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DAVIS HAPPILY GROWING INTO NEW ROLE

The North Carolina coach is getting players and fans pumped up.

For North Carolina coach Butch Davis, the telltale, ominous sign is all but gone.

After losing all of his reddish-brown hair when he underwent chemotherapy for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, his locks are on the comeback, albeit a bit more gray-brown and a bit kinkier.

"I'm starting to look a little bit like a Weimaraner," he said, beaming and laughing, during the ACC's annual football media meetings Monday afternoon. "It's a little bit strange."

In all seriousness, Davis said he's doing just fine.

Thank you very much for asking.

"The treatments are over," he said. "I just had a checkup (last week), and all of the checkups I've had the last five months or so have all been positive. Right now, the doctor is very optimistic. I think we've turned the corner on this deal."

And if he can do that against cancer, spotted at a routine dental exam, then surely he can help a football program mired in mediocrity since Mack Brown left for Texas in 1997 turn a corner.

The signs are everywhere.

First, he and his assistants, many of whom weren't in place until January, wooed a consensus top-20 recruiting class, led by five-star defensive lineman Marvin Austin, a player seemingly headed for Florida State.

And the buzz about Davis has spread to the fans. UNC expects to sell about 36,000 season tickets (a 15 percent increase), and the school is heating up efforts for a massive $100-million stadium renovation.

"People have been so excited, and when he was able to get some outstanding recruits, it was just lights-out," UNC athletic director Dick Baddour said. "We believe that he can take this football program to a level where it really hasn't been. Everything he has done since he's been here points in that direction."

"With Butch Davis," FSU coach Bobby Bowden said simply, "I think they got as good as you can get."

UNC wouldn't have gotten Davis, 55, had he not viewed UNC as a "sleeping giant" capable of winning in football as it does in virtually all other sports.

Heck, during his first meeting with his players, he talked about a national championship.

"It's part of the vision," he said, wearing a world championship ring he earned as defensive coordinator for the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl XXVIII. "You want to talk about winning. You want to talk about goals. It gives the players a (reference) point. This is what we hope to achieve and aspire to."

Davis does know something about building the perfect beast. In his first collegiate head coaching job, he took over a Miami program in 1995 that was hit hard by NCAA sanctions.

But in Coral Gables, he had football credibility on which to build and one of the nation's hottest recruiting beds as his back yard. Even with severe scholarship limitations for a few years, he could still land a ballyhooed player and find a few good athletes.

Davis made those guys better.

A lot better.

Guys such as Clinton Portis and Reggie Wayne and Ed Reed and Santana Moss. Guys who would become the nucleus of the Hurricanes' restrengthening, from a recent nadir of 5-6 in 1997 that included a 47-0 loss to FSU, to a team that finished 11-1 in 2000 and would go on to win the school's fifth national title in 2001 and play for the title again in 2002.

"The job he did at Miami was as good a job as I've seen done in coaching," ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit said.

But Davis left Miami after the 2000 season for the Cleveland Browns, a move he didn't plan to make - he turned down an offer and for six weeks tried to negotiate a deal with Miami but couldn't get it done then jumped to the NFL when the Browns came back at him. It's a move he doesn't regret even though it ended badly after just three seasons.

"There were a lot of very good things that happened in Cleveland," he said. "We took an expansion franchise that was absolutely at the bottom of the barrel from a talent standpoint and in two years, we got them into the playoffs. Unfortunately, the owner (Al Lerner) passed away (in 2002), and we found ourselves $28-million over the salary cap, and we had to have a purge."

He insists that experience will only make him a better coach.

The pro experience, especially given the success some other former NFL head coaches enjoyed when they returned to the college ranks (Pete Carroll and Steve Spurrier come to mind), sure caught the Tar Heels' attention. They zeroed in on Davis in November and signed him to a seven-year deal.

"What came through so loud and clear was his vision and focus for the program," Baddour said.

Then Davis walked his bold talk. Even after starting chemotherapy, he didn't miss a single speaking engagement on the booster circuit or a single spring practice.

"That showed a lot. It inspired us," senior defensive end Hilee Taylor said.

"He never changed. He was always energetic," said senior receiver Joe Dailey. "The only difference was he didn't have any hair. But he always had a ball cap on."

Not anymore.

Davis and his hair are back.

Brian Landman can be reached at landman@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3347.

"You want to talk about winning. You want to talk about goals. It gives the players a (reference) point. This is what we hope to achieve and aspire to."

Butch Davis, first-year North Carolina football coach

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