CLEARWATER — Butch Davis has seen everything in 40 years of football coaching, but even he wasn’t quite prepared for the cutting edge of pomp and pageantry that is Bad Bow Mowers Gasparilla Bowl week. Including: lawnmower races. The team from Florida International University won. The head coach watched.
"The lawn mowers I remember are the ones you pushed that have those old blades and clippers on them," Davis said with a laugh. "There’s always something new, I guess."
Davis, 65, isn’t ready to tend to his lawn, or recline on it. Instead, he has manicured new ground in an old haunt, Miami, not far from where he once rebuilt the University of Miami into a national champion, only he left before the champion part.
Davis hasn’t forgotten how to coach. He hasn’t made headlines like Lane Kiffin, who is winning and trolling just up the coast at FAU, but Davis has applied his considerable coaching chops at FIU. The Panthers have won eight games, twice as many as last season, and face Temple in Thursday night’s Bad Boy at Tropicana Field.
It isn’t the big time. FIU (enrollment: 55,000) struggles to fill its 20,000-seat stadium. But Davis feels like a man in full. After some serious drifting after being abruptly fired by North Carolina amid an academic scandal, including a stint as advisor to then Bucs coach Greg Schiano, Davis has found a happy place.
"I’m loving every minute of it," he said after practice Monday as Calvary Christian High. "It has been one of the most enjoyable seasons I’ve ever had in coaching. I’ve missed being around the kids."
"Coach Davis has made a world of difference for us," said FIU center Shane McGough, who played for Gaither High and who’ll tonight snap the ball to his brother, Panthers quarterback Alex McGough.
"He came in here after a down year and instilled the confidence that we’re here for a reason," said Alex McGough, who leads FIU’s prolific offense. "He built us up."
Davis has made a career of building. When he left Miami to work for Jimmy Johnson on the Dallas Cowboys, Dallas went 1-15 that first season. The Cowboys plowed on. Davis owns two Super Bowl rings.
When Davis returned to Miami, the school was in the NCAA dumpster. Davis restored dignity and propriety, then recruited and molded a powerhouse. He assembled a bevy of future No. 1 NFL draft picks on one of the greatest teams in history, the 2001 national champion Hurricanes, even if he left them to Larry Coker.
Davis was in the NFL by then, coaching the Cleveland Browns. He remains the last head coach to take Cleveland to the playoffs. Davis was fired in 2004. The Browns improved to 0-14 last Sunday. Davis still regrets leaving Miami.
"Career wise, that was probably one of the worst decisions I ever made," he said. "You spend six years building that program up, beating Florida in the Sugar Bowl, having a loaded locker room. There was a chance for you to win three or four national championships."
Davis began to build something at North Carolina after he became coach in 2006. Winning was up in Chapel Hill, recruiting was up, attendance was up. Then it crashed. Davis was fired in 2011 during an investigation into alleged improper benefits and academic misconduct. Davis was never mentioned in the subsequent NCAA inquiry, but he was radioactive.
"It cost me a lot of jobs," he said. "I was on the threshold twice of getting elite Power 5 jobs, but it didn’t happen."
One lifeline came from Schiano, who had been Davis’ defensive coordinator at Miami. We still have no clue what Davis did with the Bucs, but Davis remains grateful. He was appalled when Schiano was recently named, then un-named, Tennessee coach.
"I lived what Greg went through, where it completely destroyed your reputation, 35 years of what you put your heart and soul into," Davis said.
Davis became an ESPN analyst. He spent time on college campuses, meeting with coaches.
"It made me want to get a whistle and get back in the huddle," Davis said.
FIU athletic director Pete Garcia made the offer. Garcia worked with Davis at Miami and followed him to the Browns as director of football operations.
"I knew I was getting the best football coach in America," Garcia said. "He’s still a grinder. I get at least two or three phone calls a week from him before six in the morning, and it’s always he wants something more for the kids."
At the urging of Davis, who earns $1 million annually, FIU made improvements to its practice facilities and stadium, added a team nutritionist and built a players lounge.
"I’m going to push the envelope with our administration and I’m going to continue to push the envelope," Davis said. "You’ve got to make it big time.
"The thing I do believe, and I’ve told these kids, is we want to be 13-0 at one point and compete for and win our conference championship on a yearly basis.
"We want to be a team that competes in a Jan. 1 bowl game. If Northern Illinois and UCF can do it, if Kansas State and TCU can change the culture of their programs, why not us?"
Davis insists he is happy at FIU, though he was rumored to have been interested in the job at Arkansas, his alma mater. Davis smiled as he thought of one of his first jobs, at a high school in his native Oklahoma.
"I taught five classes. I was the football coach. I was the boys and girls junior varsity basketball coach. I was the head boys and girls track coach, the girls golf coach and I drove the school bus. They paid me $25 a month to drive the school bus. I thought I had the best job in America."
You don’t forget those days.
You don’t forget how to coach.
It’s like riding a bicycle. Or a lawnmower.
Contact Martin Fennelly at [email protected] or (813) 731-8029.
Who: Florida International (8-4) vs. Temple (6-6)
Where/when: Tropicana Field, Thursday, 8 p.m.