The method behind the madness of Bellarmine's crazy-tough schedule

The method behind the madness of Bellarmine’s crazy-tough schedule

The basketball coach at Bellarmine is telling stories. The scheduled topic is the road swing the Knights are about to make — in one way a trip unlike any team has ever taken, ever. This from their campus in southeast Louisville, where he has made the sport he loves a very big deal. But asking Scott Davenport to stick to one story is like asking the Pacific Ocean to stick to one wave.

Davenport would no more mute his emotions — his zest for his journey — than he would wear a bucket over his head on the bench during games. When he gets to the crux of his stories, his voice has a way of rising, as if bouncing off a trampoline. For instance, his feelings for his players.

“That’s where my investment has been. Why? I lost my dad when I was 9 years old on Halloween day of a massive heart attack. My mother was raised in a one-room schoolhouse. Teachers, coaches, principals, counselors saved my life. I’ve lost eight teammates in the last two years. This is the basis of our program. I was fortunate through great teachers and coaches to become involved with something bigger than me and it was the game of basketball. The consequence was it brought out the best in me.

“I am the luckiest coach that has ever coached any sport, male or female, any level. I am, no doubt about it. I apply that every day, with the attitude that I get to go coach and teach, not I have to. There is a big difference.”

He does that on behalf of a program in only its third year in Division I, but already with two winning seasons and a conference championship that made Bellarmine a cause, right up to the governor’s mansion and beyond. If you want to hear Davenport in full throat, wait until he gets on that subject in a moment.

But first, about this upcoming sojourn, and why it’s so special.

Bellarmine is 2-1, and the first win was enormous, 67-66 over Louisville, its first victory ever over the hallowed program barely three miles away. He is also Davenport’s alma mater and where he spent nine years as an assistant for Hall-of-Famers Denny Crum and Rick Pitino. How could he have dreamed of such a moment in 2005 when he moved those three miles and took over a Division II Bellarmine program of no national repute? That is, until he put the Knights in four D-II Final Fours and won the 2011 national championship. But beating Louisville in the KFC Yum! Center? Fantasyland. Until it wasn’t.

“That is one that is the before and after picture. I’ve been here, coming down to the start of 18 years, so I understand the journey,” he is saying. “The response that I received from former players, from our very first four seniors in 2005 to now, was really impossible to put into words.”

And now look where Bellarmine is taking that 2-1 record. Davenport has made it clear he is unafraid of daunting schedules. When the program started its transition to Division I in 2020, its very first opponent? Duke. Last November, the Knights faced Purdue, Gonzaga and UCLA. They lost by 39, 42 and 13, but so? They ended up 20-13.

Here comes a new gauntlet. Clemson on Friday, Duke on Monday, Loyola Marymount next Friday, UCLA Sunday. Then a redeye from Los Angeles to Atlanta and connect through to get to Louisville about 8 am and bus to Lexington to play Kentucky the next night.

UCLA. . . look again. . . Kentucky. Who does that?

“We looked at it every which way we could look at it,” Davenport says. “For example, we could have gone to Dallas and spent the night at an airport hotel. But what if something crazy happened weather-wise? If something crazy happens in Atlanta weather-wise we can bus to Lexington.”

The thing is, Davenport can’t even sleep on planes. He’ll be studying film on that redeye. “But if you coach under Rick Pitino,” he says, “you learn sleep’s over-rated.”

It’s natural to wonder: Why do it?

“Perhaps you’re not aware of this . . . ,” Davenport begins, and you know a story is coming.

“Only four schools in the history of college basketball have played in Cameron Indoor Stadium, Pauley Pavilion and Rupp Arena. It’s North Carolina, Notre Dame, St. John’s and Louisville. Only four. The closest anyone ever did it was over two seasons, 333 days, from December to the following November. We are going to do that in nine days. If you were a Bellarmine player, would that thrill you? Yes. So in this program it’s putting our players first. No matter what it takes. It’s not just talk.

“I could bring in Coach Pitino and Coach Crum and we could make the greatest practice plan in the world but I cannot simulate playing in Cameron and Pauley and Rupp. I can’t simulate that in practice. What better environment to learn? When you talk about these players playing in Cameron and playing at the Yum! Center and playing at Pauley and playing at Rupp Arena, they’re a part of something that’s bigger than them, to bring things out of them they may not even know exists. That’s what teaching’s all about.”

