Ole Miss basketball coach Kermit Davis a difference-maker

Editor’s Note: A version of this story appeared in the Oct. 17, 2018, edition of The Clarksdale (Ms.) Press Register newspaper.

As a visiting coach, Kermit Davis always had an appreciation for the atmosphere one feels when they enter The Pavilion on the Ole Miss campus.

The 9,500-seat arena, sporting a price tag of $96.5 million, has proved to be a dungeon of horrors for visiting teams since its opening in January 2016, including some games where Davis stalked the sidelines.

Now, Davis will be calling The Pavilion his home for the forseable future as he attempts to resurrect the Rebel basketball program.

He comes in with lofty laurels as Davis is an eight-time conference Coach of the Year and ranks 34th among Division I coaches with 403 wins in a career that’s included 15 years as the head coach at Middle Tennessee and head coaching jobs at Idaho (1997, 1989-90) and Texas A&M (1991). He ranks 11th nationally in winning percentage over the last three years and 13th over the last seven.

Davis told members of the Clarksdale Rotary Club during an Oct. 9, 2018, appearance that he wasn’t looking to make a move from Murfreesboro, Tenn., where he had built Middle Tennessee State University into a name on the college basketball scene and had grown a fan base numbering some 150 to 200 fans when he first arrived in 2003 to more than 10,000 who make up Blue Raider nation.

But when Ole Miss came calling last spring, the Leakesville, Ms., native couldn’t resist the opportunity to become the Rebels’ 22nd head coach.

“It was the right fit for me,” Davis said. “It’s been a great six months in Oxford.” 

Kermit Davis coaches during the Ole Miss men’s basketball game vs Vanderbilt on Feb. 29th, 2020, at The Pavilion in Oxford, Ms.
Photo by Joshua McCoy / Ole Miss Athletics

The son of longtime Mississippi State coach Kermit Davis Sr., the younger Davis played for the Bulldogs, graduating in 1982, and started his coaching career in Starkville, Ms., as a graduate assistant. 

And while he admits there will be a challenge in his first season in Oxford, Ms., Davis believes he has the facilities and program that will attract the nation’s top players. 

“You need for nothing” at Ole Miss, Davis said, pointing to the campus and athletic facilities, topped off by The Pavilion.

“It’s the nicest on-campus arena in college basketball,” said Davis, who was the guest of Rotarian and local attorney Ed Peacock, who has had Ole Miss season tickets since 1974.

“We’re going to create a product they really want to see play,” he said. “We’re trying to create that winning culture.”

Yet, it won’t be easy as Davis predicts the Southeastern Conference will be “the best it’s ever been” when you look at the depth and the recruits the conference’s schools have brought in. He believes the SEC could send nine or 10 teams to the NCAA Tournament this year.

“There’s been a total commitment to basketball,” Davis said of the SEC schools.

And that’s also true at Ole Miss where he pulled in the nation’s 35th-ranked recruiting class despite being on campus for just a few months. He anticipates three or four of the freshmen class seeing significant time this season.

“We’re going to try to create a national brand. And to do that, you’ve got to beat national teams on a national stage,” Davis said. “Can we do that in basketball?”

The Rebels open the season on Saturday, Nov. 10 when they host Western Michigan. There are dates against Butler, Baylor, Iowa State and Middle Tennessee on the schedule, as well as the usual SEC slate featuring powerhouses Kentucky and Florida.

(Editor’s Note: In his first season as coach at Ole Miss, Davis led one of the biggest turnaround seasons in the nation. The Rebels posted a 20-13 record to earn a spot in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in four years. In the last 2019-20 season, Ole Miss finished with a 15-17 record, including a 6-12 mark in the SEC.)

The Oct. 6 stop was Davis’ first in Clarksdale, but he has fond memories of the area. Out of high school, he first attended Phillips Junior College in neighboring Helena, Ark., for two years. It was there where he met his wife, Betty. The couple have two daughters, Ally and Claire.

“It’s nice to be back in this area,” Davis said. “Northern Mississippi basketball fans are unbelievable. There are a lot of knowledgeable fans around here.”

And it’s a fan base he will attempt to energize and bring back to The Pavilion in droves.

For he wants to make it his home for now and the future.

Ole Miss coach Kermit Davis is shown during a Feb. 29, 2020, game vs. Vanderbilt at The Pavilion in Oxford, Ms. Photo by Joshua McCoy / Ole Miss Athletics

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