Drew Davis felt like he was a teenager again while riding shotgun in dad’s car. No longer a rebellious teen, Drew, 26, enjoyed this ride. “There was no better 15 minutes,” says Butch Davis’s son, an assistant for his father at Florida International.
Drew’s roommate and ride, fellow staff member Bryn Renner, had left with family to celebrate the Panthers’ stunning upset of big, bad Miami, leaving Drew without a way back to their apartment—except for his old man. It was a fitting scene, Butch and Drew in the car together, driving off FIU’s campus in the aftermath of this family’s most indelible victory ever, 30–24 over the same Hurricanes that dad once captained and where son once dreamed of playing. “The whole thing was personal,” Drew says in an interview Sunday evening. “We got to talk in the car about nostalgic memories. We had spent so much time in the Miami program.”
Why so personal? No one wants to get into specifics, but we all know those reasons. At least three times in the last several years, the Hurricanes passed on a chance to welcome back Butch Davis as coach, the man who overcame the NCAA rule-breaking transgressions of Dennis Erickson in the 1990s to lay the foundation for a championship won without him in 2001. Instead, Miami hired Randy Shannon, then Al Golden, then Mark Richt, a trio that went 90–63 in 12 seasons, claimed zero conference championships and finished ranked in the top 10 zero times.
On Saturday at Marlins Park, on the grounds of the old Orange Bowl, Butch beat the ’Canes as a three-touchdown underdog, not only delivering his new school with its first win over a Power 5 school in 32 tries, but also slapping his old school with the worst loss in program history. And, too, making life more difficult for the new Miami coach, Manny Diaz, the fifth different Hurricanes head man since Davis left for the NFL after an 11–1 season in 2000. Billed in preseason as a remade, refocused UM under Diaz, the ’Canes are 6–5, with losses to ACC bottom-dweller Georgia Tech, rebuilding North Carolina and, don’t forget, a crosstown rival that fielded its first football team a year after Miami’s last national championship 18 years ago.
In the fourth meeting between the teams—UM won the first three by a combined 63 points—Davis’s team executed its game plan in all three aspects of the sport. They wanted to gain at least 70 hidden yards in special teams, interrupt throwing lanes against a deep-passing offense that likes to attack the middle and possess the ball with a clock-milking rushing game. Mostly on punts, the Panthers eclipsed their hidden-yardage goal by seven, and their field goal kicker, Jose Borregales, made kicks of 53 and 50 yards. On defense, they finished with three interceptions and nine pass breakups, while also stuffing the ’Canes on two fourth-down attempts in the red zone. On offense, they won the time of possession, executing four drives of at least three minutes, and they averaged more than 5 yards a carry by using new rushing concepts installed over the bye week. “We knew were going to have to do something,” says Drew Davis, who coaches tight ends. “They had a linebacker crew that we wanted to attack differently. We attacked them from some new angles and slowed the game down.”
One of the more fascinating things about the result was its timing. The Panthers, 6–5 and in sixth place in the Conference USA East, lost their previous game to FAU 37-7, a score that brash Owls coach Lane Kiffin reminded us all of in a tweet Saturday.
Davis compares this situation to one he faced in 1998, his fourth year in the six-year rebuilding effort as Miami’s coach. The Hurricanes followed a 66–13 loss at Syracuse with a 49–45 win over then-No. 3 UCLA the very next week, a “jump start” to his run at UM, Davis says. “It was a ‘We’ve turned the corner.’” He hopes the same will come at FIU. “It took six years at Miami,” Davis says. “Hopefully this doesn’t take that long.” Already, in his third year, the Panthers have eclipsed program records. The win over Miami made them bowl-eligible for a third straight year, a first, and their nine wins last season marked the most ever.
These Panthers are different from the ones that had five straight losing seasons before Davis’s arrival. For one, they are deeper. Take the position of tight end. Davis says he inherited a program with zero tight ends on the roster after the departure to the NFL of Jonnu Smith, a third-round draft pick. “Now we’ve got five tight ends,” he says. They are faster, too. During offseason before Davis’s first season, nine Panthers ran the 40-yard dash in 4.7 second or less. That number this offseason was 47. “We’re making strides,” he says. “We’ve gotten faster, stronger, bigger.”
The Panthers are unafraid, too. In fact, Davis wants to play Miami again. He believes the two programs should meet twice a decade, giving a player at least one taste of this simmering rivalry. There is no future game scheduled between the schools, and Davis is unsure if the Hurricanes even want to play again. He knows that the most recent result didn’t help in the matter. “Yeah,” he chuckles, “probably not.”
The Hurricanes have been stuck in quite the funk since Davis’s final signing class exited the program about 16 years ago. Why? If anyone knows the answer, maybe it’s Davis. Not only did he spend six seasons leading the ’Canes, but he also spent five more on Jimmy Johnson’s staff in the 1980s, claiming the 1987 national crown. Continuity is the missing piece at UM, he says. Four coaches in 12 seasons? That’s not helpful in establishing relationships at Miami-area high schools, a pivotal piece of recruiting, the lifeblood of any college program. Despite Erickson’s success, Davis remembers arriving at UM in 1995 with a giant barrier to blast through. “They had no relationships with some of the high school coaches,” he says. “That was one of the biggest hurdles I had in going to Miami.”
He now competes on the trail with his former school, and, yes, he clarifies, they do battle for some of the same talent. After Saturday, he expects it to get even more competitive. In fact, Davis awoke early Sunday morning to finish off recruiting visits with four prospects and their families. They attended the game. “It’s a good Sunday,” Davis says with a laugh. Davis turned 68 earlier this month, but he’s got plenty of gas left in the tank, he says, at least “three to five years” and maybe more. “I’ve got an energy, I enjoy coming to work, enjoy recruiting,” he says. Herm Edwards, Les Miles, Mack Brown and Butch Davis—they’re all deep into their 60s, having returned to the game after a layoff and finding at least some success (heck, even Miles-led Kansas has won three games this year and been competitive in four more).
Davis sounds like he’s in it for the long haul. After all, he is coaching with his son. Drew Davis spent his college years as a backup quarterback at Ole Miss, joined his dad’s staff as a graduate assistant in 2017 and has worked his way into a full-time staff member. Butch gets emotional when discussing the situation, calling it the best three years of his life, side by side with his boy. “Watching him grow up and recruit, the way he interacts with players,” Butch says. “When your kids go off to college, and you see them a little on holidays, maybe 10 times a year, to see him every single day is a joy.” Not to mention driving Drew home as if he were in middle school.