So he sees it not as a burden, but a gift to Bellarmine, and his players. And his town. He grew up four blocks from where they run the Kentucky Derby, in a neighborhood that has seen better days. Another story. . .

“A lot of people have a swing set in their backyard. I had Churchill Downs. I drove by my house on Labor Day. It’s not the same, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. But I almost went home that day and put my lawn mower back in my car and went and cut the grass.”

He attended Iroquois High School, which also has seen its share of struggles. Another story, being invited to speak to the faculty on a professional development day in September. But so he thought. . .

“It’s the least performing school by the standardized measures in the state of Kentucky. I came in on a Saturday and I mean, I prepared, I’m ready. I came in Sunday and refined everything, I’m ready to go. I ran four miles that morning, I’m ready, I’m dressed, I head out there, I open the door. . . “

He was met not only by the guy who invited him but formed teammates, family members, neighbors, friends he had known his entire life. This was no speech, but a celebration of him, with a big banner: Scotty’s Iroquois. “I had no clue. I cried five times. I had no luck.”

Now in his mid-60s, his mind that day went back to the figures of authority who had meant so much to him. More stories. . .

“My father never saw me do a thing. My mother said to me just before she passed away 13 years ago, `you might get a real job and make something out of yourself.’ I’ve never had a job because a job is a vocation by definition. I’ve had an advocation. What I’m advocating is for young people just like people did for me. After we won the national championship I was walking back to the locker room and I said, `I wonder what my mom is thinking now?’

“The first policeman I ever met in my life, there were no EMTS, there were no defibrillators, no CPR, nothing. They came and picked my dad up in a station wagon and drove him off on a stretcher. I don’t know to this day where they took him. Next time I saw him was in a funeral home. But that was my first interaction ever with a policeman so you can imagine how respectful I am with policemen.”

And he remembers the little people. He has started a Davenport Family Scholarship. Know who for? Student managers. At the announcement he asked for the superintendent of public schools in Louisville to say a few words. “You want to know his background? Student manager for Coach Knight at IU.”

Yes, Lawrence and Evelyn Davenport’s boy has done all right, and his hometown has loved him for it. Take this past spring, when Bellarmine defeated Jacksonville in Freedom Hall to win the Atlantic Sun conference tournament. The fans were in heaven. Their little Division II program had grown up in a big hurry. Davenport remembers at a post-game celebration when an elderly man asked him to sign a ball. Another story. . .

“He hands me a Sharpie and I look down and it’s a ball with the ASUN logo. He took it right off the rack and left Freedom Hall.”

Two years in Division I, and the Knights had a league title. But not the big prize that usually goes with it. Not an NCAA tournament bid, nor even an NIT spot. The NCAA has a four-year waiting rule for schools transitioning into Division I and that slammed the door.

Davenport could go for hours.

“It’s totally consumed my life since March 8. The reason is because I look at those players in the eye every day. If there was 3 1/2 minutes and we were down four and they quit on me, can you imagine what that locker room would be like? So how could I quit on them?

“What’s ironic is on May 14, two months later, we had five players earn eight college degrees — five bachelor’s, two master’s in business administration and a master’s in education. And they’re going to tell my guys they can’t play, and they won’t explain to me why their rule is what it is?

“When all the changes came in college sports, they got very optimistic (about the four-year rule being reversed). They’re going to get a change, too — and they didn’t. Everything else changed. The portal, NIL, everything changed. I miss the point how we made every change but this one. There’s a kid in this community who went to four high schools, then he went to Auburn, Tennessee and Washington State. He’s never missed a possession. What do you think my kids think?

“We watched selection Sunday together because I wanted to be supportive of my players, because you knew what was going through their minds. It wasn’t just that, we had been led to believe we could play in the NIT on the day we transitioned. We ran up the ramp at Freedom Hall that night and thought we were in the NIT and the next day we found out we were not.”

Andy Beshear, the Kentucky governor, wrote letters on Bellarmine’s behalf, and it wasn’t just a politician trying to score points with his constituents. His sons went to Bellarmine’s summer basketball camp. When that didn’t work, he had the team to the governor’s mansion to honor his feat.

Davenport, once the father-less kid from Louisville, was enchanted. But there was also work to do last spring; a schedule to make for the 2022-23 season. And he had an idea.

Cameron Indoor Stadium. . . Pauley Pavilion. . . Rupp Arena. All in one November swoop. Think of the stories he’d have to tell. Always room for more of those in Scotty Davenport’s world.

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