Mark Story

A top Kentucky coach now stares down one of college basketball’s biggest challenges

David Elson was the head coach when Western Kentucky University began the transition of its football program in the prior decade from the FCS to the FBS.

After seasons of 2-10 and 0-12, Willie Taggart became the Hilltoppers head man.

Dave Bezold was the Northern Kentucky University men’s basketball coach earlier this decade when the Norse began the transition from NCAA Division II to NCAA Division I.

After seasons of 11-16, 9-21 and 13-17, John Brannen became the Norse head man.

As our state’s recent sports history shows, being the head coach of a college sports program moving to a higher level of competition can be perilous.

Last week, Louisville’s Bellarmine University announced it will be moving its sports teams — including its utra-successful men’s basketball program — from NCAA Division II to NCAA Division I. The Knights will not be eligible to play in the D-I NCAA Tournament until the 2024-25 school year.

So now it is Bellarmine men’s hoops coach Scott Davenport facing one of the most daunting tasks in college hoops — the upward transition.

“A lot of people very close to me wondered if this was good for Scott Davenport,” Davenport said last Friday via the phone. “And I told them, first and foremost, this is not about me.”

Scott Davenport
Scott Davenport coached Ballard High School to the 1988 Boys’ Sweet Sixteen championship and Bellarmne University to the 2011 NCAA Division II national championship. AP

Over 14 seasons as Bellarmine head coach, Davenport has made the Knights into Division II basketball royalty. He has directed the school to 11 straight NCAA Tournaments, four Final Four appearances and the 2011 national title.

That ample prior success should inoculate Davenport if Bellarmine’s move up in class comes with competitive struggle. The estimable Rick Byrd survived three losing seasons in five years at Belmont during that school’s transition from NAIA to NCAA Division I status in the 1990s.

Rick Byrd
Rick Byrd, kneeling, led Belmont through the transition from the NAIA to NCAA Division I. AP

Moving up to Division I comes packed with coaching challenges.

In the coming school year, Bellarmine will play one final season in the D-II Great Lakes Valley Conference. Starting in 2020-21, the school will be a member of the D-I ASUN Conference (formerly the Atlantic Sun).

“Just becoming familiar with where you are playing and who you are playing, I think that will be a huge adjustment,” Davenport says. “This (coming year) will be my 15th year (at Bellarmine). So that is 14 years in the same league. So that will be a huge change.”

They play good basketball at the top of the ASUN. Over the past seven NCAA Tournaments, the ASUN representative has won at least one tournament game in four years.

Last season, ASUN Tournament champion Liberty (29-7) beat Mississippi State in the NCAA tourney round of 64, while regular-season ASUN champ Lipscomb (29-8) won at North Carolina State en route to reaching the NIT finals.

Recruiting will be different for Davenport. Bellarmine already has Division I size. Last season, the Knights had eight players who stood 6-foot-7 or taller.

Still, to be competitive with teams strong enough to beat SEC and ACC foes, “(recruiting) greater athleticism, I think that will be key,” Davenport says.

At 63, Davenport has already put together a distinguished Kentucky basketball coaching career.

In the late 1980s, he coached Ballard High School, led by star Allan Houston, to back-to-back Sweet Sixteen championship game showdowns with Bobby Keith, Richie Farmer and Clay County.

The two schools split those memorable state title contests, with Clay County winning in 1987 in Rupp Arena and Ballard gaining the upper hand the following season in Freedom Hall.

Davenport parlayed his success at Ballard into a spot on Denny Crum’s coaching staff at the University of Louisville. When Rick Pitino replaced Crum, he retained Davenport.

After nine years at U of L, Davenport took the head coaching job at Bellarmine in 2005. Inheriting the last-place team in the GLVC, Davenport built the Knights into a national-title winner by 2011.

Energetic and personable, Davenport is well thought of in Louisville. In the 2011 Lexington Herald-Leader Kentucky Sports Figure of the Year voting, Davenport finished only 46 points behind winner Kenneth Faried behind a wave of voting support from Louisville media members.

In a sense, Davenport has been preparing Bellarmine men’s basketball to move to Division I for the prior decade. Since 2009-10, Bellarmine has played 20 exhibitions against D-I teams — eight games vs. Louisville; seven vs. Cincinnati; two each against Xavier and Indiana; one vs. Duke.

The Knights went 1-19 in those games — the 2011 national title team beat Xavier 63-61 — but eight of the losses were by 12 points or less.

“Some of the people close to me, they would say, ‘I don’t know if this is going to be good for you because you are not going to be able to win a national championship (in Division I),’” Davenport says of the transition.

“My answer to that is, ‘In the era we are living now, is everybody going to know Bellarmine is making history (by moving to Division I)?’ I think the answer is yes — and I think we can sell that.”


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Mark Story has worked in the Lexington Herald-Leader sports department since Aug. 27, 1990, and has been a Herald-Leader sports columnist since 2001. I have covered every Kentucky-Louisville football game since 1994, every UK-U of L basketball game but three since 1996-97 and every Kentucky Derby since 1994.