In the middle of a season full of signs that the balance of power in the Atlantic Coast Conference could be sliding away from the league’s relative newcomers, a University not known for firing coaches for excessive losing acted decisively, terminating John Bunting ’72 with five games left to play and pouncing on a free agent who helped build the reputation that made the University of Miami so attractive to the ACC.
Butch Davis, a 32-year coaching veteran who had been out of the business for two years after making a splash at Miami and then taking a stumble at Cleveland of the NFL, was Carolina’s first target to succeed Bunting. With the help of a professional coach hunter, UNC met quickly with Davis and told him at the close of the first meeting that it wouldn’t talk to others if he wouldn’t. Davis, who said Carolina had been in his thoughts as far back as last summer, agreed.
On Monday, when he was introduced in Chapel Hill, there were firing-induced coaching vacancies at Miami, Alabama, Arizona State and N.C. State, and Michigan State had just filled one.
Davis’ compensation package dwarfs the one Bunting had and puts UNC squarely in the national big time in that category. Davis will be paid $286,000 in base salary from the University on a seven-year contract, plus a $25,000 expense account, plus an annual media services supplement of $250,000 from Learfield Communications and an apparel contract supplement of $150,000 from Nike. He’ll get another approximately $1 million a year in Rams Club-paid supplement. Davis also will have incentive bonuses for performance and for player graduation rates. UNC will pay him an additional $500,000 retention bonus at the end of five years and another $600,000 at the end of seven.
He said he wanted the Tar Heels to be fast, aggressive and, most importantly, smart. “No one dictates to us. We dictate to them,” he told a news conference held to introduce him. He said that he favors a wide-open offense and that perhaps his greatest passion is special teams, on whose backs he said games are won and lost.
He said that “my ankles have been taped” in preparation for immediate road trips to the homes of recruits previously committed to Carolina and those who aren’t committed. He emphasized the importance of building a recruiting base in North Carolina, where presumably prep players are more likely to have a place in their hearts for Carolina.
Davis, 55, said he had spent the past 18 months while working as a pro football commentator watching college football and looking for the “perfect place” to work. “There’s not a finer place nor a better job,” he said of UNC. He said he wanted players who “value their role in the community and in the classroom” as much as on the football field.
Repeatedly using the word “process,” he did not promise a sudden turnaround in a program that won only three games this year. “There’s no magic formula” for that, he said. “It won’t happen instantaneously.”
Davis said he might take his time building a staff – first checking on how Bunting’s assistant coaches might fit in his program. He said he’d had calls from several coaches who were interested in working with him.
He answered “yes” to the obligatory question of whether football can thrive at a school with a basketball dynasty, saying, “I think the basketball program is an enormous asset to the football program.”
Davis’ inheritance at Carolina seems to be the polar opposite of what awaited him at Miami in 1995. The Miami program’s bad-boy image, which developed under Davis’ predecessors, was such that it was facing three years’ NCAA probation for “lack of institutional control” and a loss of 31 scholarships. Sports Illustrated called for the program to be disbanded. But in the won-loss column Miami was solidly on the “W” side, and the Hurricanes didn’t miss a beat under Davis, who won 51 and lost 20.
In Chapel Hill, football fortunes are at low ebb, but by all accounts the program is clean, respected and disciplined. Athletics officials say Bunting tossed out the bad eggs and put the team on a more solid academic footing.
Davis made Miami clean up its act, and its records were 8-3, 9-3, 5-6, 9-3, 9-4 and 11-1 in the six years before he made the decision to take a shot at head coaching in the pros.
Davis will be the 33rd head coach in UNC history and the ninth since the ACC was formed in 1953.
After leading Miami to three Big East Conference championships and four postseason bowl wins in as many appearances, he left Coral Gables to coach the Cleveland Browns. Cleveland won seven games in his first season, which was two more than the expansion franchise had won in the previous two years combined. They were an AFC wild card playoff team in 2002 after a nine-win regular season.
But the Browns never turned the corner under Davis, going 5-11 in 2003 and then, in 2004, losing eight and winning only three before he resigned with five games to go in the season.
That was his second stint in the NFL. He was a defensive assistant with the Dallas Cowboys from 1989 to 1994 and was defensive coordinator in 1993 and 1994. The Cowboys won Super Bowls in 1992 and 1993 and played in one other NFC championship game.
Davis was defensive line coach at Miami from 1984 to 1988 under Head Coach Jimmy Johnson. The Hurricanes went 52-9 in those five years and won the national championship after beating Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl to cap a perfect 12-0 record in 1987. He coached 15 linemen who went on to play in the NFL, including All-Americas Bill Hawkins, Cortez Kennedy, Russell Maryland, Daniel Stubbs and the late Jerome Brown.
Davis developed a reputation as a disciplinarian, and he was brought in at Miami to clean up the outlaw image.
His Hurricane teams finished ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 four times, including No. 2 in the nation in 2000 when the Canes went 11-1 and beat Florida in the Sugar Bowl. The 2000 team was second in the nation in scoring, fifth in total offense, fifth in scoring defense and eighth in pass defense. Miami played in the national title game in each of the two years after Davis left, winning it in 2002.
The Hurricanes earned recognition from the American Football Coaches Association for outstanding graduation rates in each of Davis’ six seasons at Miami.
“He has a plan, he has a process, he has a program for success that is impressive,” Athletics Director Dick Baddour ’66 said. “Butch Davis will take Carolina football to the highest level.”
Chancellor James Moeser said he had spent time discussing Davis with former colleagues and administrators at Miami and came away impressed with his integrity.
Carolina had a 1-6 record that featured lackluster performances when Bunting was dismissed on Oct. 22, shortly after a Thursday night loss at Virginia. The lone win at that time was over Division 1-AA Furman, though Bunting’s team went on to close the year with wins over N.C. State and Duke.
Bunting posted only one winning season in six years, and his overall record was 27-45, 18-30 in the ACC.
Davis’ hiring came just three weeks after the announcement of Bunting’s release. UNC engaged consultant Chuck Neinas to help with the search for a new coach, paying him $35,000.
Davis has coached in 11 postseason bowl games as an assistant or head coach, including two apiece in the Fiesta, Orange and Sugar Bowls.
He played college football at the University of Arkansas for Coach Frank Broyles. He earned a bachelor’s degree in biology and life science in 1974. He and his wife, Tammy, have a teenage son, Drew. Davis is a native of Tahlequah, Okla.
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