Bright lights, big rebuild: Davis looks to assemble UNC roster

The new Carolina coach is under scrutiny in his first week on the job

New UNC coach Hubert Davis has already experienced the bright lights and criticism that comes with leading the Tar Heels in his first week on the job. (Gerry Broome / AP Photo)

CHAPEL HILL — It didn’t take long for Hubert Davis to understand the spotlight.

Being head coach of one of college basketball’s legendary blue blood programs is a different experience, even for someone who, like Davis, played in it for four years, starred in it and spent time as an assistant coach, a seat away from center stage.

While there are plenty of benefits, including the nearly $10 million in compensation, according to details released about Davis’ five-year contract, the spotlight is also fraught with risks and even the slightest moves can cast a long shadow.

Davis saw that at his introductory press conference. Overall, Davis “won the press conference” according to most observers, appearing confident, emotional and decisive in front of a fanbase that likely knew little of his personality.

Still, even the slightest blemish shows up in the hot lights at center stage. When answering a question about being the first African American head coach in Carolina basketball history, Davis was prepared with statistics about the percentage of African American coaches in Division I and UNC’s history of hiring minority coaches in all sports.

“It is significant,” Davis said. “It is significant that I’m African American and I’m the head coach here. I know that in terms of Division I head coaches all around the country, only 26% of Division I head coaches of men’s basketball are compromised by minorities, specifically African Americans. I know that it is significant that I’m the fourth African American head coach in any sport in the history of (the University of) North Carolina. I’m very proud to be an African American.”

Much like the rest of the presser, Davis appeared confident and prepared. Then Davis appeared to try to reach out to all races with a gesture of openness and acceptance.

“But I’m also very proud that my wife is white,” he added. “And I’m very proud that my three beautiful, unbelievable kids are a combination of both of us.”

Davis was criticized on social media and on-air by people of all races and genders over the tone-deaf comment. The International Business Times did a story on Davis’ comment. Political analyst and columnist Jason Nichols weighed in on Twitter. So did former Chiefs running back Larry Johnson.

He’s probably used a version of that line before, perhaps even in the interview process that got him the job. But as any stand-up comedian knows, when you’re in the spotlight, delivery and timing are everything. One word, syllable or pause off the mark is all it takes to cause a line to flop.

Matt Doherty, like Davis a former Tar Heel player and Roy Williams assistant, learned a similar lesson when he ran the program prior to Williams’ arrival. A joke about Duke cheerleaders meant to calm his team in their first game at Cameron Indoor Stadium went public, forcing him to apologize. He was also criticized for hanging photos of himself in the basketball offices because a picture he chose of Michael Jordan’s title-winning shot had him in the background.

Looking back on the experience, Doherty knows there’s only one way to cope with the level of scrutiny and the long line of people ready to pounce on even the smallest misstep.

“You’ve got to win,” he said. “If we’d kept winning, all of that stuff would have gone away. When you’re not winning, people aren’t happy, and they start looking for things.”

What can Davis do to make sure the team wins when it gets back on the floor in the fall? His early moves have had mixed results.

Shortly after the press conference, Williams signees Dontrez Styles and D’Marco Dunn announced they were sticking with their commitment and coming to Carolina.

Davis promised to recruit the transfer portal to help bolster a roster that may lose Day’Ron Sharpe and Armando Bacot to the NBA. He was able to raid a rival ACC program, winning his first recruiting battle to land UVA forward Justin McKoy. The Cary native returns to the state and is penciled in as a potential stretch four for the Tar Heels.

Before the dust settled on that transaction, however, Davis was dealt a setback. Seven-footer Walker Kessler, who entered the transfer portal after his freshman year, chose to leave for Auburn despite an intense retention effort from Davis and his staff.

At the moment, the Heels — who had four dominant big men last year — will be a small, guard-oriented team. At 6-foot-8, 225 pounds, McKoy is the tallest and heaviest player currently on the roster.

Davis will likely look to add size. The Tar Heels are pursuing 7-footer James Aidoo, who decommitted from Marquette after coach Steve Wojciechowski was fired. The Heels are also still working the transfer portal, and Sharpe or Bacot may return after testing the draft waters.

Clearly, the new Carolina coach still has plenty of work to do. And, if it wasn’t clear before, it’s now been illuminated as bright as the sun that he’ll have plenty of eyes on him as he toils away.