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In a life defined by coaching, Butch Davis is focused on the present

Almost four months after coaching FIU for the final time, Butch Davis is watching from the sidelines — but not without thoughts.

Rice v Florida International Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

It’s the first week of March, a time that college football coaches officially mark the countdown to the season ahead with spring practices underway.

For four seasons as UDD’s FIU beat writer, the bulk of my time is usually spent waiting on Butch Davis’ team to finish practice, so he can make his way over to do media, typically drenched in sweat from the South Florida sunshine and his voice slightly hoarse from directing players one position group at a time.

This March, however, I’m scrolling through the contact list on my phone until coming upon a familiar name and pushing the call button. As the phone rings, I’m somewhat unsure of what to expect. After a few rings, Davis, in his trademark Oklahoman drawl, answers, and suddenly all feels normal — except it isn’t.

With the benefit of hindsight, there were a litany of moments that were anything but standard, starting with the evening of November 23, 2019. A 21-point underdog, FIU took the field for its final “home” game of the year against Miami at Marlins Park and were promptly greeted by resounding boos from a partisan crowd that came to watch the Hurricanes play on hallowed ground that was once theirs.

Three hours and thirty-five minutes later, the underdog Panthers had beaten their crosstown rival, clinched a third-consecutive bowl berth and FIU adopted the moniker “Kings of the 305.”

In the 15 seasons prior to Davis’ arrival at FIU, the program had an abysmal record of 56-122 with only two bowl appearances. The Miami win gave the program an unprecedented level of success, one that most figured the program would be able to build upon — and Davis would surely be in-line to finish his coaching career with the Panthers.

What followed, few, if any could have seen coming.

After a 23-16 record in his first three seasons, Davis and the Panthers, besieged by injuries, player transfers, COVID-related player shortages and turmoil within the athletic department, lost 16 out of their next 17 contests, being outscored by an average of 18.7 points per game with seven of those losses being by at least 20 points or more.

Instead of riding the high of the upset over Miami to further success, the ensuing 25 months were nothing short of pure misery, culminating with Davis’ tenure at FIU coming to an end at the conclusion of the 2021 season.

When I asked Davis his thoughts on the change given a few months to reflect, it was clear that the way things ended at FIU still doesn’t sit well with him.

“You know what, there’s going to be a book one of these days and one of the... several of the chapters... Eric, I mean, there are a lot of things I’d love to tell you. I just don’t want it in print right now,” said Davis.

The idea of a book isn’t one that sprang upon Davis following the tumultuous ending at FIU — in fact, he made mention of a book a handful of times during postgame pressers over the last two seasons — the last of which came following the loss to North Texas on Senior Night this past season.

“For the last year and a half there, there were a significant number of really negative things in that school and one of these days I’ll spill my guts and tell you all the things that were bad,” continued Davis. “We can go back to 2018 and 2019 and tell you a lot of other things that happened in the next 16 months that were would blow your mind, but right now isn’t the time.”

When asked if there was anything he felt he could have done differently that would have changed the outcome of the last season and a half, Davis, somewhat pensive in mood, paused and then emphasized that no good would come of answering the question at this time.

“Again, it would be the significantly negative things — there’s an awful lot of things that I definitely would’ve changed, but didn’t get an opportunity to do any of it. So let’s leave it at that and one of these days we’ll talk about it.”

While few could have seen the turbulence of the 2021 season coming, should we have seen it? There were signs.

After the team’s season-opening win against Long Island University last season, Davis entered the media room for his postgame session with reporters — only to quickly exit after FIU communications staffers removed a custom-made backdrop that Davis wanted to appear behind him while speaking.

After a few minutes, Davis returned to the media room once two football staffers reinserted the backdrop. As a pair of communications staffers, Christina Anderson and Tyler Brain attempted to phone a ranking member of FIU Athletics, Alex Kelley, Davis stepped to the podium and stated, “Just so everybody knows, football programs need NIL too. If the players can get compensated, we need people who support the football program,” before opening with his postgame remarks.

On October 5, three days after the team’s loss to rival Florida Atlantic, several outlets reported that Davis’ job was posted on coaching job boards.

In what may have been the height of Davis’ frustration publicly, following the team’s loss on the road at Marshall, Davis declined to his postgame presser.

“Eric, I’ll talk to you on Tuesday,” were his only remarks before heading to the Panthers’ buses.

Frankly, there was nothing more to be said.

After the season-ending loss at Southern Miss, the scene outside the FIU locker room was flooded with emotions. Several players had their arms around each other as they walked off the field for the final time together — coaches and football staffers did the same. Davis embraced his son, tight ends coach Drew Davis, and they posed for a photo together, followed by multiple players who hugged the elder Davis and other coaches. The finality was crystal clear — a majority of the links to FIU’s success from 2017 through 2019 were Panthers no more.

This brings us to current times.

FIU is full speed ahead with a new athletic direction under first-year Athletic Director Scott Carr and football coach Mike MacIntyre.

Davis is at home in Southwest Florida and we spoke at length about the FIU experience he was proud of, several other college football topics, and his future in the game that’s given him so much.

“The biggest victory in the history of the school was beating Miami, and a lot of people thought it was a fluke, but if you go back and you look at the game that we played them the year before, I think the players realized during and after that game, they were talented enough to compete with Miami,” said Davis.

In the 2018 matchup, FIU faced Miami for the second time since the infamous brawl between the two programs in 2006. The Panthers fell behind 24-0 in the first half, but rebounded to score 17 points in the fourth quarter to make the final score 31-17.

Covering that game, the feeling outside the FIU locker room was one of frustration — not because of the loss — but a feeling that they beat themselves in the first two quarters of play.

