LOUISVILLE — Back in the mid-1970s, Larry Davis came to Asbury College in Wilmore because the school was starting a basketball program.
One problem, the school didn't start a basketball program.
"The church I went to in Selma, Indiana, the pastor's son ended up going to Asbury and he's a little bit older than I was," said Cincinnati's interim head coach on Friday. "He said, 'Why don't you come down here? They're getting ready to start an intercollegiate basketball team. Come down and you'll be on the first team.' They ended up not starting until I graduated, actually. I didn't get to play college basketball."
Davis adjusted. After graduating in 1978, he entered grad school at Tennessee State and bugged the basketball coach into giving him a job — for one dollar.
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"So I could get my tuition waived," he said.
He coached Five-Star camps with and against John Calipari. He was a high school coach and head coach at Oak Hill Academy as well as an assistant at several colleges before getting a head coaching job at Furman.
"I fought my way up the chain and ladder," Davis said Friday. "I wasn't a guy that was born, from a coaching standpoint, with a silver spoon in my mouth."
Now Saturday, the Mount Sterling native has a chance to knock off college basketball's gold standard when the 59-year-old will lead No. 8 seed Cincinnati against overall No. 1 seed Kentucky in a Midwest Regional game at the KFC Yum Center.
Davis has carried the "interim head coach" title since mid-December when head coach Mick Cronin was diagnosed with a non-life threatening vascular condition known as arterial dissection that forced him to take a leave of absence for the rest of the season.
As part of his recovery, Cronin must keep his blood pressure at an acceptable level. He can be around the team, just not for practices or games.
He had no qualms handing the reigns to Davis, his friend from when Cronin was an assistant coach at Woodward High School in Cincinnati and Davis, then an assistant at Ball State, tried to recruit Woodward star Eric Johnson, who went to Louisville.
Born in Mount Sterling, Davis and his family moved to Indiana when he was 6. He and his father, a huge UK basketball fan, listened to games on the radio.
Later on, Davis coached under former Western Kentucky star Clem Haskins at Minnesota. In fact, Davis was an assistant on the 1997 Golden Gophers team that lost to UK in the Final Four. Haskins was in the Yum Center on Thursday night, cheering on the Bearcats against Purdue.
After nine seasons as head coach at Furman, going 124-139, Davis joined Cronin's first staff at Cincinnati in 2006.
"There were a lot of rough times," said Cronin on Friday inside the Cincinnati locker room. "To build our program, what we went through made us extremely close."
The Bearcats have weathered the bumps, shaking off a three-game losing streak in mid-February to end the regular season with five straight wins. Thursday night, Cincinnati rallied from seven points down in the final 48 seconds against Purdue to force overtime, then beat the Boilermakers 66-65.
"First of all, he's one of the few guys who could do what he's doing," Calipari said Friday. "There are very few guys who could handle the situation like he has and Mick believes in him. They're loyal to each other."
"I think guys understood early on things are not going to change," Davis said. "You can't lose the culture. One thing I determined early on, we weren't going to lose our culture."
They haven't. Cincinnati earned its fifth straight NCAA Tournament bid. On Thursday, the Bearcats pulled out a game they could have easily lost. Now Saturday they have a chance to knock off the best college basketball team in the country.
"This is a great opportunity for Larry to get a head coaching job," said Cronin. "He may get mine if he keeps winning."