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Santa's Helper

Davey has coached Santa Clara to some of its greatest basketball moments, and Broncos hope to give him one last NCAA hurrah before he's pushed out at age 64

March 04, 2007|Robyn Norwood | Times Staff Writer

There's a sentimental favorite in the West Coast Conference tournament, and it isn't Gonzaga, the darling of the NCAA tournament but the Bigfoot of the WCC.

It's Santa Clara and Coach Dick Davey, the sweater-wearing gentleman whose 30 seasons at the school are coming to an end after the university administration pushed him into announcing in February that he would retire at the end of the season at age 64.

Davey's 15-year run as head coach -- punctuated by a 1993 first-round NCAA tournament upset of second-seeded Arizona with a team led by a little-known Canadian point guard named Steve Nash -- is winding down.

But two more victories, one in the WCC semifinals today followed by another in the title game Monday, would put the Broncos in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1996, when they pulled another upset, beating Maryland in the first round.

Up and down the West Coast, there are coaches who will be watching the WCC with a keener interest than usual.

"I want him to win and I want him to go to the NCAA tournament," said UCLA Coach Ben Howland, who called Davey "a fantastic coach" and "an institution at Santa Clara."

The pair are fly-fishing buddies who have known each other for 26 years, since Howland was an assistant at UC Santa Barbara and Davey was an assistant at Santa Clara.

It was Davey who told Howland that Santa Barbara needed to recruit a St. Mary's transfer by the name of Brian Shaw.

"He probably saved my job," Howland said. "If it wasn't for him, I might be selling insurance right now."

For Davey, there are more and more moments when it slips into his consciousness that each day could be the end of something -- the last trip, maybe, or the last practice. He said he tries not to dwell on it.

"The word 'last' is a bad word in my way of thinking," he said. "Life goes on."

Few understand that as fully as the Davey family.

Three years ago, Davey's son Mike's wife Kathleen, then 37, collapsed in cardiac arrest while doing pull-ups in the garage.

The oldest of the couple's two daughters, Samantha, then 6, dialed 911. But three years later, Kathleen remains in what is medically known as a minimally conscious state, able to respond to a clap with a blink of her eyes, but little more.

"She was 5-4 and 110 pounds, and she and Mike used to run," Davey said. "If you saw her now, lying in the bed, you'd look at her and say, 'Kathleen, let's go.' She looks fine."

Nothing will ever seem fine again, but the Daveys press on.

"I think it gets a little better with time. It never is going to get completely comfortable," Davey said. "That's the way it is. She was the love of all of our lives."

Since being nudged aside after five years without a winning season -- but midway through a 20-9 season in which the Broncos upset Stanford and ended Gonzaga's 50-game home winning streak -- Davey has taken the philosophical high road.

"I didn't like the timing," he said. "I knew it was the last year on my contract. I wasn't 100% sure what I was going to do or what they were going to do. In the back of my mind, there was a hope that if we had a successful season, that maybe they'd keep me around another year or two."

It has been harder to accept for Mike, a Santa Clara graduate and the basketball coach at Saratoga High.

"It's not mixed. It's all more regret and sadness and kind of the end of an era," Mike said.

"We've had a lot of problems in our family the last few years, and we rally around each other at times like this. We want to defend his legacy and make people know about it. He deflects so much of the good news and takes the blame for other things, and anything good he does goes under the radar."

There is the Broncos' point guard, Brody Angley, whose father has cancer and might not have a year to live. Davey worries about leaving him.

"You kind of feel like you're letting them down," he said.

But most of all, for Mike, there is the way his father responded to their family's crisis.

"When my wife was in the hospital, we had a 20-hour vigil," he said. "I'd stay there late, and he'd be there first thing in the morning. He'd probably get there at 6:30 in the morning, and he'd do an exercise routine with her they had shown us. He did it every day for more than a year.

"And he was the first to meet me at the hospital when it happened. I've seen him cry three times in my life. Someone asked me if he'll cry after the last game. I said, 'That's not him.' He has perspective."

Davey has enough perspective about coaching to know that despite this year's run -- and memorable victories like the upset of UCLA in the Bruins' first game the season after their 1995 NCAA title and an upset of North Carolina the season the Tar Heels won the 2005 title -- going five years without a winning season was a problem.

"Let's face it, we haven't been superstars the last four or five years," he said.

"The Gonzaga Syndrome has affected a lot of coaches in our league, I think. It's no fault of Gonzaga. They've done a great job and should be commended for what they've done. But all the administrators at the other schools would like to be Gonzaga."

Davey soon will have time on his hands. Mark Few, the Gonzaga coach, gave him a nice fly rod, and he and Howland talk about their next fishing trip.

Soon, he might be casting about for a job.

"Maybe Ben will hire me," he said with a laugh.

Or maybe the coach at Saratoga High.

"I'd be very fortunate," Mike said. "I'd have the best high school assistant in America."

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robyn.norwood@latimes.com

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