CHAPEL HILL — Hubert Davis always wanted to get into coaching, and he sometimes wondered what it would be like to join the staff at North Carolina. He never believed, though, that it would happen.
“I didn’t entertain it to any great length,” Davis said Thursday, the day after UNC announced the former Tar Heels guard and TV analyst had joined Roy Williams’ staff of assistant coaches. “Because there’s so many great former players, coaches in the NBA and college that are just as worthy – even more worthy – of having this position.”
But here Davis is, back with the program he left 20 years ago. Back then, in 1992, Davis had just completed his senior season with the Tar Heels after averaging 21.4 points per game. Now, he returns to UNC after a 12-year career in the NBA, and after spending the past seven seasons as a college basketball analyst with ESPN.
Davis liked his time with the cable sports giant. He appreciated the relationships he built, the friendships he made. He lived life surrounded by the sport he grew up loving, but he wanted to experience it on a deeper level. The opportunity to do so at UNC came as a surprise to Davis, who moved back to Chapel Hill seven years ago. After the Final Four ended, Davis returned home from New Orleans. Williams, who helped recruit Davis to UNC so many years ago, asked Davis to come into his office.
Davis assumed it had something to do with the basketball camp he has run at the Smith Center the past 16 years. He thought maybe Williams wanted him to change the camp dates. Maybe there was a conflict. All Davis knew, for sure, is that Williams wanted to ask a favor of him.
“So when I came into the office, he was like, ‘This is a really big favor,’ ” Davis said. “I’m like, ‘Yeah, whatever, coach – whatever you need.’ And he says, ‘I would like you to be an assistant coach on my staff.’ And I was like, ‘What?’ I was in total shock, surprise.”
Davis went home and talked things over with his wife. They have three young children, ages 5 to 10, and part of the reason why Davis moved back to Chapel Hill was so he and his wife could raise their children in the community with which Davis fell in love during his college years.
He and his wife didn’t have much to talk about. The decision to accept Williams’ offer came easily.
“We’re leaving a great job with ESPN, and we’re going into a great job,” said Davis, who was in the early stages of renegotiating a new contract with ESPN before Williams made his offer. “And it’s a win-win situation for us and for our family. And we are – my family and I – we’re honored. And we’re thankful.”
In his role at ESPN, Davis watched a lot of college basketball. He sat in on coaches’ meetings at various schools. He watched practices, shoot-arounds. He spent time getting to know coaches and players.
Davis believes that experience will help ease the transition into coaching. He possesses no formal experience, but Davis doesn’t believe that will hinder him. Neither does Jay Bilas, the former Duke player and Blue Devils assistant coach who worked alongside Davis at ESPN.
“Hubert knows the game backwards and forwards,” Bilas said. “… He’s been successful on every level. He’s spent his whole life around the game. He’s been influenced by a whole bunch of different coaches … (And) it doesn’t get much better than playing for Dean Smith.”
There’s another part to Davis, too, that Bilas guesses will help Davis in his new position.
“Hubert’s a tough dude,” Bilas said. “He’s quick to smile, and he’s unbelievably, unfailingly polite. But he’s a tough guy. He was not a highly recruited player and wound up being an all-ACC player at North Carolina. … And he’s succeeded at everything he’s ever done by putting his head down and going to work.”
‘Coach Williams hit a home run’
After former UNC assistant coach Jerod Haase left the Tar Heels to become the head coach at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, Williams received no shortage of interest in the opening on his staff. Fourteen former UNC players inquired about the position, Williams said recently, and four Kansas players coached by Williams also expressed interest, he said.
But Williams made clear to his former Jayhawks players that the job would be filled by a Tar Heel. And, as it turned out, there was never much debate to begin with about Williams’ top choice. It was Davis all along.
“I think Coach Williams hit a home run,” said King Rice, the Monmouth head coach who played alongside Davis at UNC.
Rice, of course, is biased. He counts Davis among his closest friends, and the two men talk regularly. On Wednesday, after UNC announced Davis’ hiring, Rice said he received a text message from Davis. It said: “OK, man, everybody knows now.”
Davis and Rice spoke for a long time Thursday night, Rice said, and Rice had to reassure Davis he was, indeed, the right man for the job. Davis wasn’t lacking confidence, Rice said, but he was humbled that Williams chose him above all the other potential candidates.
“Hubert is a guy that I’m older than, but he always seemed to be the big brother,” Rice said. “… (He) was very mature when he got to school, knew what he wanted to do. Was very mature about his school work, about his game. He really didn’t stray away from his plan when he got there.”
At UNC, Davis, who will receive an annual salary of $170,862, said his responsibilities will run “from A to Z.” He plans to meet with the Tar Heels’ returning players as quickly as possible, he said, and at some point during the next month he will need to pass a compliance test before he’s allowed to begin recruiting.
The job will be new, and with it Davis will take on new responsibilities. But so many parts feel familiar because he’s returning to a place where he spent four years, and to a campus he first visited when he was 4 years old, back when his uncle, Walter Davis, was a star forward for the Tar Heels.
Twenty years after he played his final game at UNC, Davis said the lessons he learned from Smith, his college coach, still resonate. One of the things Davis most remembers about Smith is that he only once used the word “win.” It wasn’t a part of his vocabulary, at least not around those he coached.
“He never used that word because he really believed that individually as a player, and as a team, if you practiced and prepared every day to improve, that winning would take care of itself,” Davis said. “And I really believe that.”
That belief could be part of the reason he’s back.