I understand that there was one major difference -- Davis inherited a program on probation that lost 25 scholarships over a three-year period. For that reason, Davis didn't have it rebuilt until his sixth season. Zook would have been close by year four. That accounts for the difference. But other than that, look at some of these similarities and you will see where I'm going.
Davis took over for Dennis Erickson, a very good college coach who won a national championship, produced a Heisman Trophy winner and wanted to try his hand at the pros. Sound familiar? Keep reading.
Erickson's teams, much like Jimmy Johnson's before him, regularly won between 10 and 12 games and rarely lost more than 2. He began 11-1, 10-2, 12-0, 11-1. The last of his six seasons, the last season before Davis got there, the 'Canes were 10-2. They played in the Orange Bowl and finished third in the country. Sound familiar?
But Erickson knew there would be a dropoff. He left for the NFL. So Miami went and found an NFL defensive coordinator who also had been a college defensive coordinator at their own school and had a reputation for being a tireless worker and an absolutely unbelievable recruiter. Sound familiar?
Immediately, there was a dropoff in wins. Davis lost his first game, despite inheriting that 10-2 team, 31-8 to UCLA. He went on to lose three of his first four -- that's right -- he started 1-3 (the only win was over FAMU)-- including a 41-17 pummeling by FSU.
Miami was 8-3, 9-3 and 5-6 in Davis' first three years, 1995 through 1997, and there was plenty of grumbling among the Hurricane masses. Davis was roundly criticized for game day decisions. Miami fans accused their school's hierarchy, which had such a great previous run, of suddenly "accepting mediocrity". Heard that before?
But despite all the noise in the system; despite that this program which almost always won 10 games -- which never lost more than 1 or 2; despite that this program which had four national titles between 1983 and 1991 was finally back down to earth and losing between three and six games a year, UM athletic director Paul Dee never flinched.
Many Miami fans were screaming for Davis' ouster, but Dee held his ground. He knew Davis was bringing in a ridiculous amount of potential first round talent and, all the while, was learning how to be a head coach. Throughout, many Miami fans suggested UM was not the place to serve as a coach's training ground. Sound familiar?
But Dee knew what he had. The next two seasons (1998-1999) Miami wasn't much better -- finishing 9-3 and 9-4. Despite playing five seasons in a weak Big East conference and not having Florida on the schedule, Davis never won more than nine games in a season. His teams lost between three and six every year and the biggest bowl game the Canes played in was the Gator Bowl. During that five year stretch that began Davis' career, UM lost five in a row to FSU and five in a row to Virginia Tech. The 'Canes often were blown out in those games -- including 47-0 at the hands of FSU in 1997.
But by then the team was built. Beginning in 2000, Miami had America's best program. The 'Canes went 11-1 in 2000 under Davis and were probably more worthy than FSU of playing in the national title game against Oklahoma. Miami absolutely walloped SEC champion Florida 37-20 in the Sugar Bowl.
Like many folks, I was at that game and kept wondering how did this happen? How was it that UF had Robert Gillespie, Earnest Graham and Ran Carthon, three running backs who would never be drafted and may never playing a meaningful NFL moment, and Miami had just lost Edgerrin James and now had Clinton Portis starting in the same backfield with Nigea Davenport and had a guy named Willis McGahee who couldn't get off the bench.
Other than quarterback, it seemed like Miami had a better prospect at almost every position. Florida had Jabar Gaffney; but Miami had Gaffney's current Houston Texans' teammate, Andre Johnson, who was better. Florida had safety Todd Johnson; Miami had Ed Reed while a guy named Sean Taylor was redshirting. It goes on and on.
I kept wondering how a guy like Steve Spurrier, the best college football coach I've ever seen, just got shellacked by 17 points by Butch Davis, who Miami fans used to think wasn't a very good game day coach and wanted fired.
And it dawned on me: it's about players.
Even after Butch left, Larry Coker, another lifetime assistant, stepped in and lead UM to a 12-0 national title, a 12-1 season in which a controversial pass interference penalty cost them another title and an 11-2 season and top five finish last year. Davis recruited that well.
I understand Zook made some coaching errors and that UF lost too many games on his watch. But it was a much tougher schedule than Davis ever played at Miami. I've acknowledged he wasn't great in front of the media, but Butch wasn't either.
And it's clear to me that Zook had Florida on the same pace that Davis had Miami on, maybe even a faster pace. There is something to all those Parade All-Americas signing, Miami is the proof.
It's also clear that he was learning. He found his offensive coordinator, one of the bright young ones in the country. He just never got a chance to coach a veteran team he recruited.
This year they were going to have to make it to next year by playing a defense of mostly freshmen, sophomores and a few seniors (Cory Bailey, Rey Hill, Travis Harris) that, God bless their souls, just weren't very good.
I understand Gator fans being frustrated. Of course they are. Even on this website, I think as angry as some of the most anti-Zook posters got, I still believe they are all good fans just wanting to see the team succeed.
The bottom line is that --- at least in my opinion --- Florida dropped the ball here. I have great respect for Jeremy Foley. He, too, is a good and long time friendm but I think he should have stood up boldly, just like Paul Dee did. He should have told fans they had something special but had to be patient. Miami is still reaping the rewards for patience. Great leaders show their greatness in times of adversity.
Instead, a knee jerk reaction after an embarrassing loss to Mississippi State and it all was over. Dee could have done that in '97 when FSU won by 47; he could have done that in '96 when East Carolina -- that's right, the Pirates -- beat Miami 31-6! He could have done in'98 when Syracuse beat the 'Canes 66-13. But again, he knew what he had.
I know I get accused of defending Zook all of the time because he is a friend, but I've been a Gator fan since I was five years old. Florida was the only school I applied to in high school. I graduated from Florida in '80 and my affinity for the program has never changed, much to the chagrin of non-Gator listeners.
I saw where this program was headed. I wanted my school to be like Miami. What a shame that had to get derailed.
Imagine if Dee had fired Butch after that 5-6 record in year three and had hired the young hot coach of the day -- maybe John L. Smith of Louisville. What would have become of Miami? Smith, by the way, who was great at Utah State and Louisville, is now at Michigan State and really struggling in a conference that size.
If Zook had to be gone, by the way, I was all for bringing back Spurrier. In fact, I thought it was going to happen. But now that it obviously is not, I ask you sincerely:
Is Florida better off with the hot guy of the day -- Bob Petrino, Urban Meyer, Jeff Tedford, none of whom have spent a lot of time recruiting in Florida, none of whom have much knowledge of the SEC (except Petrino) and none of whom have head coaching experience in a league as tough, top to bottom, as the SEC. Or would it be better off seeing the project through with a tireless recruiter much like Butch Davis who was building a ridiculously good talent base?
I know I tend to be biased. We all are in some ways, but I'm as biased toward the Gators as I am toward Zook. It sure would be nice to stay in the game long enough to see how the story ends.