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By CURT RALLO
Tribune Staff Writer
Indiana basketball coach Mike Davis drove nearly four hours for a speaking engagement at a church in Elkhart a little over a year ago. About 50 people showed up.
Wednesday morning, Davis returned to Elkhart to speak at a community prayer breakfast. This time, more than 1,200 people turned out to hear Davis speak, packing a sweltering North Side Gym.
"When I spoke at the church, I'm pretty sure that most of the people had to be at the church for some other reason, and thought they'd stay to listen to me," Davis joked.
Life is different for Davis after coaching Indiana's Hoosiers to the national championship game last season, a game the Hoosiers lost to Maryland.
On his first visit to Elkhart, he took care of his autograph requests in less than a minute. On Wednesday, Davis spent more than 30 minutes signing autographs.
Davis took over the Hoosiers for the 2000-2001 season, replacing fired Hall of Fame coach Bob Knight. Davis's popularity plummeted on the heels of a loss to Iowa in the Big Ten Tournament championship game, and then a first-round knockout in the NCAA tournament at the hands of Kent State.
Indiana gave Davis the head coaching job on a permanent basis entering this season. The Hoosiers grabbed a share of the Big Ten title and a trip to the Final Four despite key injuries to Jared Jeffries and Tom Coverdale.
Davis shared with the Elkhart audience how his faith kept him strong in the face of self-doubt and severe criticism from Knight supporters. He later told a media gathering of the toll the pressure has taken on him and his family.
"People have no idea of the pressure that it is to be the head coach at Indiana replacing coach Knight," Davis said. "There was a lot of pressure. A lot of stomach medicine. Sometimes you just feel like you're sick and you don't know what is wrong with you. There's a lot of stress.
"It wouldn't have mattered if it was someone else who replaced coach Knight," Davis said. "The criticism would have been there."
Davis said that his faith has helped him mature as a coach, but that criticism is still difficult to deal with.
"It always gets to you," Davis said of the heat he's taken from fans. "It bothers me, but, at the same time, some of it is good. When you hear criticism, you should say, is it good. Sometimes we hear things and we block it out, but you should sit back and think about it.
"Sometimes the media has asked me questions about a game that I didn't like, but when you sit back and think about the question, there's some meaning to it," Davis continued. "No one ever wants to hear anyone say something back about them. They were saying it openly, but now it's like a whisper."
Last March, Davis heard the roar of the crowd as the Hoosiers knocked off No. 1 Duke on the way to a national runner-up finish.
"It was a beautiful sight to see the fans," Davis said. "They were awesome. To be a part of the Final Four ... it was addictive. I want to do it again. I want to be a part of that. There's nothing like the Final Four. You may watch it on television, you may go to a game, but for your team to be in it is unbelievable."
Davis said that he's had a hectic schedule since the Final Four, but he wants to wrap up all of his speaking engagements by August so he can concentrate on the upcoming basketball season.
"Last summer, I had engagements, but nothing at this level," Davis said. "I could do this everyday if I wanted to. Since the Final Four, I've probably had about 10 days off. I want to get everything over with before August, because in August and September, I really don't want to do anything big because this is a very big season for us.
"Not that last year and the year before wasn't, but last year, I had engagements and with recruiting and home visits and practice, it was too distracting for me," Davis said. "I want to be able to focus on the season because us making the national championship game, everybody we play will be after us. It will be no different than Maryland. Everybody will be after them because they want to beat the national champs. It's going to be a tough season for us if we're not prepared."