Greg Cote

Butch Davis back at ‘home’ as coach, but his FIU debut was a nightmarish welcome back

Central Florida linebacker Pat Jasinski (56) signals a safety against Florida International after running back Alex Gardner was stopped in the end zone by the Central Florida defense during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Thurs., Aug. 31, 2017, in Orlando, Fla.
Central Florida linebacker Pat Jasinski (56) signals a safety against Florida International after running back Alex Gardner was stopped in the end zone by the Central Florida defense during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Thurs., Aug. 31, 2017, in Orlando, Fla. AP

The knots of gold on Butch Davis’ hands were unmistakable Thursday as he ran onto a football field as a head coach for the first time in seven years. He earned one ring for the Miami Hurricanes’ 1987 national championship. The other is a 1993 Dallas Cowboys Super Bowl ring — both won as an assistant coach under Jimmy Johnson.

This is FIU. No championship rings are being fitted. A reminder of what Davis has gotten himself into came fast and hard Thursday evening as his Panthers opened the season with a 61-17 loss at UCF in a campus stadium half-filled.

Still, it’s football. It is what Davis had missed. What he’d begun to think he might never experience again: being in charge of a sideline, feeling that rush.

I asked Butch what his emotions were coming back after six years away.

“I enjoyed it,” he said. “I hate losing. I can’t tell you how much I hate losing. But I really love these kids. There was going to be adversity. But I still think we have a chance to have an excellent season.”

He’d been an ESPN college football analyst before FIU called, having last coached in 2010 with North Carolina. When a coach is six seasons removed, he is no longer quite sure if he has retired from the game or if the game has retired him. When you turn 65 as a former coach, the idea of a comeback starts running away from you. But preparing for TV broadcasts as an analyst reminded Davis of the hole in his life.

Former Miami Hurricanes and Cleveland Browns head coach Butch Davis talks after FIU lost its season opener to UCF

“I’d go to places like Alabama and Nebraska and watch practices to prepare [for telecasts],” he said. “I missed it. I wanted to be out there again, running drills with the kids, having a whistle around my neck.”

Dave Scott, an FIU assistant athletic director, has known Davis since even before Butch was UM’s head coach in 1995-2000. Scott watched prior to Thursday’s game as Davis clapped enthusiastically as he roamed the field.

“This has been refreshing for him,” Scott said.

Refreshing. A late and unexpected new career chapter.

“I’m a young 65,” Davis said. “This is fun.”

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Florida International coach Butch Davis motions to players on the field during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Central Florida, Thurs., Aug. 31, 2017, in Orlando, Fla. John Raoux AP

The fun part may be tested. It was tested Thursday in a make-you-feel-old rout. FIU last had a winning season in 2011. This year, the Panthers were predicted to finish sixth in their seven-team Conference USA division. And rival FAU is fortified by the addition of its own new marquee coach in Lane Kiffin.

It’s good Davis’ trade is rooted in defense because Thursday reminded that that is where FIU’s problems still lie. Last season, the Cats gave up 41 or more points in six of their eight losses, including a 53-14 home loss to UCF. You wanted to see immediate progress for the Panthers; we root for good stories in sports, and Davis’ comeback is one of those.

Don’t give up the idea of eventual progress. But it wasn’t magically evident in the opener. Anything but. FIU’s defense gave up 357 passing yards … in the first half. And around 150 yards in penalties, and an ejection conveyed missing composure.

Davis seems confident, though — and maybe should be, if he has the patience.

Recruiting always was his forte. Two or three strong years of that gets any program the talent and depth to compete.

“Last year, there were something like 450 players from the state of Florida that got Division 1 scholarships,” Davis noted. “We only need to 20 to 25 each year. This is like coming home to me. We can have a good football program here.”

This a special time for the state’s seven top-tier FBS-level football programs in terms of the stature of coaching, and the infusion of Davis and Kiffin is a big part of it.

Suddenly, Miami’s “other” school boasts a coach, in Davis, with a championship résumé, a man who has led the Canes.

FAU boasts a coach, in Kiffin, who has been Alabama’s championship offensive coordinator and head-coached USC, Tennessee and the Raiders.

Florida State, of course, in Jimbo Fisher, has a guy right below Nick Saban and Urban Meyer in terms of national stature.

The Florida Gators faithful are less sold on Jim McElwain, who still must prove he can get UF back to playoff level.

Mark Richt enters Year 2 as the king of Coral Gables, after last season directing UM to its first bowl win in 10 years.

UCF’s second-year coach, Scott Frost, inherited an 0-12 team and lifted it to 6-7 in his first season.

And South Florida, in Tampa, lucked to hire a pedigreed coach in Charlie Strong after abruptly losing Willie Taggert to Oregon.

McElwain is the only one of the state’s big-seven college coaches feeling even the tiniest hint of job pressure.

Butch Davis? He’ll be on his professional honeymoon for awhile, and feeling like a little kid again.

And if it was impossible to discern much positive Thursday, Davis can still move on from his FIU debut feeling happy to be back home.

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