Hubert Davis took the North Carolina job with high expectations. That’s just part of the gig as head coach of a program with six national championships and one of the most storied traditions in college basketball.
>> Subscribe to Sports Spectrum Magazine for more stories where sports and faith connect <<
In his first season as head coach, he’s already delivering. On Saturday, Davis and his eighth-seeded Tar Heels upset No. 1 seed and defending champion Baylor, 93-86 in overtime, to advance to the Sweet 16 against fourth-seeded UCLA.
This is on top of guiding the Tar Heels to a strong 20-plus-win season, which included a win over rival Duke.
Throughout the success of his first season as head coach, after nine seasons as an assistant under Roy Williams, Davis has refused to take credit for anything personally, instead deflecting the praise to his players. Several times, he’s referred to his job as “missionary work,” hoping to be an example to his players about what faith in Jesus truly looks like.
“As I’ve said before, I look at this job as missionary work,” Davis said Friday prior to facing Baylor. “I’ve been given an opportunity to be the head coach of this program and be a part of this program for the last 10 years. Every day I get a front-row seat to be able to help out these kids, and it puts me in a place of humbleness and thankfulness and appreciation to be a part of their lives.
“I don’t feel any personal validation at all. This is 100 percent absolutely nothing about me. This is 100 percent giving back to each one of those players everything that Coach [Dean] Smith and Coach [Bill] Guthridge gave to me while I was [playing] at North Carolina and everything that Coach Williams gave to all the players the last 18 years he was head coach. It has nothing personal about me.”
Embrace the moment 🙌#CarolinaFamily | #MarchMadness pic.twitter.com/WI8pvrP0O5
— Carolina Basketball (@UNC_Basketball) March 19, 2022
The Tar Heels opened the tournament with a statement win — a 96-63 victory over Marquette. On Saturday, they led by as many as 25 points before Baylor staged a furious comeback to tie the game and force overtime. North Carolina was able to outscore Baylor 13-6 in the overtime period, despite being without starters Brady Manek (ejection) and Caleb Love (fouled out).
“The thing that brings me such great joy is the thing that I desperately wanted for all of these guys the entire season, is for them to have their own stories and testimonies and memories of playing in big-time games and coming up big in that Carolina uniform,” Davis said following Saturday’s win. “And they just continue to have those stories and those memories. And to see their smiles and how happy they are, and the enjoyment that they’re having being together, brings me great joy as a coach.”
His approach to coaching is rooted firmly in his faith in Jesus, which was a seed planted by his late mother when he was young.
“My mother was a Christian and she begged me to go to church growing up, and I didn’t want to go,” Davis said during his introductory press conference in April. “I wasn’t interested in it. My mom used to always say that Jesus had a plan for me — plans for a hope and a future, plans not to harm you, plans to prosper you. Jeremiah 29:11. At the time, growing up, I didn’t understand it, and I didn’t listen to it.”
His mother passed away two days before the start of his junior year of high school and he found himself feeling hatred toward God. That continued for the two years he played at North Carolina.
“I just couldn’t understand all the things that my mom was telling me about Jesus loving me and having a plan and a purpose for me,” he said. “I didn’t understand any reason why He would take away my mom.”
Davis reflected on the major life moments his mother has missed — getting drafted to the NBA, getting married, seeing her grandchildren, and now seeing him coach at North Carolina. But while playing for UNC, Smith and Guthridge made the freshman players go to church, Davis said. While the anger toward God persisted, he started to understand that there was truth to what his mother was saying all those years ago.
“I started to understand the sacrifice that Jesus made for me and how much he loves me,” Davis said in his introductory press conference. “Two days before my junior year of college, I became a Christian. Instead of being upset that Jesus has taken away the most beautiful person in my life in my mom, I’m thankful every day that He gave me the best mom I could ever have for 16 years.”
The Tar Heels will be looking to advance to the Elite Eight for the first time since 2017. They’ll have to get past UCLA, a fellow blue blood program that was in the Final Four last season.
Win or lose, Davis hopes he is an example of what genuine faith in Jesus looks like.
“My faith in Christ is the foundation of who I am,” Davis said when introduced as head coach. “When I say that I will walk this path in my own shoes, my own shoes and my personality is my faith.”
— UNC coach Hubert Davis after big win over Duke: ‘Jesus has given me this opportunity’
— First-year UNC coach Hubert Davis reaches 20 wins with Christ as ‘foundation of who I am’
— Hubert Davis takes over as North Carolina basketball coach, aims to be ‘example of Christ’
— Baylor coach Scott Drew praises ‘spiritually deep’ group despite NCAA Tournament upset
— Cancer survivor Andrew Jones continues to inspire, leads Texas to NCAA Tournament win