Butch League Butch Davis left Miami scrambling when he betrayed his players and bolted for a big-money deal with the Browns

February 12, 2001

The meeting took all of them by surprise. College football players
do many things in the winter--lift weights, host recruits, go to
class--but they do not meet. Yet on the Monday morning after the
Super Bowl, word spread across the Miami campus like a warm,
tropical breeze. Meeting in the locker room at 11:30. All-Big
East offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie was walking to his 11 a.m.
class when a teammate told him of signs posted in the weight room
earlier that morning. "I was thinking somebody must have gotten
in real big trouble with the cops over the weekend," says
McKinnie, a rising senior. "What else could it be?"

Junior quarterback Ken Dorsey learned of the meeting while
killing a few minutes in a grove of trees at the center of
campus, a place where football players often gather in the
morning. Junior tight end Jeremy Shockey received word while
sitting down to eat an early lunch in a campus dining hall.
"Coach Davis never schedules meetings when we have classes,"
Shockey says. "So when I heard 11:30, I knew it had to be
something big. It wasn't going to be introducing the new
defensive backs coach."

It wasn't going to be Davis leaving, either; his players were
certain of that. The eldest among them had heard rumors of their
coach's imminent departure for years, but two days before Miami
played Florida in the Sugar Bowl--by which time he had turned
down offers from Alabama and the NFL-expansion Houston
Texans--Davis had brought the team together in a New Orleans
hotel and assured the players that he was staying. "If I leave
now, that makes me a deadbeat dad, because this is my family,"
he told them. "I want to finish my career right here at Miami."
A few days after Miami's 37-20 victory completed an 11-1 season
and cemented a No. 2 national ranking, he told them, "We're
going to work our asses off in the off-season, harder than we've
worked before. This is going to be an incredible season. We're
going to win the national championship."

It was a plausible assertion. Fourteen starters are due to
return, and those who vote in the polls will have to take a long,
hard look at the Hurricanes as a possible preseason No. 1 choice.

In the funereal silence of the locker room on that Monday morning
Davis began to speak at 11:20. The early start was no surprise to
his players: In Davis's disciplined world everything began 10
minutes early. Dressed in a business suit, his eyes red from lack
of sleep, Davis began by telling the players how much he loved
them, how they could win a national championship. He seemed
nervous. "I couldn't tell where he was going with this talk,"
says McKinnie. He and other players remember only snippets of
what Davis said next: "Opportunity at the next level....
Cleveland Browns.... Best thing for my family...." Then the coach
started to cry.

"Hardest thing I've done," Davis would tell SI three days later.
"A college coach spends so much time with his players. I looked
around that room, and for every kid I could see his family. I
could see a home that I sat in. I get choked up talking about
it."

When he finished addressing his players, Davis asked if any of
them wanted to speak. None did. None rose to embrace the coach or
shake his hand. "Jaws dropping, eyes bugging out," is the way
McKinnie recalls the scene. "Total shock." Davis walked toward
the door, where Shockey, who had arrived late, was standing. "He
looked at me and gave me a little nod, and I nodded back," says
Shockey. "Then he just bowed his head, and he was gone." In his
absence the players met alone, many of them rising in anger at
Davis. "People were real mad," said McKinnie. "Especially the
young guys who have three, four years left. He told us he would
be here."

When a college coach leaves under these circumstances, the waters
are always bloodied by his departure, but Davis's exit was
uncommonly painful. Not only had he restored the Hurricanes to a
place among the elite, salving the wounds resulting from the 1995
probation that cost Miami a crippling 31 scholarships, but he had
also repeatedly denied interest in leaving for the pros, despite
the widespread assumption by fans and media that the former
Dallas Cowboys assistant lusted after an NFL job. Three days
before the Sugar Bowl, at a time when three NFL teams were
searching for a coach and four more would follow suit, he
responded to a rumor that he was soon to visit with Browns
management by saying, "Don't they have a coach? I'm happy in
South Florida. My family loves it there. I plan to coach at Miami
for a long time." Davis didn't just issue denials, he sold them.

At a dinner with recruits at the Rusty Pelican on Key Biscayne on
Jan. 20, Davis thanked McKinnie for returning to play next season
after NFL scouts had told him that he'd be taken high in the
first round of the April draft if he left school early. "Winning
a national championship will be the final piece of the puzzle for
you," Davis told McKinnie.

One week later Davis agreed in principle to a five-year, $15.7
million contract with the Browns, bolting Miami nine days before
recruits could sign letters of intent. Davis got a deal from
Cleveland that Miami could never have matched, but he and his
lawyer, Marvin Demoff, insist that the Browns weren't a serious
consideration until the school failed in late January to finalize
a five-year contract extension that had been in negotiation since
November. (After the 2000 season Davis had three years left on a
seven-year, $5.9 million contract.) "I'm thrilled with the
opportunity I have in Cleveland," Davis says, "but if Miami had
gotten the extension done in November, I'd still be the coach at
Miami."

