Butch Davis mentioned Boise State.
He mentioned Houston and Northern Illinois.
Davis, introduced on Tuesday as the fourth head coach in the 15-year history of the FIU football program, sees that as the future of the Panthers, rising from mediocre mid-major status to someday becoming a program that can earn national distinction.
Is it a pipe dream for a program that is currently 3-7 and has had just two winning seasons in its history and none since 2011?
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Perhaps, but Davis professes to truly believe it can happen under his watch.
“If one school can, why not us?” Davis said. “If Northern Illinois, UCF, Houston and Boise … If they can get into a January 1 bowl game, why not us?”
The Panthers are getting a highly decorated coach in Davis, 64, although he hasn’t run a team since he was fired by the University of North Carolina in July 2011.
He first arrived in Miami in 1984, coaching the Hurricanes defensive line under Jimmy Johnson. Davis was on that staff when the Canes won a national title in 1987.
There were many other successes along the way for Davis, including winning two Super Bowls, again under Johnson, this time as defensive coordinator, and bringing back the Canes from probation in 1995 and setting them up for a national title in the year after he left.
FIU athletic director Pete Garcia, who has known Davis for more than two decades, since their days with the Hurricanes, gave his new coach a five-year deal — a package reportedly worth a total of $5 million.
“This is a game-changer not just for FIU football but FIU athletics,” said Garcia, who has said he will retire in 2018. “It’s no different from when Florida State hired Bobby Bowden or when Florida hired Steve Spurrier.”
Davis said he’s confident FIU administrators will give him the operating budget to be the type of bowl team he envisions.
“They’re going to give us the resources, and we’re going to hire the staff,” Davis said. “All I know is that the last time I came here in 1984, you could pull off on any road on I-95, and I swear there’s somebody at that high school who runs a 4.5 [-second 40-yard dash].
“We’re going to get some of those [players]. We just have to draw a fence and keep local kids and make them passionate.”
Getting those top prospects to come to FIU won’t be easy. FIU plays in the shadow of the Hurricanes and cannot, at least right now, compete with the best teams in its second-tier league, Conference USA.
In the past three weeks alone, FIU has been outscored 135-80 by Louisiana Tech, Middle Tennessee and Western Kentucky.
Furthermore, it’s not just the Hurricanes who cast a shadow. It’s all the other programs who come to South Florida to raid talent, starting with Alabama, Ohio State, Florida State, Clemson, Florida, Michigan and many more.
Davis knows he has tons of heavy lifting to do, and he vowed to start watching film on Wednesday to assess what he already has in the program so he can decipher what he needs.
He will simultaneously begin work on assembling a coaching staff and renewing recruiting contacts throughout the state. Interim coach Ron Cooper will finish out this season.
Davis, who left what many would consider a relatively stress-free job as a college football analyst on ESPN2, said he has wanted to get back into coaching for a while.
He said he declined some job offers he did not consider the right fit. He also said he was turned down a couple of times, too, a list that likely includes the Hurricanes job that came open last season and was filled by Mark Richt.
Now, though, he has his chance at FIU, and the Panthers are scheduled to play Miami in 2018 and 2019.
“I can’t tell you how excited I am about this opportunity,” said Davis, who added that he likely won’t attend Saturday’s FIU regular-season finale against Marshall because of everything else on his to-do list. “I am passionate about this opportunity.”
Former Canes center Brett Romberg, who played three years under Davis and is now a college football commentator for beIN Sports, said FIU made a great hire.
“Fortunately for FIU, they got a guy who will change the way the program is looked upon,” Romberg said. “He’s going to rebuild the program, change the mentality and ultimately increase their recruiting capacity.”