A small slab of concrete next to a little house with an old basketball hoop attached to the side. It wasn’t exactly a gym, but it was enough to make Columbia College women’s basketball coach Mike Davis fall in love with the sport.
“His mom always told me it didn’t matter; rain, sleet, or snow, he’d get out there,” Cindy Davis, his wife, said. “If it snowed, he wouldn’t shovel her sidewalk off, but he’d go out there, shovel the court, cut the fingers off his gloves and shoot baskets in the middle of winter. He’s always had a true love for the game.”
After restarting the women’s basketball program at Columbia College in 2001, Davis has amassed a record of 108-27. He was named American Midwest Conference Coach of the Year each of the past three seasons.
“He’s very proud of having started this program,” Cindy Davis said. “He’s not only proud that (the players) have been good athletes, but he’s proud that they’ve been good citizens and good students.”
In just the past three seasons at Columbia College, Davis has coached four All-American Scholar Athletes, three honorable mention All-Americans and one second-team All-American.
“When you sell very good players to come to an NAIA school, they come because of the relationships you build with them,” Davis said.
Davis learned the importance of relationships early, as a child in rural mid-Missouri.
From Cattle to Cougars
He grew up in New Franklin on a cattle ranch. He said he spent a lot of time riding horses and working cattle.
The youngest of four children, he was exposed to competition at an early age just having to keep up with siblings.
“It had a great impact on my competitiveness,” Davis said. “I loved all sports and basketball was my favorite.”
Cindy Davis said much of Mike’s coaching philosophy comes from his upbringing, especially his belief in doing only a few things and doing them well.
“I think he believes in doing things simply as far as his coaching style,” she said.
From the concrete court on the ranch, Davis went on to play high school and junior college basketball. He finished his education at Central Methodist University, after transferring from Moberly Community College.
He coached the women’s basketball team at Central Methodist until 1999, when he took his team to the NAIA Final Four.
Columbia College reinstated women’s basketball on July 6, 2000. Davis was hired on Aug. 2, 2000.
He spent the next year signing recruits.
“I’m recruiting five starters,” Mike Davis said to Tiffany Foote, Lisa Kowalewski and Mindy Mitchem in 2000.
All three liked the idea, liked the coach and came to Columbia College to start a new women’s basketball program.
In its first year, the team went 30-5 and finished No. 20 in the NAIA. It was an amazing start for the new program and the new coach.
That success was repeated in 2002 and 2003, when the Cougars advanced to the NAIA Tournament Sweet Sixteen.
Now, Kowalewski, Foote and Mitchem are playing their last season as Cougars.
“Our three seniors that have been here for four years,” Davis said. “They made a great leap of faith. They have a special place in my heart.”
All three are still starters. Mitchem leads the AMC in blocks. Foote and Kowalewski were both Honorable Mention All-Americans in 2003.
Kowalewski is Columbia College’s all-time leading scorer.
This could be the year the Cougars make a run in the national tournament.
“We’ve talked about a lot of things over the years since they’ve been here,” Davis said. “This is their time to get it done. I think they realize that. If you’re going to peak, this is the time to do it.”
Davis said that the most important part of his success has been the athletes themselves.
“You teach them all you can, but when they’re out on the court, they have to go do it,” Davis said. “As a coach, it’s not what play you run, it’s that they know how to play.”
A Family Affair
Knowing how to play isn’t something Davis just teaches his players.
The Davis family includes Whitney, 17, and Wes, 11. Whitney is a junior at Boonville High School and a starter on the basketball team.
Wes can often be found hanging around Cougar practices, but he says his favorite sport in baseball.
“Wes is up here a lot. He and my daughter both love the gym,” Davis said.
The whole family loves the gym.
“It’s just 24/7, all the time,” Cindy Davis said. “We’re all just really avid sports fans.”
“There are some nights when I go home and I don’t want to watch a basketball game,” Mike Davis said. “But (Cindy) will have a college game on TV.”
The family gets ample opportunity to share its passion for athletics.
Cindy Davis said her husband is able to keep the balance between family and team because the entire family is “invested” in the Cougars.
“It’s important to me and our kids how his team does,” Cindy Davis said. “I’m excited to go to his games and get to know the players, and so are the kids.”
For his part, Davis spends most of his non-coaching nights at sporting events for Whitney and Wes.
“He hasn’t missed many games really, with his schedule,” Cindy Davis said. “He makes that extra effort too. He could be out recruiting on a night, but instead he’ll spend time with his family.”
Practically every night is game night for someone in the family.
“When basketball is over, it’s like we’ve got all this time on our hands,” Cindy Davis said. “You’ve got to love it to do it as much as we do.”
While athletics can sometimes pull families apart, sport brings this family together.
“We’ve invested a lot into basketball and sports, and it’s been a good thing,” Cindy Davis said. “I don’t think either one of us would want to change anything about that.”
A Loss among the Wins
Davis has invested a great deal into sports, and with every investment comes the risk of loss.
He experienced that in a profound way during his first season as coach at Central Methodist College.
Freshman Darla Pannier, of Cape Girardeau, was a first team NAIA All-American and the second-leading scorer in the nation in the 1988-89 season. She still holds records at Central Methodist for most points in a game (43) and in a season (798).
More importantly, Davis said, she was a good person.
Pannier was on her way to a basketball camp, where she was working as an instructor, when she was killed in car crash. She was 19.
For Davis, it was devastating, especially as a first-year coach.
“Our players had bought into the system,” Davis said. “They had bought into being part of a family.”
Part of that family was gone.
Pannier’s death meant more than the loss of a leading scorer and star athlete.
“That was the toughest thing I’ve had to deal with as a coach,” Davis said.
Despite the pain that came with Pannier’s death, Davis continued to believe in coaching his teams as families.
“When Mike has a value, he’s not going to change it,” Cindy Davis said. “He’s going to ride it out.”
Values and Victories
At the close of the Cougars’ third season without a conference loss at home, Davis’ values seem to be working. Columbia College is 24-5 with two games left in the regular season.
Davis said, “I think people who come to our games and watch our style of play leave here feeling good.”