MONTGOMERY – Blake Anderson has been here twice with Arkansas State. And former Appalachian State coach Scott Satterfield. Dino Babers was one of the country’s brightest stars when he coached Bowling Green in the 2014 Camellia Bowl. Rick Stockstill had made a name for himself at Middle Tennessee long before he arrived in the Capital City in 2017.
But much like the fanfare that accompanied many of the coaches that once traveled to Montgomery to coach in the Blue-Gray All-Star Football Classic, it’s hard not to be impressed with the resume of Florida International coach Butch Davis.
Davis, a resurrection specialist with the Cleveland Browns and in college at Miami and North Carolina, was hired in 2017 to guide the Panthers to the next step.
“It’s a challenge, obviously,” Brown said. “But I went there (to Miami) with Jimmy (Johnson) in 1984 and I spent 11 years at the University of Miami, so the familiarity with the state has been an unbelievable advantage. A lot of the guys that I knew that were high school coaches or assistants, now they’re head coaches or athletic directors and you kind of know geographically within the state where the talent actually is.
“But there’s not much of a history with FIU. This is the 16th year for the entire football program and a lot of it has not been very successful.”
The 68-year-old Davis was a commodity everyone coveted in the 1990s and 2000s. A defensive end at Arkansas in the early 1970s, he coached at the high school ranks early in his career (1973-78) and served as a college assistant over the next decade (1979-88), many of those under Jimmy Johnson.
He followed Johnson to the Dallas Cowboys, serving as a defensive coordinator on a Super Bowl winner, then parlayed that exposure into the head coaching job at Miami, taking over a program that was in shambles after an NCAA investigation and righting the ship.
“When he first got to Miami, I think Miami had lost 31 scholarships and we go up and play Bobby Bowden and Florida State in Tallahassee,” recalled longtime friend, FIU director of sports and entertainment Pete Garcia. “We got beat 47-0. He goes to shake Bobby Bowden’s hand and Bowden tells him, ‘Hopefully, someday this will be a rivalry again.’ A couple of years later, when all those freshmen we were playing (matured) and we beat them a few years later, he goes up to Bobby Bowden and says, ‘I guess we’ve got a rivalry.’”
That victory came in 2000, bolstering an 11-1 season in which the Hurricanes probably should have gotten a shot at the BCS championship that went instead to Florida State after the two teams exchanged places in the standings in late November.
His rebuilding efforts didn’t go unnoticed. Alabama athletic director Mal Moore knew NCAA sanctions were on the horizon for the Crimson Tide in 2000 and made a push to hire Davis.
“We had already gone through a horrific rebuild of the Miami program,” Davis said. “We lost 31 scholarships and it was the No. 1 hated university. To change the culture, to change the respect from people…
“Alabama was and is obviously a great program but they were getting ready to go through what I had already gone through three or four years before. You know what? I’ve already had to go through that deal, I’m not sure I want to go through that again.”
Instead, he went through a different type of rebuild when the Cleveland Browns, whose franchise relocated to Baltimore in 1995, was resurrected in 1999. After one year under Chris Palmer, the Browns were looking for someone who could build an expansion team into a winner. They settled on Davis, whose trip to the playoffs in 2002 remains the only playoff berth in history for the expansion Browns.
“When I took over the Cleveland job, one of the surprise phone calls I got five months into it was from (former Browns coach) Bill Belichick and he was at New England,” Davis said. “He said let me give you some advice about coaching in Cleveland. They are off-the-chart fans, they love football. They could be 0-16 and still have 75,000 fans in minus 5 degrees. He talked a little about the media locally and the way people looked at it and it was really good advice from him.”
Former Robert E. Lee and Alabama State defensive lineman Tyrone Rogers remembers those early years with the “new” Browns.
“He’s a player’s coach,” said Rogers, a former head coach at Robert E. Lee High who was on hand to greet Davis at practice on Wednesday morning. “You can talk to him about a lot of things, personal things if need be. He’s very approachable and I think the guys here (at FIU) enjoy playing for him. I know I enjoyed playing for him.”
Davis made another stop in North Carolina for four years before he was fired in the midst of an NCAA investigation that never implicated him. At all of his coaching stops, his focus has never wavered.
“Every coaching job I’ve ever taken, from the very first high school job, you do it because you love kids and you want to help them mature, grow up, get a college education,” Davis said.
He faced a different kind of challenge in 2017 when he was hired at FIU. At Dallas, he had been a part of a winning tradition, at Miami he had rebuilt a winning tradition, at Cleveland he started over from scratch and at North Carolina he was trying to win at an established program.
At Florida International, the program has existed just 18 years and had just two winning seasons before Davis arrived in 2017.
“It’s totally different because it’s so young,” Davis said. “You just try to help grow the program.”
It may not be on the same level as some of his former jobs and former suitors, but his work at Florida International has not gone unnoticed by his peers.
“The opportunity to coach against somebody with Butch’s background, (he’s) a legend in this sport in my mind,” Arkansas State coach Blake Anderson said.
Think about this: He has a handful of players (three) who will graduate in May, bringing the total to 18 graduates among the 18 seniors. And with a win in the Camellia Bowl, the Panthers will set a school record with their third consecutive winning season, more than their previous 15 years of existence combined.
“He’s been there for three years,” Garcia said, “and we’ve won the most games in our history (9-4 in 2018), he’s got an opportunity to win two bowl games in a row, a history of going to three bowl games in a row – this is only our fifth bowl game – plus what he’s established academically. He’s building a solid program. But I knew that was going to happen.”