Kermit Davis’ vision? Turn Ole Miss basketball into ‘national brand’

Published 9:39 pm Monday, March 19, 2018

Kermit Davis and his new boss, Ole Miss athletic director Ross Bjork, played to the crowd.

Formally introducing the Rebels’ new men’s basketball coach for the first time Monday at The Pavilion, Bjork pulled out a red sport coat complete with an Ole Miss script logo as a gift for Davis, ribbing Davis, a Mississippi State alumnus, and his father, Kermit Davis Sr., who coached the Rebels’ biggest rival in the 1970s, in the process.

“No more maroon,” Bjork said a couple different times.

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Davis said he won’t have a problem obliging.

“There’s a lot of good Ole Miss people in this room, but I can assure you that nobody wants to beat Mississippi State’s tail more than Kermit Davis,” Davis said.

In between all of that, Davis talked about the real reason he’s now at Ole Miss and not Middle Tennessee State, where he spent the last 16 seasons turning the Blue Raiders into one of the nation’s premier mid-major programs by winning five of the last seven conference regular-season championships (Sun Belt and Conference USA) and appearing in two of the last three NCAA Tournaments. He was hired with the expectation of getting Ole Miss in the tournament that matters this time of year on a far more consistent basis, something Bjork said during the search process was the objective for whoever took over and reiterated Monday.

“It was important to find someone that could live up to a high standard of expectations,” Bjork said.

Davis took it a step further, saying the ultimate goal is to turn Ole Miss into a “national brand,” something the school has never been mistaken for in men’s college basketball. The program has made just eight NCAA appearances in a history spanning more than 100 seasons and has advanced beyond the second round just once.

The Rebels missed the NCAA Tournament for the third straight season and the fourth time in the last five years after bottoming out this year with a last-place finish in the SEC. Their 12 wins were tied for the fewest since the 2005-06 season.

But Davis isn’t deterred.

“We can definitely do it,” said Davis, who signed a four-year contract worth $2.5 million annually. Ole Miss will pay Davis’ $700,000 buyout to MTSU.

So how exactly does Davis plan on going about trying to accomplish that?

Davis’ first step was to plead with a fan base that grew apathetic amid the Rebels’ first losing season since 2006 that saw Andy Kennedy abruptly end his 12-year year tenure by resigning before it was over. By the time Vanderbilt made the trip to Oxford for the teams’ regular-season finale earlier this month, Ole Miss, which ranked last in the SEC in attendance this season, was playing in front of a half-empty arena.

“I’m going to spend every ounce of breath trying to sell every season ticket in here,” Davis said. “Because you cannot have a national brand without a national fan base. Then when your national fan base starts traveling to watch you play, now you get the national scene. The way you can help us is this and help our team win. I think we sold under 5,000 season tickets. If we can sell 7,000 season tickets, this Ole Miss nation is good enough to where we can do that.”

Among the incentives included in Davis’ contract is an annual $50,000 bonus if Ole Miss averages 8,000 in attendance or sells 5,500 season tickets and a $75,000 bonus if those numbers increase to 9,000 and 6,500, respectively. Davis would also receive $150,000 for at least 12 regular-season SEC wins, $100,000 for winning an SEC regular-season championship, $50,000 for winning the SEC Tournament, $50,000 for participating in the NCAA Tournament, $25,000 for each NCAA Tournament win up to the Final Four, $125,000 for advancing to the Final Four and $250,000 for a national championship.

The natural enthusiasm that comes with a new hire could be enough for attendance to spike, but Davis knows he also needs to win. Doing that, Davis said, will require more development in the players already on the roster and hitting the recruiting trail to bring in more talent.

Terence Davis, Bruce Stevens, Dominik Olejniczak and Breein Tyree, who publicly contemplated his future when Kennedy resigned, were among the players on the current roster in attendance Monday. Davis said he’s had “positive conversations” with all of the players with eligibility remaining since he officially became Ole Miss’ coach late last week, though he didn’t rule out the possibility of attrition.

Davis said he’s also spoken to all four of the Rebels’ incoming signees and plans to visit at least some of them. That includes Ole Miss’ highest-ranked recruit, Florida four-star guard Serrel Smith, who has asked to be released from his scholarship.

An Ole Miss spokesperson couldn’t confirm or deny Monday if Smith has been granted his release. Should that happen, the Rebels would have three scholarships available in the current recruiting class.

“That’s just part of the process. There’s no easy things in transition. There’s no givens,” Davis said. “But we’re going to take our time. We’re not going to rush into things. Not going to sign guys that we don’t think fit here.”

Davis leaned heavily on transfers to construct his rosters at MTSU. The Blue Raiders had six transfers this season and three in their starting five, including Conference USA Player of the Year Nick King.

Transfers come with the climate of today’s game, but Davis said his recruiting philosophy will change a bit now that he’s at a Power Five job.

“Here in the SEC, you need to do it with high school players,” Davis said. “But you know what? When I was at LSU (as an associate head coach), we signed the No. 1 junior college player in America three years in a row. Then there may be a grad transfer out there this year that fits a need. But I think as your program gets hold, we’re going to do it dominating with high school guys.”

With the state-of-the-art Pavilion and a fairly new practice facility in the Tuohy Center, Davis said he has everything he needs to attract the top-flight talent that’s long eluded Ole Miss, including a significant bump in the assistant salary pool that could provide a boost in recruiting.

“I’m in heaven,” Davis said. “We’re carrying a big bat in recruiting. I know a lot of the people in the SEC have them to, but I just think we’ve got an experience you can really, really sell.”

Two assistants down, one to go

Win Case and Ronnie Hamilton, assistants at MTSU under Davis, will be a part of Davis’ coaching staff. Davis said he’ll conduct a “national search” for his third full-time assistant.

That includes interviewing Kennedy’s former assistants — Tony Madlock, Todd Abernethy and Rahim Lockhart — for the position. Madlock served as the Rebels’ interim coach for the final five games this season with Ole Miss going 1-4 during that span.

Davis has more money to work with than the previous regime. The Rebels’ collective pool for assistants this season was $565,000 — the lowest in the SEC — but is jumping to $900,000, which would rank in the top half of the league.

“One thing that Ross has done now is he has given us the means to go out and hire as good a staff as anybody in the SEC,” Davis said.