willingly to his university and favorite charities, running a basketball camp and sponsoring a golf tournament. An ESPN source estimated Davis’ annual TV salary at north of a half-million dollars.
What Hubert makes at Carolina will become public record eventually, but it may not be half of what he earned from ESPN. According to the record of state university salaries published by the News & Observer, Joe Holladay’s is $303,000, Steve Robinson earns $277,000 and C.B. McGrath makes $143,500. Jerod Haase, the coach Davis is replacing, had the same paycheck as McGrath. This does not include any outside income the coaches can make.
Davis certainly knows basketball, having played it and analyzed it all of his life. But he has never coached or formally recruited. It is not unlike 1988, when Williams left for Kansas and Smith plucked Phil Ford from a bank job to join the staff. Smith, who by then made only specialized recruiting trips, went back on the road with Ford to teach him the ropes and admitted he hadn’t “worked this hard in years.”
Williams is a relentless recruiter and has continued to handle the top prospects himself, with his staff scouting other high school stars for recommendations to the head coach. Davis’ name and face from ESPN will surely make an impact with recruits, but it is hard to imagine he could improve on Williams’ sensational closing rate.
Perhaps Carolina is making a subtle paradigm shift to begin competing more directly with Kentucky for certain high school players who are acknowledged one-and-dones. Davis could help if that were the case because of his NBA experience. Kentucky has proven that system can work and still produce talented, unselfish teams with virtually a new cast coming in each season. The Tar Heels might benefit by signing an obvious one-and-done who fits in.
Hubert Davis is a “celebrity hire” who earned a living for the last seven years talking publicly about players, coaches, teams and games. Chances are what he says this week about the move will be the last we hear from him, since there is one spokesman for Carolina Basketball, the head coach. Williams could change that up a bit, too, asking Davis to fill in for him on his weekly radio show and various alumni speaking engagements.
Clearly, the biggest reason Davis would take a large pay cut for a job that requires at least twice the man hours is that he wants to coach, and in his situation it only makes sense to start where he and his family already live, for the school he loves and at a perennial power. It ain’t exactly like working his way up from Wofford.
And while it would be a six-year apprenticeship, the timing is set up perfectly for Davis to become the next head coach of the Tar Heels if he succeeds as an assistant.
Williams, who will be 62 in August, is under contract at least through 2018. When Smith retired in 1997 at 66, Williams was the logical long-term successor although it took six years for ol’ Roy to get here. Right now, he has no logical successor.
By making this “Wow!” move, Tar Heel favorite Hubert Davis will not be able to avoid speculation that someday he could be at the top among the pool of candidates.