There was friction from the start of those contract talks.
Relations between Davis and Miami athletic director Paul Dee had
become strained in the previous six months, in part over Davis's
concern that at $850,000 a year he was underpaid. "Butch listens
to what other coaches tell him they're making, and he believes
them," Dee told SI in early November. Shortly after that, Davis
hired Demoff. Their first request was for a six-year extension.
Dee refused, offering five. "That was the first red flag," says
Davis.

Negotiations plodded forward through the Sugar Bowl. On Jan. 5
both parties agreed to a base compensation of $8.5 million over
five years, plus some incentive bonuses--all of which would have
put Davis among the three highest-paid college football coaches
in the nation. Two issues remained unresolved: the buyout if
Davis took another job, and the guaranteed compensation if Davis
was fired. Miami wanted Davis to pay a $2.5 million buyout if he
left after the first year, and the school would pay him $5
million (of the remaining $6.8 million) if he was fired following
the first season. (The buyout would decrease by $500,000 and the
compensation by $1 million in each succeeding year.) Davis and
Demoff found both clauses unacceptable.

Large buyout riders are not uncommon for sought-after college
coaches, although $2.5 million would have been extraordinary.
When Dennis Franchione left TCU for Alabama in December, he was
charged a $1 million buyout and has a $1 million buyout in his
Alabama contract. Virginia Tech's Frank Beamer has an $850,000
buyout. Dee defends Miami's demand for a stiff buyout clause by
saying, "If we were going to make the investment that we were
prepared to make, we expected reciprocity."

The parties exchanged offers in the days that followed. On Jan.
24, 13 days after Cleveland dismissed Chris Palmer as coach and
put Davis on its short list, Miami offered to fully guarantee
Davis's contract in the event that he was fired, and reduced the
buyout to 20% of his remaining salary at the time of departure,
approximately $1.37 million after the first year. (It galled
Davis that he might have to work for $1.7 million and then pay
back nearly that much to leave, a scenario that he compared to
working a year for nothing.) Demoff offered four scenarios to
Miami, including a 100-10 deal, in which Davis would have a 100%
guaranteed contract and owe 10% of his remaining salary as
buyout, roughly $680,000 after the first year. Miami's counter,
on Jan. 27, was to drop the guarantee on the contract to 90% and
reduce the buyout from 20% to 15%, which would have been $1.02
million after the first year.

At that point Demoff felt Miami was no longer bargaining in good
faith. He recommended that Davis stop negotiating with Miami and
told the coach that there was still a small window in which to
work with the Browns, who had courted Davis 11 days earlier and
been rebuffed. Scarcely 24 hours later Davis was Cleveland's
coach.

Miami, meanwhile, suffered predictably. Davis fired parting
shots. "After all the things I'd done in six years, you'd think
they could have done something more for me," he said. Dee
counterpunched. "We all helped in the process [of rebuilding this
program], not any one person," he said. Several Miami players
marched to Dee's office and implored him to hire the Hurricanes'
54-year-old offensive coordinator, Larry Coker. "Keep it in the
family," said Dorsey. Dee instead tried to hire Wisconsin coach
Barry Alvarez, who turned him down and took a raise from the
Badgers. Some recruits waffled on their oral commitments,
including blue-chip defensive end Darrius Swain of Decatur, Ga.,
but at week's end it appeared that most of them would still sign
with the Hurricanes. Finally, Miami's reputation as a
stepping-stone job (Jimmy Johnson to the Dallas Cowboys, Dennis
Erickson to the Seattle Seahawks, Davis to Cleveland) was
enhanced.

Last Saturday brought order when Dee at last promoted Coker, a
loyal foot soldier who has been a football coach for 31 years, at
five colleges and two high schools, including the last six
seasons under Davis. He had been a head coach only at the high
school level, for nine years in Oklahoma from 1970 to '78. Two
days after Davis's departure Coker talked wistfully, between
desperate recruiting calls, about almost getting named the coach
at Tulsa in 1983 and about being in line for the job at Oklahoma
State in the mid-'80s, when Pat Jones nearly left. "Never
happened," Coker said. "I'm not bitter about that, but I am
focused and very confident in my abilities."

He inherits a program that bears no resemblance to the mess that
Davis took over; instead, it has as much talent as any in the
country. Although two assistants left with Davis, six others
stayed on with Coker. The returning players will draw strength
from a familiar system, a comfort that they will need to soothe
their feelings of betrayal. "I've learned a lot from this week,"
Shockey, the tight end, says. "Don't take anything for granted,
trust nobody. Pretty simple."

From there, the healing begins.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY AL TIELEMANS HARSH REALITY Less than a month after a Sugar Bowl win over Florida, Shockey (88) and his teammates came crashing back to earth. COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES

"If Miami had gotten the [contract] extension done in November,"
says Davis, "I'd still be the coach at Miami."

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