Inside Hubert Davis, North Carolina Assistant Coach

CL Brown, The Athletic (

Anyone who has observed North Carolina coach Roy Williams during a home game has seen him peel off his wire-rimmed glasses during a timeout and place them on the scorer’s table before joining the team in the huddle. Hubert Davis tends to do the exact same thing while coaching Carolina’s junior varsity program. Williams says he does it because his glasses make anything, or anyone, blurry up close. While coaching at Kansas, he says he once yelled at the wrong player for a missed assignment when he didn’t remove his glasses. As for Davis? He doesn’t know why he started the habit other than picking up nuances from being around Williams for the past six seasons.

“I probably do mimic and copy Coach Williams in a number of things,” says Davis, who played shooting guard at Carolina from 1988-92. “The funny thing about it is, Coach Williams and I are very similar in the way that we look at things, the way we think about things. There are a lot of similarities between us, and it’s been really neat to see that and to notice that.”

Few come close to matching, or even understanding, the devotion Davis has for Carolina. Williams is one person who does. It’s why, as an assistant coach under Dean Smith, Williams lobbied for Davis during his recruitment even after Smith thought he wouldn’t play much. Davis played just seven minutes a game as a freshman. By his senior year, he averaged 21.4 points per game and became the eighth and last player to average 20 or more points in a season under Smith. Davis and Williams both share a love for their alma mater and a reverence for the coach they both learned under. That’s why Williams made the surprising move to lure Davis from broadcasting to become an assistant coach. Davis had no previous collegiate coaching experience when he was hired in May 2012.

“He was the first person I thought about because I’m a jerk sometimes,” Williams says. “I am not a good guy all the time. Hubert Davis is the nicest man I’ve ever known in my life. And he’s competitive too. I thought he’d be a great role model for our kids.”

Williams and Davis speak the same language. It’s always Coach Smith, never Dean, when either references the Tar Heels’ legendary coach. Likewise for Davis, it’s always Coach Williams, never Roy. Both men are quick to mention that Smith never used profanity when he needed to get a point across. So both of them have adapted. Williams’ use of the word daggum is so engrained in his speech that someone created the parody Twitter account @DaggumRoy. When he’s really upset, Davis uses the phrase bejeebies oboweebies. It sounds funny, but it’s no laughing matter for players who end up on the wrong end of wind sprints.

“He says, ‘What in the bejeebies?’ a lot,” says Carolina rising senior Luke Maye. “Some of his phrases that he uses are very different than I’ve ever heard.”

Davis admits to letting “d-a-m-n” slip during a December game against Tennessee when, despite blocking out being an emphasis in the scouting report, the Tar Heels’ effort in that area was lacking in the first half. He was so upset with himself that he apologized in front of the team at the next practice.

It’s important for Davis that he be a good example for the players. He started a Bible study for the team before he was even on staff. It doesn’t get full participation, but his intention was to establish a place where players could “be 100 percent real and vulnerable in anything in this life.” Maye and Kenny Williams frequented it, as did Cameron Johnson, a graduate transfer from Pitt.

“You can’t talk about Coach Davis without mentioning the type of man he is,” Johnson says. “He’s there with us in our Bible study, he’s there with us in our team meetings, he’s there talking to us about personal things. And kind of just being somebody who is a role model to us players, speaks larger than anything that can happen on the court.”

Davis’ career 3-point shooting percentage of 43.5 still ranks first in program history among players with at least 100 makes. He’s the coach the players go to when they want advice improving their stroke. He stressed repetition and keeping the same form to Maye. He told Johnson he need to add a bit more arc. Both players credited those simple tidbits in helping them perform. When he needs to do more than just critique, Davis is the assistant most likely to be on the court working players out too.

When Davis retired from the NBA in September 2004, Dallas Mavericks director of basketball operations Donnie Walsh — who played for the Tar Heels under Frank McGuire and was a captain on Smith’s first team at Carolina, in 1961 — hired him as a player development coach. Avery Johnson was an assistant coach and later the interim head coach in Dallas during Davis’ lone season with the franchise. Johnson, now the coach at Alabama, says Davis didn’t have to change his personality to work with the pros. He’s always been the same “clean-cut” guy.

“What worked well was him just being Hubert,” Johnson says. “People respected his basketball intellect. They respected his experience and his relational skills — that’s what worked well more than anything.”

Johnson says pro players care more about how a coach can help get them to that next contract and Davis came across as someone who genuinely cared about making the players he worked with better. Even so, Johnson says he didn’t sense a burgeoning career in coaching for Davis. And once he saw him on ESPN, Johnson believed Davis would be a natural to settle into a career as a broadcaster, perhaps even reach the level of a Kenny Smith or a Dick Vitale.

“I saw him more of a TV personality,” Johnson says. “He has an infectious laugh. He knows the game. He articulated the game well to the audience. I thought he was just dabbling in the coaching world.”

Davis, who turns 48 in May, heard that reaction a lot when he got into the profession and still occasionally gets asked – mainly from other coaches – if he envisions going back to television. Davis says only two coaches told him he would love coaching: Kenny Payne, the associate head coach at Kentucky; and Steve Wojciechowski, now the coach at Marquette but at the time an assistant at Duke. They were right. And it’s just not about Davis being more comfortable in his role now than when he was essentially a rookie.

“I don’t know if there’s something that I enjoy and do better now than I do before, I just know that I love my job,” Davis says. “The job today is better than the job when I took it — and I absolutely loved it when I took it.”

