I had the pleasure of speaking with Butch Davis while writing my book Game of My Life: Miami Hurricanes. It was fall of 2013. Davis was an advisor to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It had been two years since he was dismissed as the head coach of North Carolina. He was even further removed from November 30, 2004, when he resigned as the head coach of the Cleveland Browns. January 29, 2001 – the day he resigned from Miami – was even further in the rear view mirror.
At that time, Miami was in the midst of a 9-win season, and the program seemed to be heading in the right direction under Al Golden. The Canes sat at 6-0 and ranked #7 in the nation. Miami had just moved past the Nevin Shapiro scandal.
As it would be, I wrote my book chapter on Davis, reflecting back on the Canes’ 37-20 triumph over Florida in the 2001 Sugar Bowl, culminating one of the most memorable seasons in Miami history. Although Miami would win the national championship the following season, this win seemed to be the cherry on top of what had been a long, grueling process of bringing the U back to relevance. The Canes felt like college football’s best team of the 2000 season, having beaten the nation’s #1 and #2 teams, along with 6 teams with winning records.
And as we sit here in late October 2015, with Blake James having just fired Golden in the wake of a 58-0 disrobing at the hands of Clemson, Miami remains equally as lost as it was when Dennis Erickson bolted for the NFL following the 1994 season and the storm clouds of the Pell Grant scandal were beginning to form over Coral Gables. Perhaps even more lost, as the memories of Miami’s dominance and glory days have faded over a decade of national irrelevance. Since 2006, Miami has won more than 7 games in a season twice – in 2009 and 2013.
Clearly the Miami football program is at a crossroads, and it could be argued that this coaching hire might be the most important hire in the history of the program. The program needs someone who can win, and win quickly. It needs someone who can recruit, both in South Florida and across the nation. It needs someone who can get the most out of the talent he has. It needs someone who not just wants the job, but appreciates the unique tradition that Miami has built over the past several decades and will love the University of Miami as much as anyone.
There is a man who fits all of these things. His name is Butch Davis.
First, there’s no question that Butch has strong ties to, and emotions for, Miami. He’s already come out and publicly expressed an interest in the job this week. His feelings are no different than when he and I spoke a couple of years ago. He admitted his regret in leaving the program the first time. I fully believe if he could do it over again, he never would have left and Miami would have had its long-term coach, and quite possibly a few more good looks at national titles. Such is life; I’m sure we’ve all wished we could’ve zigged instead of zagged at certain points in our life. I sure as hell do.
The man bleeds orange and green. He wants to come back. I also spoke with him at the University of Miami alumni pregame tailgate before the Canes’ 2013 tilt against USF. He took a picture with every interested fan and stuck around to chat and answer questions.
I know there are people of importance that are strongly influential in this decision – boosters and trustees – that are still irked by him leaving the first time. Just give him the chance to interview, and hear what he has to say. Some may call Butch a salesman, but what he’s selling is proven success.
After all, after Davis finished the 1995 season on a seven-game winning streak, he was blindsided by the NCAA sanctions stemming from the Pell Grant scandal from the early nineties. 31 scholarship reductions from 1996-1999 and a postseason ban. That would have been enough to sink any coach’s hopes of a quick turnaround.
But Davis persevered. Even though the times were tough (see 1997 vs. Florida State). He continued to do what he does, and that’s get people to believe in what he’s doing and building. He went to a little town in Texas and plucked Bubba Franks, a raw athlete still learning to play football. He left as an All-American. He went to Oklahoma and brought Jeremy Shockey to the U. Same for Ed Reed out of Louisiana. While Santana Moss received no major D-1 football scholarships out of Carol City High, Davis saw the speedster’s potential on a football field and convinced him to walk on. After three games, Moss earned a scholarship and became one of the most electric players in school history.
Along the way, while continuing to restock the roster despite the curtailed number of scholarships, he didn’t make excuses. Rather, he won. And he did it by getting his recruits and players to buy in. I spoke with former UM wide receiver Andre King, who noted how Davis was so adept at being able to spin the program in a positive light. And the players responded, eventually upsetting #3 UCLA 49-45 in one of the most memorable wins in Orange Bowl history and serving as a tilting point for a program on the rise.
