Greg Cote

UM and FAU may be getting the attention. But bowl-bound FIU is quietly holding its own

First-year FIU coach Butch Davis has the Panthers on the brink of their first bowl game since 2011.
First-year FIU coach Butch Davis has the Panthers on the brink of their first bowl game since 2011. FOR THE MIAMI HERALD

They are The Three Kings. Two of them have gotten plenty of attention, due credit.

Mark Richt, you might have heard, has the Miami Hurricanes playing Clemson on Saturday night in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game in Charlotte, North Carolina. He is the prince of Coral Gables and the ACC Coach of the Year. His Canes are one victory from being in the four-team College Football Playoff.

Lane Kiffin has the FAU Owls hosting North Texas as the favorite Saturday in the Conference USA championship game. The sport’s lightning-rod coach has made a cannonball splash at the Boca Raton school — on the field and off — with his attention-getting Tweets needling his former Alabama boss Nick Saban.

The third king works in the comparative shadows, quietly, but Butch Davis with the FIU Panthers has done his share as his team ends its regular season Saturday against visiting Massachusetts.

The three coaches have made this the most successful combined season in the 14 years since FIU and FAU joined Miami to give South Florida three Football Bowl Subdivision-level teams, what we used to call Division 1. Celebrate the season and joy to the world! The Canes (10-1), Owls (9-3) and Panthers (7-4) are a combined 26-8 and, for the first time, all three will play in a bowl game.

Richt in his second season has The U nationally relevant again and as close to “back” as the Canes have been since the glory days began ebbing after the last national title in 2001. Kiffin and Davis, in their first seasons, instantly elevated both programs with their hiring and have followed through with results. This will be FIU’s first bowl game since 2011 and FAU’s first since 2008. Both teams might yet set school records for most victories in a season.

But while the national attention has eagerly embraced Richt and while Kiffin has banged cymbals to go get it, Davis has done his thing under the radar, and he’s loving it. Yes, his 5,000 Twitter followers trail Kiffin by only about 360,000. So what.

Butch Davis is a man reborn.

Davis, familiar of course as a former Miami Hurricanes head coach from 1995 to 2000 and assistant from 1984 to 1988, just turned 66. After six years from coaching he got back into it at a time in life when most folks are thinking of retirement — of winding down, not gearing back up. He left the no-stress ease of an ESPN analyst’s job to do what he loves one last time.

He has a national championship ring and a Super Bowl ring (with the Cowboys in between UM stints), but agreed to take on FIU, in the impossibly deep shadow of the crosstown Hurricanes, at a school where fan and student support is, shall we say, modest. That’s how much he missed coaching.

“Hopefully maybe once we’re having consistent success it will jump-start that [support],” Davis told us this week. “But I didn’t get back into it for the fans. I like the kids, the coaching. I don’t know that I’ve coached many teams that have tried as hard and gotten as much out of themselves as this team. It’s been fun. I really, truly like being around kids. I liked it as a high school coach. You get a chance to make a difference in kids’ lives. There’s almost absolutely nothing that feels that good.”

The Miami Hurricanes, in a Power 5 conference, playing at the sport’s highest level, measure success by national championships and players who make it to the NFL.

At FIU and FAU, down a tier, hardly any players will make the move from Saturdays to Sundays. This will be the end of the football line.

I ask Davis what has been a memory from this season that sticks. He casts back to Nov. 4. It was the night of Miami’s huge win over Virginia Tech. FIU, a home underdog to Texas-San Antonio, had a goal-line stand to preserve a 14-7 win, its defense stopping four straight running plays from inside the 2. But it was afterward what stuck with Davis.

“The joy in the locker room. Watching kids cheering and happy and some of ’em crying,” he said. “Kids who’ve been beaten down and told they’re no good and can’t win. And now, for the first time maybe, they’re having the most fun they’ve ever had. Seeing that, it does something for your heart.”

While the Dolphins have disappointed, the Hurricanes, FIU and FAU football seasons have had that power in South Florida this year.

They have done something for the heart.

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