COLUMBUS, Ohio – Out here on the road with the traveling Tigers of Texas Southern, it can get a little hard keeping the schedule straight.
It’s Thursday, right? If it’s Thursday, this must be Ohio State.Here come the Tigers for morning shoot-around, but before we stop coach Mike Davis for a word, consider Texas Southern’s non-conference schedule.
Thirteen games in 44 days – every last one of them on the road. Ten states, four time zones, from Gonzaga and Washington State and Oregon in the west to Syracuse and Clemson in the east and south, with the likes of Kansas and Ohio State in between. The sea to shining sea tour.
So, um, why?
“It’s a planned thing that I do because in life there’s going to be challenges,” Davis begins. “Your passion and your mindset and your efforts have to be greater than any challenge you’re going to face in life. So I have an opportunity with my basketball team to put them in challenges for 13 games.”
And he’s not kidding. Besides the heavyweight teams on the schedule, one after another after another, there are quirks in the itinerary to help the travel budget. The 4 a.m. bus to the airport for the Gonzaga game. Flying into Cincinnati, two hours away, for this Ohio State visit.
All part of the plan. Davis again:
“I feel like that builds character, and that develops great habits of being able to recover mentally. The worst thing that’s going to happen is you’re going to lose a basketball game. Once you walk out of these doors, there’s going to be sickness, there’s going to be death, there’s going to be losing your job, divorce, all kind of situations you’re going to be challenged with.
“I’m giving my team the opportunity to face those challenges to prepare them for life, and also face these challenges so it prepares us for our conference. We’re never going to face teams in the SWAC that are as good as these teams. The only way you can get better is through struggle. You have to embrace the struggle, understand it, and always look to the solution.”
Fifteen years ago, Davis coached Indiana to the national championship game. His universe is a tad different now. But he still keeps showing up in March.
In his first five seasons at Texas Southern, the Tigers have earned the SWAC spot in the NCAA Tournament three times. He has produced the conference player of the year all five seasons – not to mention 17 graduates. His teams have seen a good slice of the country, and played in arenas many dream about.
You’re thinking about all those appearance payouts, too, right? Davis always knows that's coming.
“We’re not doing it for the money. All the money we make comes back to basketball. It doesn’t go to softball or track or volleyball, like people think.”
So he sees it all as win-win, and so do his players.
“It gives people a chance to show what they can do. Most people feel like they can play at that level, anyway,” graduate student and guard Donte Clark says. “It teaches you how to play the right way. You’ve got to be coachable to play in these games. If you’re playing street ball, you’re not going to have a chance to beat Ohio State or Kansas.”
See the man in street clothes sitting at the scorer's table, doing paperwork as the shoot-around begins? He can tell us all about the rigors of Texas Southern’s schedule. That’s Timothy Waller, director of operations for basketball, and the guy who has to make all the travel arrangements.
“The challenge is keeping all the details straight for various trips. It’s making sure we don’t confuse the catering in Syracuse with the catering in Kansas,” he says. “It’s an adventure.”
Such as when Hurricane Harvey forced as shift in the academic schedule, meaning final exams will be a week later, just when the Tigers are back on the road. “That was a terrible moment when we realized it, but there’s nothing anybody could do about it. Those are all TV games and TV’s not changing,” Waller says. So extra academic personnel will be making that trip with the Tigers to make sure everything gets done.
Or the call he got just the other day from Southwest, cancelling the team’s return trip to its Houston campus from Clemson. Good luck, finding 23 last-minute seats on Thanksgiving weekend. So the Tigers will be taking different flights, arriving home at different times and different airports.
“My boss doesn’t know about that yet,” Waller says. “But he will soon.”
So Waller requires patience, persistence, and an understanding wife in Camille, who is working in Puerto Rico at the moment with FEMA. And he tries not to think of how much easier it would be at the blueblood places, with their charter flights waiting conveniently on the tarmac.
“That’s a different way to live. Do you wish you could afford to do that? Absolutely. That’d be great, but that’s not us.”
He sees the benefit of his work, too.
“What’s different about us than other programs is the money gets funneled right back into the men’s basketball budget. You could walk in our locker room and Kentucky or North Carolina or Kansas wouldn’t blink. We’ve really upgraded the experience for our guys. The money allows us to do that.”
The practice continues, and Waller gets back to work. There’s the Michigan swing through Oakland and Toledo to prepare for, and after that, an Oregon-Baylor-Wyoming-TCU trek. Game 13 is BYU, out and back. “I can do that with my eyes closed,’’ Waller says.
P.S. Later that night, Texas Southern cut Ohio State’s lead to two in the second half before losing 82-64. The Tigers are not out here to be easy road kill. They took Washington State to overtime, and played Syracuse to 13. That left them 0-4, but who’s obsessed about the record?
Not Davis. “We could be 10-3 or 9-4 in non-conference, but what do they get out of it? If it was a blueprint I was doing and it was failing, I wouldn’t do it. But I’ve thought this out.”
Still, Jan. 1 will have to feel awfully good. Jan. 1? The Tigers open SWAC play against Southern – finally, their first home game of the season.
“That’ll be the best feeling,” Clark says. “We might score a hundred.”