“The second half of that game really put into their mind the next year, we can win this. We had 10 days to get ready for that game and the practices were at the highest level the entire time that I was there,” said Davis. “They were focused when we took that field and we ran on the field for pregame, there was zero doubt that we were going to win that game.”

Miami v Florida International
Butch Davis walks off the field at Marlins Park — the sight of his victories as the coach at Miami — after defeating his former squad.
Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

The victory was undoubtedly the most significant in the history of the program and one of the most significant in Davis’ career. It also serves as the last triumph before the final season and a half of turmoil.

“FIU beating Miami was a really significant game, not just for me, but for the staff and the players and probably for the football program — if they still have one in the future,” said Davis.

In what seems like a lifetime ago, the 2018 season for Davis and the Panthers is still the most successful in program history to date.

The nine-win campaign saw FIU defeat Toledo in the Bahamas Bowl for the program’s second-ever bowl victory, led by one of Conference USA’s top offenses that featured future NFL draft pick, James Morgan, at quarterback and several standout defensive players.

That season was also memorable for the resolve that the program showed following running back Anthony Jones and offensive lineman Mershawn Miller being injured in a drive-by shooting.

“That season was a lot of fun. And, I mean, the challenges that we went through during the time that I was at FIU, two kids getting shot,” said Davis. “A lot of ways we were clearly against the wall, we went through an awful lot of challenging things. To get into a bowl game and win it — there were a lot of kids that made some really special things for the entire program during that period of time.

Following the 2018 season, the program would encounter, arguably, its biggest challenge in Davis’ tenure: the transfer portal.

Regarded as an excellent recruiter going back to his time with Miami and North Carolina, Davis and his staff made immediate inroads in recruiting South Florida, helping guide FIU to top-five recruiting classes in Conference USA during each of his first four seasons.

However, keeping those players in the fold was a challenge for the program.

19 players entered the transfer portal during Davis’ time at FIU, with an additional four who chose to leave the program. Additionally, players brought in from the portal such as Jeremiah Holloman, Chris Whittaker, Alexy-Jean Baptiste, Obinna Nwankwo and Tyson Maeva yielded varying results before leaving the program prior to the 2021 campaign.

Undoubtedly, the sheer number of players lost, along with injuries and coronavirus issues affected the program’s depth in 2020, with the following year seeing FIU have to turn to a multitude of freshmen and walk-on players.

Davis had elongated thoughts on the portal.

“I don’t like it. A lot of these kids are now, they are going for the spring semester, and leaving high school in December, they go through spring practice and they find out, oh my God, I’m third-team left guard, or I’m third-team receiver — I’m the fourth team, another position, and they say I’m going to transfer,” said Davis.

“Now all of a sudden, you lose players in the springtime, you lose kids over the summertime, you lose kids in August before the season starts, how are you going to replace them?”

Davis wanted to establish that he isn’t against players transferring schools, but he does believe that they should have to sit out for a year.

“It was okay if a kid made a decision that he went to a school and he got there and he decides that he doesn’t like the culture or the locker room or the coach, I made a bad decision and I’m going to leave,” said Davis. “It was okay for them to leave, but they had to sit out for a year to be eligible to play, which was perfect.

Of particular importance for FIU, the program lost kicker Jose Borregales to Miami and right tackle Devontay Love-Taylor to Florida State before the 2020 season, both of whom became instant starters at their new homes. Davis notes the difficulties on Group of Five programs when they lose ascending players as they become upperclassmen.

“When you get a Jose Borregales or you get some of the guys that are good players, then the high profile teams come and take them away from you,” said Davis. “It’s like you become minor league for the Alabama, Georgia, Ohio State and now all of a sudden, you don’t even get a chance to play with the guys (you recruited) when they get to be juniors or seniors.”

As teams across college football have their sights set on spring games, Davis has used the three-and-a-half months since his dismissal to spend time with family, but also notes that he misses the camaraderie that the game brings.

“It’s nice getting an opportunity to spend some time with my family and my wife, because obviously when you’re coaching it’s really busy,” said Davis. “But like everybody else, when you’ve been doing it for a long time, you miss the relationships with the kids and the staff, you love watching them grow. I’m incredibly proud of the number of players I’ve seen graduate and go on to build great lives for themselves. So, for a while, you don’t miss it and then after a month or so, it’s like, damn, I do miss those kinds of things. But it’s good — we’re good.

At 70, Davis is cognizant that there may or may not be another opportunity in coaching. When I asked him what the future holds and if he’s comfortable with what football has given to him, he sounded cautiously optimistic — but also at peace.

“I’ve had calls over the last couple of months to find out, would I be interested in the NFL or in college to be like an analyst,” said Davis. It’s on the back burner right now because I’m spending time catching up with my wife and doing stuff that I’ve had on the back burner for the last five years. I’ve been blessed, I’ve coached everything from girls high school basketball and volleyball, all the way through to the Super Bowls and National Championships, time will tell, but I’ve been blessed.”

When Davis was hired in 2017, it looked like a marriage made in heaven — and for three years, it was. It should have ended differently.

Entering my fifth year covering the FIU program, there are a litany of reasons why it didn’t work over the final two seasons.

Whether it’s the administration failing to make a statement on conference realignment — leaving Davis and student-athletes to answer questions postgame on the topic — something no student-athlete should have to do — or low-level football staffers dismayed pregame before the season-finale at Southern Miss, showing me their cellphones as they look at their roles being posted as available — there’s a reason that Carr has been emphatic on “A New Day” being the tagline at FIU.

For Davis, maybe it was the struggles to sure up the run defense and the transfer portal/injuries/COVID that made the last 18 games what they were.

As to anything else, we’ll have to wait for the book.