Monday evening was new Ole Miss basketball coach Kermit Davis’ first day on the job in Oxford, Mississippi. He arrived in the late morning, met with school officials, athletic director Ross Bjork, deputy athletic director Keith Carter, and Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter to discuss specifics before heading over to The Pavilion for his introductory press conference in front of a few hundred fans, the media, and current and former players.
From the jump, Kermit Davis took some very calculated steps in differentiating himself from his predecessor, Andy Kennedy — and most likely, in turn, really got the attention of some boosters who are desperate for a winning program on their terms.
Davis brought up and spoke extensively about his past, and he addressed concerns about the long journey from mid-major doldrums to Middle Tennessee State, relevant basketball program that is now a force to be reckoned with when they are on your schedule or in your bracket.
”We’re not going to take eight or nine years to start winning at a high level,” he said. “We went to a new league, and we had injuries and it’s the life of a mid-major.”
He hit on player development, a topic that was a knock (fair or not) during Kennedy’s tenure in Oxford. It seems as though this is clearly a reason Davis was told he was brought in to rectify by university officials and administration.
”We have to improve the current players. There’s talent in that room,” he said, of the returning squad. “Have to increase their development...we know we have a system of play that can be successful.”
For those worried about his past at rival Mississippi State (Davis played there under his father, Kermit Davis, Sr.), he put that to rest saying “no one wants to kick their tail more than Kermit Davis.” Third person references aside, maybe this is a sales pitch that will be believed or not depending on your cynicism, but it needed to be said.
Everything Davis mentioned needed to be said for a fan base fractured over the performance of Kennedy in the last 12 years. Some felt he had done all he could to develop a winning program at a place and job that is at the very bottom of the conference. Yes, he was able to build a new practice facility and arena through fundraising and bring in better talent over time who could compete in the NCAA tourney, but that last hump wasn’t hurdled enough.
Folks also clashed with Kennedy’s personal sense of style, his loose offensive and defensive strategies, and his inability to consistently improve the program and players. With that said, one would say that Davis sees opportunity where those fans’ needs their concerns addressed.
”How is it difficult here? You play in the best basketball league and the best college town. I’m in heaven. We’re carrying a big bat. I know there are others in the SEC, but I have one here.
There are certainly concerns with the current roster and the 2018 signing class, but Kermit didn’t tip-toe around them. He knows it will be an uphill battle that he will take head on, but also do it his way after doing some evaluating of his own.
“Hopefully there’s not attrition but sometimes that comes with change. I met with them as a group. Biggest thing is to see them individually. Do it over next four or five days. I’ll be out on the road recruiting soon.”
And as for the knock on Andy and his reliance on the transfer market and the junior college ranks, Kermit mentioned that it would be a “healthy balance”.
“My strength is getting high school players. We’re going to do it with balance of freshmen, JUCO and transfers. But you have to do it in the SEC with freshmen and high school guys.”
As for his staff, Kermit will bring two from his staff in Murfreesboro and will begin interviewing for the final assistant spot. His assistant pool will also get a nice upgrade so he will be able to offer a much better role and incentive to join him in Oxford.
Kermit Davis will make $2.5 million a year for four years plus plenty of incentives. Assistant coaches' salary pool is $900,000. #OleMiss— Parrish Alford (@parrishalford) March 19, 2018
“Ronnie Hamilton and Win Case will be here with me. I have a process of interviewing guys on current staff and then decide and we’ll also do a national search for third full-time spot. Ross has given us the means to hire as good of a staff as anyone in the SEC and we’re going to do it.
I want to align myself with leadership I trust and Ross is that. I want to come home to Mississippi and the SEC and it’s a perfect fit.”
He also brought up a popular topic around sports these days: the National Anthem.
"We're going to be a team that respects the (United States) flag and the National Anthem," #OleMiss head coach Kermit Davis— Brad Logan (@BradLoganCOTE) March 19, 2018
Now, before we get #madonline, let’s clarify why brought it up. Former Ole Miss basketball staffer Kory Keys cleared the air why it was brought up by Davis and why he made a point to address it head on and not avoid it.
I ask that because I wonder if it’s savvy pandering.— Kory Keys (@KoryKeys) March 20, 2018
I cannot tell you how many emails our staff would get from fans about a random player not having his hand on his heart for the anthem.
I’m dead serious.
In my opinion, this was a strategic mention in the press conference to “win it”. To make a statement about how his teams will do things together and his way. Kermit is a coach who is very keen on discipline and doing things his way. That is it, that is all.
Now, was it something that he probably could’ve forgotten to say? Sure. But I don’t think this will “haunt him” for years to come. Hell, it has yet to be an issue in basketball.
Davis then mentioned how hard it was for him to accept this gig and make a change after 16 years, five NCAA tournaments, seven conference titles in eight years, and conference coach of the year awards while he was the head man for the Blue Raiders.
“The last 24 hours have been emotional. Last night in the locker room was tough. Louisville played great and I was so proud of our team. I reflected on ride home and then I woke up and packed and started thinking about players here.”
But, rest assured, he has turned the page and is now 100 percent dedicated to the Ole Miss program and is now on the hunt for solutions to rectify the issues that caused the Rebels to have such a down 2017-2018 season. And the first step? You guessed it, recruiting.
“The ball juggling of a new job is to balance attrition with current players to spots available to signees we have. We have talked to the signees. We’re going to see all of them. We’re going to see Serrell (Smith) and his mom. Nothing is easy but we’re going to take our time and due our diligence.”
Before he left the podium, he mentioned that he was comfortable at Middle Tennessee and that he was never looking elsewhere during his time there. Which should give doubters some solace that he took the Ole Miss gig. There are more than likely going to be other jobs opening up very soon if the FBI probe continues to hover and he certainly could have waited.
Davis is a well-known and respected member of the coaching fraternity. He is lumped into the same group as Belmont’s Ricy Byrd and Gonzaga’s Mark Few as coaches who have stayed the course and helped build a program that is now a household name whether it is on the Power 5 level or the mid-major level.
“I didn’t chase a lot of jobs. I felt great where I was. I felt comfortable. When this opportunity happened it just fit. When I started having conversations with Ross I wanted this opportunity.”