The coach, whose name should ring a bell, knows what it’s like to be fired. The team leaders, mostly juniors, know what it’s like to go 21-41 with a 7-27 record in their conference their first two years.
The fan base knows what it’s like to follow a program that hasn’t produced a winning season in more than a decade.
So guess how good the 11-2 record must feel these days at Central Michigan?
“This is a community and alumni base that really wanted to have success,’’ coach Keno Davis said about his third year at CMU. “And we feel like when we do have that success, and if we’re able to maintain it, it’s going to mean so much more in a place where they don’t take it for granted and think it’s a right to have that kind of success.”
Or, as junior forward John Simons mentioned, “There hasn’t been a lot of excitement about basketball at CMU.”
True, the Chippewas tripped over Ball State last weekend, but every renaissance has its bad days. There are still plenty of reasons to notice Central Michigan. Such as:
• Progress. The 11-1 start was the school’s best in 45 years. It took just 12 games to match the highest victory total of the past four seasons. “It has been good to see this team go through some adversity and really grow up and learn life lessons along the way,” junior guard Chris Fowler said. “As well as trying to win basketball games.’’
• Balance. Central Michigan is fourth in the nation at 84.4 points a game, even without anyone in the top 250 in individual scoring. Nine different players have hit double figures in a game.
• Stability. Thirteen games, one starting lineup. Fowler and Simons have started together all 75 games of their college career. “It feels like I’ve played with him all my life,” Simons said.
• Leadership. Not many juniors in the country can say they are a team captain — for the third consecutive season. Fowler can. He credits the seniors who were at Central Michigan when he arrived.
“They allowed me to lead. If I had something to tell them, they would listen, and they didn’t have to,” Fowler said. “Without them, I don’t get that role. They could have shunned me.’’
• Smarts. The grade point average for the team the first semester was 3.17. Simons had a GPA of 3.95, reserve forward Blake Hibbitts 3.85, and Fowler — a theater arts major when he isn’t leading the team in scoring and assists — a 3.52.
“One of the things that’s important to me is the perception that you can have high-level athletics without sacrificing on the academics,” Davis said. “Our guys are putting themselves in a real nice position to have options when they graduate. That’s something coaches are usually more proud of than the wins and losses; maybe not during the season, but overall, when you look back at your career as a coach.”
• The Davis tree. Tom and Keno Davis share the rare achievement of both a father and son being named national coach of the year. Keno calls his dad after every Central Michigan game for thoughts.
Keno’s award came in his first season as head coach, when he took over for his father at Drake and went 28-5. Then he made a quick move to Providence. The Big East turned out to be a cold and harsh world, and he was let go after three seasons.
“No regret in taking the job, but regret in how it finished,’’ he said. “I took away some of the things we did well, and you always learn from your mistakes, and we had mistakes.
— Chris Fowler
“The reason I don’t have any negative feelings about my time there was the really good people and really good student-athletes I was able to spend time with. It helped mold me into the coach, and hopefully the person, I am today.’’
He took a year away from coaching after Providence. “I wasn’t sure that I would get back to being a head coach, and not because of lack of opportunity, but because I really wanted it to be a job where how I wanted to build a program aligned with the administration.’’
Then Central Michigan called, and he loved what he heard. “We were on the same page. It was the perfect job to take.’’
He had only three scholarship players returning, all reserves. He knew his first wave — such as Fowler, Simons and guard Rayshawn Simmons — would have to endure some punishment. Now they’re the foundation.
“It was tough at first. We came to the gym every day and worked hard and just weren’t seeing the results,’’ Fowler said. “To continue to come to the gym through all those losses and stay together speaks to the character of this basketball team.’’
Davis has a warning. “We’re not there yet.’’ The Ball State game showed that. Davis said nobody expected “a 28-1 well-oiled machine.’’ But the Chippewas are obviously moving in the right direction, and that means something to people who have seen dark days. A lot of Simons’ family lives near campus. He had a party of 30 in the stands this past home game.
Davis said these Chippewas remind him somewhat of his Drake team.
“They loved where they were at and they were proud to be at Drake [University]. Our players at Central Michigan, that’s where they want to be,” Davis said. “It’s not about looking for the next opportunity, it’s about embracing where you’re at. That’s unique in athletics, and it’s something I don’t take for granted.’’