Linda Robertson

Butch is Back: Former UM coach Davis accepts challenge across town at FIU

Butch Davis is named head coach of FIU Football at FIU Stadium on Tues., Nov. 15, 2016
Butch Davis is named head coach of FIU Football at FIU Stadium on Tues., Nov. 15, 2016

If you’re feeling the least bit sorry for Butch Davis, don’t.

Davis is wildly happy about accepting the job of head football coach at Florida International University. If you listen to his reasons for deciding to tilt at the FIU windmill, you will be wildly happy for him and his players.

Davis was born to coach. He gets another shot as one of sports’ premier turnaround artists at FIU, a nascent program 15 years ago but 1-11 as recently as 2013 and 3-7 now under interim coach Ron Cooper. FIU, warned about revocation of its FBS status because of low game attendance, has had only two winning seasons, and its three previous coaches were fired.

Davis’ career did not come full circle in Miami the way he and his fans hoped. He was third-down-and-goal close to replacing Al Golden at the University of Miami until Mark Richt and Georgia “parted ways” and Richt became a cleaner choice for his alma mater last year. Davis, blackballed by many schools after the sports agent and academic cheating scandals at North Carolina cost him his job in Chapel Hill, is reunited with old right-hand man Pete Garcia, the athletic director who put FIU back on the ESPN headline scroll Tuesday with another ambitious hire.

What might seem an awkward comedown for Davis is actually a cool adventure. He’s about eight miles of strip malls from the UM campus, out on the Tamiami Trail instead of in Coral Gables. But at FIU he gets a fresh start. He can woo some recruits away from UM and other big-name programs, inject life into a nonexistent cross-town rivalry and do what he does best: impact young lives.

“I like coaching, and I like kids,” said Davis, who got emotional as he talked about the outpouring of encouragement and gratitude he received from former players over the past 24 hours. “I’ve recruited kids who ate bean and bacon soup out of a can and didn’t even have enough electricity to heat that soup, and they grow up to lead marvelous lives as teachers and doctors. To hear from them now — one became a mayor — that tipped the scales when I weighed any doubts about this job or any negatives about jobs I didn’t get.”

Think of those grainy, blotchy old film clips of man’s first attempts at flight in fragile winged contraptions that collapsed after a few yards if they got off the ground at all.

FIU went airborne briefly under Mario Cristobal with two winning seasons. If Davis can’t show FIU how to fly, nobody can. It’s time to find out whether this program, which is a huge drain on the university’s budget, deserves to exist. It’s time to find out whether there’s room in this city for two FBS-level teams. It’s time to find out whether that stadium can be filled.

Don’t forget that UM was a laughingstock when Davis took over. Across the nation, there were calls for the abolishment of UM football because of its “thug” image and relegation to the NCAA doghouse. Davis took a program stripped of 31 scholarships and built the most talented and formidable college team in history, one that produced a national title in 2001 and 17 first-round NFL draft picks.

He and Jimmy Johnson turned things around at Oklahoma State. They turned the 1-15 Dallas Cowboys into Super Bowl winners. He coached the Cleveland Browns to the playoffs — and they haven’t been back since he left. At North Carolina, he made a football program in disarray matter in the heart of basketball territory.

Davis, 64, oozed energy as he talked about the abundance of talent in South Florida and how he could drive to Deerfield Beach High or Booker T. Washington High tomorrow. He wore a Super Bowl ring and a gold-and-blue tie.

“There’s only one Notre Dame, but everyone else has to start somewhere,” he said. “Look at how Western Michigan has become the hottest non-Power Five team in the country. Coach P.J. Fleck is electric — and he was 1-11 in his first year.”

Garcia isn’t worried that Davis will use FIU as a steppingstone.

“If Butch hadn’t concluded he had sufficient resources to take FIU to the top 25, he would not have accepted the job,” Garcia said. “He loves exactly this sort of challenge. Everyone at FIU is going to have to step up their game because Butch is very demanding. He’s going to give them a reason to be talking by the water cooler on Monday morning. I wouldn’t even attempt to bring him here unless I believed this could be a high-caliber program. I wouldn’t do that to someone I consider to be a brother.”

Like Howard Schnellenberger, who had the audacity to predict a UM dynasty, Davis’ career trajectory has been unconventional. But both are men who understand their won-loss record will not be written on their gravestones. They refuse to look back with regret or bitterness. That makes them either egomaniacs or ego-less, but also free to dream.

“Leaving UM was the biggest mistake I ever made when I could have stayed and been a 20-year coach,” Davis said. “But the best thing about coaching is there’s always another play, another game. You have to turn the page and go forward.”

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