How do Davis’ first 12 games compare to previous UNC coaches?

By R.L. Bynum

Any Carolina fans already questioning Coach Hubert Davis because of a 9–3 start and three losses, two by wide margins to ranked teams, should look at the history of first-year coaches in the program.

There is a learning curve at any school, particularly for a coach with no previous varsity head coaching experience. That’s even more pronounced at a program with UNC’s rich history and high expectations, and speed bumps are to be expected.

Another Carolina coach with no previous head coaching experience went 6–6 and lost by 29 points to Virginia during his first 12 games. You may have heard of him. That was legendary Hall of Fame coach Dean Smith, whose first team finished 8–9 for his only losing season.

Granted, that 1961–62 season was particularly challenging for the 30-year-old Smith with Carolina on probation, an inexperienced roster and a reduced schedule. Two projected starters were ruled academically ineligible before the season.

But it shows that you can’t judge a coach based on his first 12 games. Or on their first season, for that matter.

Smith only faced one ranked team in his first 12 games, No. 6 Duke, while Davis’ team has faced four — No. 6 Purdue, No. 17 Tennessee, No. 24 Michigan and No. 21 Kentucky.

Like Smith, Davis took over a program that had won a national championship five seasons earlier. Unlike Smith, Davis was on that coaching staff or that NCAA title. Smith took over a program that hadn’t had a losing season for seven years while the Tar Heels had a losing season only two years ago.

Davis isn’t dealing with probation but has navigated lots of roster turnover and the dynamics of the transfer portal and one-and-done players, all during a pandemic. Some wonder if all of that contributed to Roy Williams’ decision to retire.

Added to that, Davis has significantly shifted Carolina’s offensive approach for a team that still is trying to find the right chemistry.

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In the 1980–81 season, Mike Krzyzewski was 8–4 in the first 12 games of his record-breaking coaching career at Duke, went 17–13 for the season and finished fifth in the ACC. It has worked out fairly well since then for the Blue Devils.

All of this isn’t to suggest that Davis’ career will play out like the careers of Smith, Williams or Krzyzewski or to compare them to him. It’s to put the first 12 games of his career as Carolina’s head coach in perspective.

How have first-year Carolina coaches have done in Williams’ lifetime?

Ben Carnevale’s first team in 1944–45 went 9–3 with a 37-point loss to Norfolk N.A.A. in a 22–6 season. His second team made the NCAA final and he is in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame along with Smith, Williams and Frank McGuire.

The next coach, Tom Scott, went 8–4 to start the 1946–47 season and finished 19–8.

Starting with that 1944–45 season, Davis is the fourth UNC coach with no previous varsity head coaching experience, along with Carnevale, Smith and Bill Guthridge.

During that span, Guthridge — who took over a team that included Vince Carter and Antawn Jamison and made the Final Four the previous season — easily has the best start. He went 12–0 in 1997–98, finished 34–4 and made the Final Four after the Tar Heels finished second in the ACC.

That team only faced two ranked teams in the first 12 games.

The only other coaches in program history to win their first 12 games were Norman Shepard (1923–24) and Bill Lange (1939–40).

McGuire (1952–53, faced no ranked teams), Matt Doherty (2000–01, faced one ranked team) and Williams (2003–04, faced four ranked teams) all went 10–2 in their first 12 games.

Doherty could identify somewhat with Davis’ 29-point loss to Kentucky in Las Vegas considering that one of the losses by his first UNC team in the first 12 games was a 17-point setback at home against an unranked Wildcats team.

Davis follows Smith and Guthridge as going from being an assistant coach to becoming a head coach.

First 12 games for UNC coaches in Williams’ lifetime

1944–45: Ben Carnevale, 9–3, worst loss 59–22 vs. Norfolk N.A.A; finished 22–6, 4th in Southern Conference; first head-coaching job
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1946–47: Tom Scott, 8-4, worst loss 60–54 vs DePaul; finished 19–8, 2nd in Southern Conference; third head-coaching job
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1952–53: Frank McGuire, 10–2, worst loss 85–73 against Holy Cross; finished 17–10, 8th in Southern Conference; second head-coaching job
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1961–62: Dean Smith, 6–6, worst loss 100–71 to Virginia in Greensboro; finished 8–9, 4th in ACC; first head-coaching job
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1997–98: Bill Guthridge, 12–0; finished 34–4, 2nd in ACC, went to Final Four; first head-coaching job
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2000–01: Matt Doherty, 10–2, worst loss 93–76 at home vs. Kentucky; finished 26–7, tied for first in ACC; second head-coaching job
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2003–04: Roy Williams, 10–2, two five-point losses; finished 19–11, fifth in the ACC; second head-coaching job
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2021–22: Hubert Davis, 9–3, worst loss 98–69 to No. 21 Kentucky; first head-coaching job
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Photo via @UNC_Basketball

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