From his first time as a high school assistant in Fayetteville, Arkansas in 1973 through last season at FIU — with two Super Bowl rings, his run at the University of Miami and more in between — Butch Davis has been a lifer in football coaching. It was less what he did than who he was.
Now, for the first August in 50 years, there is no sideline calling him, no whistle around his neck. Nowhere to be.
“Little bit of a weird time when football gets going and you’re not doing it,” Davis is saying Tuesday, two hours west of Miami from the Naples home on Florida’s west coast he shares with Tammy, his wife of nearly 40 years. “You kind of miss it a lot.”
Davis is in that awkward phase of life after football. I asked him if I was speaking to a retired coach or one waiting for a phone call, for the next sideline. He threw out a “never say never” but gave every indication that, at age 70, he’s done.
“I can’t even imagine I could get back into being a full-time coach,” he says. “That guy going 11, 12 months a year, 20 hours as day...”
He got close enough to feel nostalgic this past weekend visiting a football practice at Miami’s St. Thomas University, where his son Drew is a receivers coach.
Davis has filled the void with more time with family, with travel and golf. For his wife’s sister’s 50th wedding anniversary 30 family members went to Cancun, Mexico. Still, as Don Shula used to say, you never find anything to replace the feeling of a sideline on game day.
We sat out down with Davis on Tuesday for a lengthy reflection on his career, its highs and lows and the awful way it ended at FIU. The conversation included unheard revelations about the two times Davis thought he might be rehired by UM after first serving as Canes head coach from 1995 through 2000.
Let us start with the end.
Davis’ time at FIU, and almost certainly for his career, his life in football, ended ingloriously last November — the shame of that not his, but squarely on the school.
He learned he would be replaced after five seasons not in a face-to-face meeting or even by a phone call or text, but in an online want ad about the opening that FIU had placed with the American Football Coaches Association. He got blindsided as he was turning 70. Happy birthday, Butch.
Davis had enjoyed three strong years at FIU from 2017 to 2019, with two winning seasons and three consecutive bowl appearances. Late in that ‘19 season his Panthers defeated the Miami Hurricanes for the first time ever. I was there at Marlins Park that night. I don’t know that I have ever seen Butch happier.
It was downhill, and a steep drop, after that.
The COVID-19 pandemic hit, and hit FIU especially hard. His 2020-21 teams were a combined 1-16. For those two years, program cutbacks prevented Panthers coaches from recruiting on the road, and the team was forced to use hand-me-down equipment, including shoulder pads discarded by Mississippi State.
Still, he asked for a one-year contract extension, wanting to make things right. To leave things right. FIU declined.
Davis says the FIU administration “sabotaged the program.”
[And invitation to the FIU athletic department for a comment drew no immediate response].
In the midst of his run at FIU, after the 2018 season that had ended 9-4 with a bowl win, Davis got a call from Miami and thought for a minute he might be rehired to lead the Hurricanes again, as he had done from 1995 to 2000.
This has not been told, until now:
In the frantic last two days of 2018, after Mark Richt had suddenly and unexpectedly retired and left UM in a spectacularly ill-timed lurch, a Miami program in scramble mode called Davis for a rushed interview.
Part of him feared it was a “token interview,” he said, “But I Ieft there thinking maybe it was 50-50.”
After the interview Davis and his wife were driving across Alligator Alley from Naples to a New Year’s Eve party former baseball star Alex Rodriguez was throwing at his mansion in Coral Gables. A-Rod had alluded to hearing Davis might get the Canes job and so they might be celebrating that, too.
It was on the car radio en route that Davis heard the breaking news that Miami had just hired former UM assistant Manny Diaz, who just days earlier had become the head coach at Temple.
No one from UM had the courtesy to inform Davis first. Feeling “disrespected” by the school where he had spent 11 years as assistant or head coach, Davis phoned A-Rod to send regrets he would not be attending the party.
There was a second time Davis thought he was headed back to The U.
Neither has this been told, until now:
Then-UM president Donna Shalala called Davis late in the 2006 season, Larry Coker’s last, to ask if Davis might come back.
“They were eight, 10 days away from announcing I would take the job back,” Davis says.
Then Bryan Pata, a UM player, was murdered. UM put off on an immediate coaching change, worried it would further disrupt a traumatized locker room. When the school finally did decide to move on from Coker, sentiment had shifted and Randy Shannon was hired. And Davis, who had “put the brakes on North Carolina” waiting for UM, joined the Tar Heels instead.
It’s a shame, really, that Miami never found a way to bring Davis back because his 1995-2000 term (which included current head coach Mario Cristobal as a graduate assistant on the staff) finds him the most underappreciated coach in UM football history. That is because he is not one of the four men who delivered the five national championships. But look what he did do.
He inherited NCAA sanctions and scholarship reductions from penalties under predecessor Dennis Erickson — yet in six seasons went 51-20 with five winning records, five top 20 finishes, a 4-0 bowl record and three Big East conference titles.
His last UM team was 11-1 and finished ranked No. 2, and when he left to coach the Cleveland Browns, he left so much talent behind that successor Coker immediately won the 2001 national championship, UM’s last.
That ring and all that seems to mean to one’s legacy could have belonged to Davis, whose mastery of recruiting alone distinguishes him.
In retrospect Davis regrets leaving UM for the NFL (“Yeah, absolutely”), but Miami might have forced his hand.
They offered Davis less money to stay than Erickson had made before him, and include a contractual line that would have made Davis pay the school 80 percent of his remaining salary if he left on his own. The Browns’ guaranteed five-year, $15 million offer was too rich to turn down.
Davis’ 50 years in coaching include two Super Bowl rings on the Dallas Cowboys’ staff of Jimmy Johnson, of course. Butch and Jimmy go back to the late ‘70s at Oklahoma State, through Miami including the 1987 national championship and onto Dallas. They still get together at Johnson’s place in the upper Florida Keys every May “to tell stories and lies.”
He is trying to get comfortable with retirement. It can be work.
“You never know when it ‘s going to end, but I’m enjoying right now,” he says.
I ask Butch what hat he would wear to represent his legacy as a lifelong football coach.
“The Miami hat. Those 11 years,” he says firmly. “I absolutely loved the University of Miami.”