It’s not surprising that he was able to get his players to buy in, especially after speaking with him. Davis told me that when he was recruiting a player, if he asked Davis about the state of the depth chart, they would stop recruiting the player. He wanted guys who wanted to fight for their position.
And, in later speaking with Jonathan Vilma, Moss, Ken Dorsey, King, and others, I learned just how intense those practices on the Greentree fields were. They were mini-games each week. Every positional battle was a competition. Guys kept track of how many times they "won" against their positional counterpart. The games, by comparison, were often a breeze. It’s from that hard work, from the blood, sweat, and tears shed on that field, where the family atmosphere of the U derives.
That’s what Miami needs. Guys who want to be there, not just because of some fast track to being showcased based on a depth chart and TV schedules. Guys who want to battle each week because they love the competition. They love football. They love the University of Miami.
And I have zero doubt Davis could get top talent to buy in. After talking with him, I’m firmly convinced (to borrow a phrase from David Spade) the guy could sell a ketchup popsicle to a woman in white gloves. Aside from the incredible job Davis did in stocking arguably the most talented college football team in history in 2001, his UNC squads included Bruce Carter, Hakeem Nicks, Robert Quinn, Marvin Austin, Brandon Tate, Greg Little, Da’Norris Searcy, and Quenton Coples. The man can simply bring in talent.
So, what are the alleged downsides?
He left. Big deal. I’m convinced enough that he knows this was the biggest mistake of his professional career. Anyone who realizes this has an appreciation for their second opportunity. I’ve left and returned to the same law firm. I realized leaving to chase the might dollar was a mistake, came back and I’ve never been happier in my professional practice than I am right now. (And speaking of money, Davis would probably accept what Miami could afford to offer.) Hell, the ageless Bill Snyder is proof positive that you can come home again. After replacing Ron Prince in 2009, Snyder’s teams have won 9 or more games 3 times and played in the 2013 Fiesta Bowl.
Speaking of age, Butch Davis at 64 is "too old", allegedly. "The game has passed him by." Funny, three coaches who have their teams in the Top 10 as of this writing – Les Miles, Kirk Ferentz, and Nick Saban, are all north of 60 as well. And Art Briles will join the 60+ club on December 5. Mark Dantonio on March 6. So…. (?)
He won’t stay long. Really? Can anybody say that hot name/up-and-comer like a Justin Fuente or Tom Herman would be a lifer here? Would they use building the program up as their stepping stone to a future vacancy at a major state school like a Texas, Oregon, or Auburn? Unfortunately, the program’s recent history is replete with coaches who have come and gone after 5 years or less. Davis wants to be here. That, at least, goes a long way to having a chance at a coach who will be here for longer than a cup of coffee.
He and UNC parted ways in the midst of a scandal. I’m afraid that the UM administration, following the Nevin Shapiro incident, is hesitant to bring in Davis due to what happened in Chapel Hill. That they have the desire to try to maintain as clean of a ship – and a public appearance – as they possibly can. However, while Davis was dismissed during the ongoing investigation at UNC, he was not to blame for the academic scandal that rocked the men’s sports programs. Former North Carolina governor Jim Martin conducted an independent investigation and found Davis to have been blameless in the matter. Hell, per CBSSports.com, the NCAA’s director of the Committee on Infractions even issued a statement that read: "This is to confirm that former University of North Carolina head football coach Paul "Butch" Davis was not alleged to have been involved in any of the violations of NCAA legislation in the University of North Carolina Case (Case No. M357/Infractions Report No. 360, March 12, 2012)." While some might say Davis should have known what was going on, the NCAA has said, effectively, that he shouldn’t have. Here’s your get-out-of-jail free card, Blake James.
Butch Davis is the right fit for turning around a Miami program that has sunk to lows not experienced since the 1970s. Butch was dealt two bad hands in his last two collegiate stops, yet he turned both programs into contenders. He can recruit South Florida and across the country. And it’s not just that he can recruit; it’s that he can spot exceptional talent. It’s that he can recruit football players who want to compete, that have that dog in them that great players have (as evidenced by Davis’s track record of producing a wealth of NFL talent).
Butch Davis wants a second chance. And Miami football got a second chance after the crippling sanctions in 1995. Thanks to, yes, Butch Davis. He was the biggest reason for the fifth national championship trophy sitting inside the Schwartz Center.
Make Miami great again. Give Butch that second chance. Go Canes.