Having bounced around seven colleges in 19 years and not spending more than five years at one place, Kermit Davis was looking for a place to settle down. He found it at Middle Tennessee State University.
“We sure took this job for the long term,” Davis said.
Almost a decade and 166 wins — and counting — later, the men’s basketball coach is cementing his legacy with the Blue Raiders.
On Dec. 29, he moved past Jimmy Earle (1970-79) for the most wins in school history, picking up win 165 against Florida International.
“It was quite an honor to pass Coach Earle,” Davis, 52, said. “There is only one Jimmy Earle. He is the best and a great friend of mine. A lot of other people had a big part in it. Former players and assistant coaches have done a great job with me.”
Just eight days before, he joined Earle atop the list with a win in a game that was anything but ordinary.
The Blue Raiders knocked off Ole Miss for their first win against an SEC opponent since 1995. The icing on the cake for Davis is that he grew up rooting against the Rebels. His father, Kermit Sr., coached at Mississippi State for seven seasons, and the younger Davis played college ball and began his coaching career with the Bulldogs.
With the game at a neutral site in South Haven, Miss., more than 80 family members and friends were on hand for Davis’ return to his native state.
“That was a really cool night for the Davis family,” he said.
Coming off an underwhelming 16-16 season, the Blue Raiders have surprised many outside the program. Heading into last weekend, they held a 13-2 record for their best start in 25 years. With signature wins against UCLA, Belmont and Ole Miss, MTSU has garnered national attention and received votes in both national polls.
Loaded with seven newcomers, including two Division I transfers, the Blue Raiders are winning thanks to a dominant big man, hot shooting and balance.
LaRon Dendy, a 6-foot-9, 230-pound senior, provides a stifling presence down low. The Iowa State transfer averages 14.7 points and 6.9 rebounds to go along with 26 blocks.
As a team, the Blue Raiders are shooting a remarkable 51.2 percent from the field — the third-best mark in the country. They have shared the wealth, with six players averaging more than seven points and 10 logging more than 12 minutes a game.
“We didn’t know it would turn out like this,” junior forward JT Sulton said. “I think it is safe to say that we knew we had a great team ... and could turn things around.”
Still, the previous nine years have been anything but short on wins. Davis has endured a losing season just once and picked up 19 wins twice.
But the Blue Raiders have just missed getting over the hump. In 2008, they were one win away from an NCAA Tournament berth but lost in the Sun Belt Conference championship game. Two years ago, they captured the conference’s regular-season title, only to make an early exit in the league tournament.
Securing the school’s first NCAA Tournament bid in 23 years — also the last 20-win season — hangs over not only Davis but the athletic department as well.
“That is a very long drought,” athletics director Chris Massaro said. “So No. 1, it raises your profile, that’s the immediate benefit. No. 2, it takes a lot of the monkey off the back.”
Handling internal and external expectations is nothing new for Davis.
Twice he has been the nation’s youngest head coach, taking over Southwest Mississippi Junior College at the age of 24 and grabbing the reins of Division I Idaho at 28 years old.
This is his fourth Division I head coaching job, with two stints at Idaho and a one-year stop at Texas A&M in 1990-91.
“I’ve grown up in it,” said Davis, who was an assistant for five years at LSU before arriving at MTSU. “I’ve been in the stands when they’ve gotten on my dad. I’ve been through it all. So I understand this business. It is a big boy’s business. ... What you do is you lower your head and you’ve got to do what you think is right and hire the best people to help you coach, recruit like heck. The biggest thing these days is you have to do all the other things well too.”
Davis points to an emphasis on academics — the program has graduated 20 players in a row — along with being visible in the community.
In return, the program has been rewarded. Over the last nine years, MTSU leads the Sun Belt in largest growth of attendance. Through nine home games this winter, they are averaging 4,274 fans — the second most in the league.
All of that has added up to a long stay at MTSU. With one more season, Davis will pass Earle as the longest tenured MTSU coach.
“It is almost like that is a lifetime,” he said. “The last 10 years have been by far the most fun I’ve ever had.”