You can’t learn how to swim with one foot out of the pool. And to hear assistant coach Allen Mogridge tell the reverse of that story, he says Butch Davis is thrilled to be back in the deep end — he’s all in as FIU’s new football coach.
Davis’ credentials are well-known, and they include two Super Bowl titles as an assistant with the Dallas Cowboys, a resurrection of a probation-rocked Miami Hurricanes program and a Cleveland Browns playoff year that is growing more impressive by the day given what has happened since he left.
But Davis is 65 now. It has been six years since he was a head coach, having been dismissed by the North Carolina Tar Heels amid an NCAA investigation into improper benefits and academic misconduct within his program.
Yet when the call came to join Davis’ first staff at FIU, Mogridge did not hesitate.
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“ ‘Coach, I’m in,’ ” said Mogridge, who was a Davis assistant at UNC. “He said, ‘Wait a minute, don’t you have to talk with your wife?’
“I said no. ‘You’re the head coach, right? We’re good. Let’s go put a staff together, and let’s go do something great.’ ”
But will it be great?
That’s the million-dollar question, which just happens to be Davis’ yearly salary at FIU.
The answer to the greatness question depends on who you ask. Optimists point to Davis’ proven ability as a recruiter and program-builder. Pessimists counter that FIU will be Davis’ toughest challenge yet because the Panthers are not even the first program in their own county, lagging far behind the Hurricanes in status, accomplishments and interest.
In fact, apathy has long ruled at FIU, where attendance averaged 16,789 last year, according to the NCAA. For perspective, note that Florida A&M — an FCS program — averaged 19,710.
Davis, when asked if FIU will be his toughest rebuilding effort yet, would not back down from the question.
“Absolutely, it clearly is,” he said. “FIU has a lot of potential in terms of access to athletes [in talent-rich South Florida]. But there is little or no history or tradition.”
Don Soldinger, who worked with Davis at Miami, thinks highly of him. But he pointed out that Florida Atlantic brought in Lane Kiffin and South Florida hired Charlie Strong, both this year. They join other top coaches in the state such as Jimbo Fisher at Florida State, Mark Richt at Miami, Jim McElwain at Florida and Scott Frost at UCF.
“It’s a real competitive state,” Soldinger said. “Butch’s track record is as good as anybody’s around, but it usually takes three or four years to get it where you want it as a program.
“Recruiting is Butch’s strong suit, but it will be tougher at FIU than it was at Miami. … It depends on what his assistants do — it’s not just the head coach.”
Davis, who coached or recruited an incredible total of 26 first-round picks during his six seasons as Miami’s coach from 1995 to 2000, believes he has hired an excellent staff led by Mogridge as assistant head coach/offensive line. Brent Guy is the defensive coordinator, Rich Skrosky runs the offense, and James Vollono directs special teams.
Former players of note on his staff include ex-Canes defensive lineman Kenny Holmes and ex-Gators wide receiver Aubrey Hill, both coaching their old positions. And running backs coach Tim Harris Jr., who played at Booker T. Washington High, was retained from the previous staff in part because of his recruiting connections in the region.
Speaking of local connections, Billy Rolle, coach of reigning state champion Miami Southridge, remembers Davis from the old days, when Rolle was running the Miami Northwestern program.
“Come on, you know about Butch,” Rolle said. “He’s got a name. He’ll be fine.”
Pressed to define “fine,” Rolle was asked if Davis can be great at FIU.
“You can’t do ‘too great’ at FIU,” Rolle said.
Rolle’s limiting-type comment summarizes the general perception about FIU, where the program has had just two winning years since its inaugural season in 2002. Its two most recent head coaches, Mario Cristobal and Ron Turner, were fired.
Turner was dismissed last year after an 0-4 start — en route to a 4-8 season — and athletic director Pete Garcia, who worked with Davis at Miami and in Cleveland, quickly hired Davis as FIU’s new coach.
Davis then assembled a staff, including his son Drew, 24, a former backup quarterback at Ole Miss who joined FIU as a graduate assistant and will work with wide receivers.
Drew, who remembers standing on UM’s Orange Bowl sidelines as a first-grader in the late ’90s, has unique insight into his father. He said that once his dad started working as a college football analyst for ESPN a couple of years ago, he started thinking “in the mind-set” of a coach.
“I knew he would get the itch back,” Drew said. “Everything he was thinking about was, ‘What would I do differently with my next team?’ ”
One regret Butch Davis does have is leaving the Miami job for the Cleveland Browns.
“In retrospect, it may not have been one of my best career decisions,” Davis said.
Davis noted how hard he and his staff had worked to turn things around at Miami, which was under probation for sins committed under a previous staff.
“It was one of the most hated programs in America at one time and to leave right when you are on the cusp [of championships] … I wish it could’ve worked out differently,” said Davis, who had difficult negotiations with Miami administrators at that time regarding buyout language. “I hated leaving the kids.”
The North Carolina era was difficult for other reasons. Davis took over a program that had produced five consecutive non-winning seasons. In his second through fourth seasons at UNC, the Tar Heels finished 8-5 and went to bowl games. But two scandals — even though the NCAA didn’t mention or blame Davis in the allegations of improper benefits provided by agents and also academic fraud — cost him his job.
After that, Davis was essentially blackballed from college football coaching, finding work as a TV analyst.
Davis admits it was tough going on assignment for ESPN and talking to coaches during spring drills or fall Saturdays.
“It was like being on a diet and being surrounded by cheese cake,” Davis said. “You wanted it, but you couldn’t have it.”
Davis has it again now, finally, thanks to his old friend Garcia. Davis is again working those long hours — from August to January, it’s basically 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., seven days a week.
But this is what the job requires, and Davis — according to quarterback Alex McGough — is all about preparing his players for success.
“He’s a player’s coach,” McGough said. “He does it for the kids, for us. We are all bought in, I guarantee you. We love him.”
It’s not just the players who feel connected to Davis. It’s the coaches, too.
“The kind of human being [Davis] is, it’s like your dad talking to you,” Mogridge said. “He hasn’t changed. The positive energy, the ‘find the good in everything …’
“When your old man tells you to do something, you freaking do it because you love him, and that’s your old man. That’s the way I see Coach Davis.”
Paul Hilton “Butch” Davis Jr.
Résumé: After coaching high school football in Oklahoma for five years, Davis’ life changed when Jimmy Johnson hired him as Oklahoma State’s wide receivers and tight ends coach. Davis, hired by Johnson again, won two Super Bowl titles as a Dallas Cowboys assistant. His past four coaching jobs have all been as the head man: with the Miami Hurricanes, Cleveland Browns, North Carolina Tar Heels and FIU.
Highlights: top coaching moments: Besides the two Super Bowl rings, Davis won three Big East titles as Miami’s head coach, earning accolades for his recruiting prowess that set Miami up for a national title in the year after he departed. In addition, he was last Browns head coach to take Cleveland to the playoffs, in 2002.
What keeps him up at night: Coaches tend to worry about everything, but Davis’ top concerns are: injuries to his top playmakers; attendance, which has been notoriously poor at FIU; and recruiting. Davis is an ace recruiter, but relying on the whims of teenagers is enough to make any coach lose shut-eye.