Multiple Teams · Sam Davis Receives Berliner Award

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To celebrate his recent retirement from 40-plus years of teaching, Sam Davis bought a camper. He and his wife, Marty, plan to spend July guiding their two eldest grandchildren on a tour of national parks, the Rocky Mountains and West Coast scenery.

The trip could well represent the long and winding road Davis took to become one of the most successful and respected basketball coaches in central Ohio.

In recognition of his longtime and significant contributions to high school athletics, Davis, 64, has been selected as the winner of the Lou Berliner Memorial Award. The award is presented annually in conjunction with the Dispatch Scholar-Athlete program. Berliner covered high school and amateur sports at the newspaper for 44 years before his death in 1984.

Davis has compiled a career coaching record of 513-308 at Watterson, Hartley, Gahanna and, for the past 18 seasons, New Albany. Although that record might suggest otherwise, nothing ever came easily for him.

Football was his true love. Before his junior season at Watterson in 1969, Davis skipped some two-a-day practices to work a summer job in a warehouse unloading trailers. Coach Ron Shay disciplined Davis by demoting him to the JV. The Eagles went 9-0 and were voted state champions.

“It was a life lesson, and a valuable one,” Davis said. “Ron was absolutely right in making that decision. As a coach now, I would hand out the same penalty or maybe worse to a player who thought he was bigger than the team.”

An undersized but tough tight end/defensive end, Davis made second-team all-Ohio his senior season. He had planned to play at Marshall shortly after a tragic plane crash in November 1970 decimated the team, but mediocre grades kept him from landing a scholarship. He went back to work in the warehouse full time, content to make a career of it. He was offered a job as a foreman.

“Watterson’s principal, John Durant, came to me and told me I was wasting my potential and told me if I got my butt in school, he promised that he would let me work with the freshman team when I graduated,” Davis said. “I enrolled at Ohio State during the winter, and the rest is history.”

While Davis was at Ohio State, he became a volunteer basketball coach at Holy Name School in the University District, which Davis had attended through eighth grade.

“We didn’t even have a gym,” Davis recalled. “We used trash cans as baskets in the basement of the school. I remember we lost once 44-0. You’d think that would have worn on me, but that’s how I got the coaching bug. I didn’t know much about basketball, and I yearned to learn more.”

He spent two years coaching basketball and softball at Rosemont, an all-girls Catholic residential education center.

As promised by Durant, in 1978 he was given a position teaching and coaching JV football at Watterson.

“One day, John Durant called me into the office and said, ‘Sam, I can get you an extra stipend if you become our girls basketball coach.’ I told him I didn’t know beans about basketball, but he encouraged me to just try it for a couple years.”

Davis shared a study hall with his Watterson classmate, Mike Winters, who was the assistant boys coach under Frank Truitt. The two spent hours brainstorming.

“Mike was a Bob Knight disciple, and he taught me all the X’s and O’s and the importance of defense, a motion offense and spreading the ball around,” Davis said. “Frank also shared a wealth of knowledge and how to treat people.”

Winters, who succeeded Truitt as coach at Watterson and is the longtime principal at Hartley, insisted that Davis’ ambition and work ethic were evident even in the early years.

“He was very innovative and threw a lot of ideas out there,” Winters said. “We talked as much about how to treat kids as we did basketball. He cares about kids way more than he cares about the score. I had no doubt that he would succeed.”

In Davis’ second year at the helm, Watterson made the state semifinals. The Eagles returned in 1984 and were runners-up in 1987. In eight seasons, Davis guided Watterson to a 137-35 record.

“The way Sam handled us was special,” said Joanie O’Brien, who played on the 1981 team along with future Ohio State player Joni Mazzola.

“Sometimes people just come around at the right time in your life, and for me that was Sam,” O’Brien said. “He made me love to play the game. He was feisty and competitive, and everyone fed on his personality. He’s been a great influence on me.”

O’Brien went on to star at Penn State and was coach at the University of Massachusetts for 11 seasons.

“We were good in spite of me,” Davis joked. “We had so much talent, those girls made my job easy. That was a special, special group.”

During this time, Davis continued to coach football, except for one year when he was coaxed to coach Watterson’s cross country teams. The girls were state runners-up.

Davis stepped down to become an Otterbein men’s basketball assistant under Dick Reynolds for two seasons, but he realized his heart was in teaching and coaching at the high school level.

He spent one year as dean of students at Hartley before becoming the boys basketball coach there, guiding the Hawks to the state semifinals in 1990.

Lured by an opportunity to join the Ohio teachers retirement system, Davis moved on to Gahanna, where he coached from 1991 to ’99. He was a career-based intervention teacher until his retirement this spring.

“We hadn’t been very good until coach Davis got there, but we won our first OCC title ever and got to the district final my senior year,” said 1994 graduate Tony Reid, who went on to play at Bowling Green. “He was a mentor to me on and off the court. My parents loved him. Everybody did. We still chat on the phone a couple or three times a month.”

Davis, however, had mixed results at Gahanna and moved on to New Albany in 2000. During his tenure, the program moved from Division III to Division I, but Davis has continued to thrive.

“New Albany hadn’t enjoyed a lot of success in athletics until the 1990s and 2000s, and when we finally did, it meant a lot to the kids and the community,” Davis said. “The real reason I coach is to create memories. My philosophy is that sports isn’t the most important thing you’ll do in your life, but it is the most important we’ll do together.”

At New Albany, Davis embraced a disciplined, Ivy League style of play emphasizing three-point shooting.

“I can’t make them faster, taller or quicker, but I can make sure they can shoot, play defense and play smarter than our opponents, and sometimes that’s enough,” he said.

Teays Valley athletic director Randy Hageman, who assisted Davis at Hartley and Gahanna, said Davis has been able to adapt to different personnel everywhere he has coached.

“Sam is very intense and disciplined, but has been willing to change his approach based on the personnel he has,” Hageman said. “He has always been a great leader and motivator. The kids respect him because they know he has their best interests at heart. He’s their friend on and off the court.”

Jake Worley, a 2006 New Albany grad, hopes Davis coaches long enough to mentor a child of his.

“Coach Davis is as genuine as they come,” said Worley, who is an analyst in project management for real estate developer Crawford Hoying. “He is stern, but if you trust in him and his ways, you’ll benefit. The biggest thing I took away from my experience with coach Davis is that hard work pays off in the end.”

And it certainly has for Davis, who plans to continue coaching. Davis and Marty, his wife of 43 years, have three children and three grandchildren.

“I married my high school sweetheart, kept the Lord close to my heart, somehow managed to choose the right profession, and I was surrounded by a lot of great people,” he said. “It’s been a great ride.”