With NCAA shadow looming over UNC, Butch Davis returns to sidelines in sunny Florida
In North Carolina’s parallel football universe, the 2017 season won’t open in Chapel Hill with a 12:10 p.m. game against California on Sept. 2.
Instead, an orbiting Tar Heel season will start on Aug. 31 at 6 p.m. in Orlando, Fla., where Butch Davis’ first Florida International team will play Central Florida. The game will mark Davis’ first as a head coach since he was fired at UNC in July 2011.
There’s some thick irony afoot, of course, in that Davis will return to coaching college football before UNC’s final fate with the NCAA is known.
But unlike his arrival at Carolina in 2007, the expectations for Davis and his new staff’s debut at Miami-based FIU are modest. The Panthers have been picked in preseason to finish fifth in the Conference USA East Division, where they largely will be measured against Florida Atlantic’s first season under Lane Kiffin. FAU has been picked for fourth in the Conference USA East.
In sports years, FIU is a football pup. The public university didn’t initiate football until 2002 and has finished with a winning record only twice – 7-6 in 2010 and 8-5 the following season under the coaching of Mario Cristabol, who was fired after his 2012 team went 3-9.
Davis, 65, was brought in after last season’s team finished 4-8 under Ron Turner and interim Ron Cooper. Davis signed a five-year contract with a salary package of $1 million annually.
If Davis’ coaching history is any indication of the future, he’ll prosper in Miami for the second time in his career. With the Miami Hurricanes from 1995 through the 2000 season, his teams went 51-20, including 11-1 in his last season.
Over the four years at Carolina, Davis went 28-23 (15-17 ACC) with three successive 8-5 finishes and a bowl win in his last game that was the first Tar Heel postseason win since 2001.
But Davis also was standing squarely on ground-zero when the academic scandal detonated in Chapel Hill. We know now that Davis neither created the academic fraud scheme nor was he even around when it began.
But it was under Davis’ watch that assistant coach John Blake was forced to resign amid an investigation into actions involving Blake and sports agent Gary Wichard in 2010. In March 2012, the NCAA announced that Blake, once the head coach at Oklahoma, effectively had been suspended from college coaching for a three-year period on a show-cause for employment ruling.
The NCAA did not cite Davis for wrongdoing. Carolina agreed to a settlement of almost $3 million, and there was a high level of recruited talent still in the program when Larry Fedora arrived from Southern Miss in 2012. The 2011 team went 7-6 in an interim season under former Davis assistant Everett Withers.
After UNC, Davis did some NFL work and some television commentary at ESPN, but he maintained all along that his coaching well wasn’t empty. FIU obvious agreed.
“I love the opportunity and I’m grateful,” Davis said upon getting the job. “I see it as a challenge that has no ceiling.”
FIU athletic director Pete Garcia said the school was lucky to land Davis, who had the backing of many Hurricane fans before the decision was made to hire Mark Richt after 2015.
With Davis at FIU, Kiffin at Florida Atlantic and Charlie Strong at South Florida, there’s a new wave of big-name coaches ready to launch in 2017 throughout Florida.
Kiffin’s program at Florida Atlantic, located in Boca Raton, Fla., has been billed as “Second Chance U,” but the same could apply to Davis and his Panthers.
If all goes well, Davis will be back on North Carolina soil to coach again. FIU will play at Conference USA foe Charlotte in 2018 ,and by the way, the Panthers are set to face the Hurricanes next season, too.
What goes around comes around.