Billy Reed: Bellarmine’s upgrade unlikely without one coach’s South End work ethic

Billy Reed: Bellarmine’s upgrade unlikely without one coach’s South End work ethic
Bellarmine basketball coach Scotty Davenport.
Billy Reed (Source: WAVE 3 News)
Billy Reed (Source: WAVE 3 News)

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WAVE) - The South End always has been Louisville’s melting pot, an ethnic mix of blue-collar, working-class people who can’t afford the luxury of dreams. At the neighborhood taverns, the men stare into their cold beers with hard eyes, wondering how they’re going to afford this or that.

Kids born and raised in the South End often have a strike against them from the start. Their parents just don’t have the means to buy them new cars or send them to even the least expensive colleges. The South End is often where bleak merges with hopelessness.

There are exceptions, of course, and one of them on Tuesday sat in the media section at the press conference/pep rally announcing that Bellarmine University had accepted an invitation to join the Atlantic Sun Conference, moving them up to NCAA Division I – “The Show,” as Athletics Director Scott Wiegandt called it – after decades in D-II.

A child of the South End, it was impossible to know what was running through basketball coach Scott Davenport’s mind. Was he remembering the mom who raised him after his dad died at 45? Was he thinking about the South End work ethic that serves him to this day? Was he truly aware that he, more than anybody, had brought Bellarmine to this historic moment?

Probably all that and more – much, much more. He has never forgotten his roots in the South End, which is why he’s always been a sucker for underdogs and overachievers. He can relate to kids no matter what their backgrounds. He relentlessly preaches hope, opportunity and education.

So Davenport sat there, quietly watching and listening as the suits from Bellarmine and the A-Sun sang each other’s praises. It was a day to accentuate the positives, as the 1940s song has it, and not dwell much on the problems and challenges that surely loom ahead.

Many deserved to take a bow, of course. Bellarmine President Susan Donovan had the courage to risk her reputation on the university’s ability to make the move work. Athletics Director Wiegandt hired Davenport and has orchestrated Bellarmine’s improvement with a steady hand.

Still, it was Davenport who put Bellarmine on his back, and by turning the basketball program into a model of success, challenged the entire university to elevate its image and goals, which it did.

Like most kids born into modest – or less – circumstances, Davenport never had much given to him. He made money by delivering The Courier-Journal and doing odd jobs around the neighborhood. Sometimes he would sneak into nearby Churchill Downs to learn about horse racing, a sport he still loves.

Understand, the South End of Davenport's childhood was not without its pleasures. There were Iroquois Park, Bob Colglazier's Ranch House Restaurants, Kiddieland, the Kenwood Drive-In Theater, and the Iroquois Manor shopping center.

But the South Enders were caught between the African-American community to the west and the affluent doctors, lawyers, and business owners to the east. The lines could not be seen, but they were there and they were sharp.

Scotty got his first major break when Mike Pollio, a Bellarmine graduate, added him to a Virginia Commonwealth staff that also included Tubby Smith and Ray Harper, who later coached at Kentucky Wesleyan and Western Kentucky.

He returned to Louisville to take the job at Ballard High School, which he coached to the 1988 state championship thanks mainly to Allan Houston, a future star with Tennessee and the NBA.

In 1996, Davenport joined Coach Denny Crum’s staff at UofL, where DeJuan Wheat, one of his stars at Ballard, was enjoying a superb career. Then, when Rick Pitino replaced Crum in 2000, he kept Davenport on until Davenport took the Bellarmine job on April 29, 2005.

Davenport’s style and philosophy are a little Crum, a little Pitino and a lot of Louisville’s South End. Hard work was at the core of Bellarmine basketball. But so was an emphasis on academics, unselfishness, team play and fundamentals.

The Knights reached the pinnacle in 2011, winning the D-II national title in Springfield, Mass. Every year since, the Knights always have been in the national mix, advancing to more than their share of Elite Eights and Final Fours, stamping Bellarmine as one of the elite programs of D-II.

From the first day to this one, Davenport has made himself and his team available for all sorts of civic and charitable events. He promotes Bellarmine as relentlessly as the late John Asher promoted the Kentucky Derby.

He has friends in every section of a divided city. Few can glide as easily from the South End to the West End to the downtown business community as seamlessly as Davenport. If only more politicians were as trustworthy and concerned with doing the right thing, our society would be much better.

So here he sat at the press conference/pep rally, perhaps thinking he was dreaming. He did not come to Bellarmine with D-I in mind. But he accomplished so much that it inevitably became the next step for a university hungry for more national exposure, all the better to recruit students from different parts of the country.

However the move works out for Bellarmine, and it’s by no means a slam dunk, it always will be a tribute to the will of a South End kid who wanted to do something special with his life.

But no matter how it works out, you can bet you’ll always be able to catch Scotty at Wagner’s Pharmacy or Pat’s Steak House or some other Louisville landmark. It’s just who he is, that’s all.

Contact Billy Reed via email at billyreedcolumns@gmail.com.

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