Davis recalls having a simple goal when he joined the Carolina staff. He did not want to have a Mark Turgeon moment. Williams tells the story of Turgeon, now the coach at Maryland, presenting his first scouting report to the team when he was an assistant at Kansas. Turgeon felt such anxiety as he started to speak that he put his hand out to the side. “Give me a second,” he said to Williams before the nerves calmed. The story stayed etched in Davis’ mind. As a commentator on ESPN’s College GameDay broadcast, he appeared in front of millions, but nothing was more intimidating for Davis than speaking in front of Williams.

Some coaches are so particular how they want scouting reports done, they rely heavily on the assistants who have done them before. It can take seasons for an assistant to earn trust. But here Davis was, two games into his coaching career at Carolina, addressing the team before a game against Florida Atlantic. Davis says when he was asked by Williams to present the scouting report, “My standard was, don’t be Coach Turgeon. I don’t want to be part of a story Coach Williams tells for generations. I just want to get through this.”

“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Davis recalls. “Being on TV pales in comparison to giving that scout. I didn’t know if Coach (Williams) was going to start asking me questions or disagree with me. I never want to go back to that again. Everybody just looked at me like I’m going to faint, I’m going to die. It all worked out, but that is the most nervous I’ve been in my life.”

Davis is comfortable now, even when it comes to accepting that everyone in recruiting isn’t true to their word. Williams and assistant coach Steve Robinson like to throw around the adage, ‘kids lie, parents lie, coaches lie.’ When he first joined the staff, Williams says Davis “just didn’t believe that,” but six seasons in, “now he believes it a lot more.”

“I just felt like – it wasn’t that I didn’t believe them, I didn’t believe people would do that,” Davis says. “I didn’t see any reason for an AAU coach, a high school coach, a recruit, a family member, to lie to me. The way that I grew up, the way that I communicated, I’m as direct and honest as can be. I’d rather someone tell me something that is not pleasing, but be truthful and honest.”

Coaching the JV team is pure and honest. Williams initially suggested Davis also get involved with the junior varsity team to help get him acclimated. Davis assisted C.B. McGrath, who is now the coach at UNC-Wilmington, for the first year and has been the JV coach the past five seasons. North Carolina is one of the few schools in the country that keeps a junior varsity basketball program. It’s a remnant of freshman teams, which were prevalent when the NCAA mandated such players weren’t eligible for varsity. Davis holds tryouts and selects the team. The Tar Heels play a schedule that includes games against NCAA Division III teams, community colleges and prep-school graduate teams. This season the Heels finished 15-0.

Even after freshmen became eligible in 1972, Smith kept the JV program alive to give regular students a chance to develop with the aim of playing varsity and to give his assistant a place to learn too. (Williams coached the junior varsity team when he was an assistant.) Students can play for up to two years, and Williams, as Smith once did, has added players to the varsity. This season, seniors Kane Ma and Aaron Rohlman earned such promotions.

The JV team rarely gets a player taller than 6-foot-6, so Davis says what Williams runs wouldn’t work for those players. That means he has to come up with his own sets. Because they’ve got to make jumpers to win, he pulled plays from his time in the NBA toiling under coaches such as Pat Riley, Don Nelson and Rick Carlisle. He pulled plays from his time at ESPN, when he’d observe practices and watch video of teams from around the nation he needed to be ready to discuss. He even takes plays from Carolina’s varsity opponents. The Heels call one zone play Louisville after something Davis adopted from Rick Pitino.

“Being the head JV coach is not even comparable to the role that Coach Williams plays on varsity, but it does put you in a position to make decisions,” Davis says. “It’s really put me in a different role and allowed me a glimpse of what Coach Williams has to do on a daily basis and has really helped me out as an assistant.”

Many Tar Heels followers are connecting the dots: that Williams’ hiring of Davis and even his tenure as the junior varsity coach will lead to Davis succeeding Williams when his boss retires. And they’ve voiced that to Davis on a regular basis.

“I think it’s hilarious because I’ve never thought about that,” Davis says. “I never thought about, ‘This is how many points I want to average.’ Never thought about going to the NBA. I never thought about working on ESPN. And I never thought about coming back here and being an assistant coach. Wherever I am, I’m singularly focused on trying to do the best I can at the position I’m at. When people say that to me, it’s something I never thought about. I absolutely love coaching for Coach Williams.”

In a parallel universe, Davis could have been answering the same questions about potentially following another legendary coach. Had Davis known the man making the suggestion would become his father-in-law, maybe he would have listened harder and been open to playing for Duke out of high school. Instead, Bob Seigle was just the father of his good friend Leslie, who he’d often visit at her part-time job at a Baskin-Robbins ice cream shop. Seigle, however, was more than just another well-meaning adult offering unsolicited advice. He had been a senior guard at Army in 1965-66, when a freshman named Mike Krzyzewski joined the basketball program.

By high school, it was far too late for Seigle to wield any influence over Davis, who says he wanted to go to North Carolina and play for Smith even before his uncle Walter Davis starred for the Tar Heels from 1973-77.

Davis married Leslie, who is also an UNC graduate, in 1999, and when his NBA career ended, the couple purchased a house in Chapel Hill knowing that’s where they wanted to settle. Little could he have imagined a coaching career was in his future.

“My love and appreciation for this university and program has been with me my entire life,” Davis says. “It’s not a job, it’s an act of service.”

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