By Dan Guttenplan, FNF Coaches Managing Editor
In just two short seasons, Butch Davis has transformed the football program at Florida International University, setting a school-record for wins (9) in 2018.
Davis also held head coaching positions with the University of North Carolina (2007-10), the Cleveland Browns (2001-04) and the University of Miami (1995-2000). From 1979-94, Davis had a successful 15-year association with Jimmy Johnson, first as a receivers and tight ends coach at Oklahoma State University (1979-83), then as a defensive line coach at the University of Miami, and ending with the Dallas Cowboys, where he rose to defensive coordinator. His tenure included two of Dallas’ Super Bowl titles.
FNF Coaches recently caught up with Davis to discuss his philosophy.
What are some of the things a high school coach can be doing in May and June to prepare for the next season?
“A high percentage of schools across the country have some version of spring football practice. That’s a significant, important time as far as building a team for next year. A lot of that time should be spent introducing fundamentals and techniques. That’s what it takes to have a successful season in the fall. When there’s no stress to win games, it’s a great time to help them become better players. Second, it’s a great opportunity for young players to develop and find the roles they can play in the fall.”
With the rise of the spread and RPO concepts, how has your defensive strategy changed?
“I’d say 75 to 80 percent of my philosophy hasn’t changed in the last 25 years. I think it always comes down to this: How do you make sure you don’t put kids in conflict with their assignments? You don’t want them to be thinking, ‘I have to stop the run, but I also have to cover.’ From a defensive standpoint, it’s critically important that you don’t put kids into those situation. Teams that struggle put players in situations where it’s impossible to do everything.”
You’ve coached on teams that had superstar players with big personalities – guys like Michael Irvin, Ed Reed and Ray Lewis. What’s the best way to manage those personalities?
“I think every kid has a different hot button. It’s about building a relationship with every kid. What motivates you? What’s critically important? That’s the way you coach them. Take a look at the guys I’ve been fortunate to coach. Ed Reed was an unbelievably emotional leader. Ray Lewis was in that category. Russell Maryland, who was a former No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft, was a quiet leader. He took responsibility for guys watching film, going to class, staying eligible. You have to be fair. The other thing is you have to be consistent. I want every kid in our program to know that – whether it’s the head coach, assistants, strength and conditioning coach, support staff – we’ll always be upbeat and positive.”
What are some of the common attributes of the great teams and players you’ve coached?
“Here’s an interesting statistic: I’ve coached 36 first-round picks. Well over 50 percent of those players were under the radar coming out of high school. Some didn’t have scholarship offers. Santana Moss didn’t have a single offer. Guys like Ed Reed and Reggie Wayne would have gotten maybe one star at best. What I loved about those kids is they all loved football. They were passionate about it. We loved kids that wanted to compete. My biggest turn-off is when a recruits says to me, ‘You already have five guys on the roster at my position.’ Or, ‘Who else are you recruiting at my position?’ That tells me they don’t have confidence to compete.”
Are you doing anything new in your strength and conditioning program?
“One of the things we’ve started doing is coming up with outside-the-box things that enhance development as an athlete. We recruit guys who play multiple sports. It carries over when we get them. Everybody runs and lifts, but we have other things. We have yoga classes, racquet ball, marital arts and speed development with an emphasis on track mechanics.”
What more can high school coaches do to help players get recruited?
“Be honest about kids. Nothing hurts a kid more than somebody trying to exaggerate size. Don’t tell me he’s 6-foot-3, 220 pounds, and then when we bring him to camp, he’s 6-1, 195. The other aspect: We still go into high school and meet with coaches who are not completely aware of what it takes to get a scholarship. Student-athletes need to have taken 16 core courses, they need to have SAT or ACT scores, those types of things.”
What was your biggest takeaway from all of the years you spent with Jimmy Johnson?
“Jimmy was unbelievable with his attention to detail. He was the most organized guy I’ve ever been around. He also had a remarkable ability to predict long-term potential. ‘We recruited this guy to be a tight end, but he’ll be our starting left tackle in a year. We recruited this wide receiver, but he’ll be a phenomenal safety.’ Making safeties outside linebackers and outside linebackers defensive ends … When those things took place, we were more athletic and faster.”
Davis: Find Mentors
Davis spent five years (1973-1978) teaching biology and anatomy and coaching high school football in Oklahoma before joining Jimmy Johnson’s staff at Oklahoma State. During that time, most teams across the state ran 3-4 or 5-2 defensive schemes. Davis wanted to coach a 4-3 defense, so he visited Texas Tech to learn from their staff.
“Myself and four other coaches climbed in a car and drove to Lubbock,” Davis said. “We took a 16 mm projector with us, and they gave us some video from spring practice. We pulled a sheet off the hotel bed to watch video. Then, we spent two days watching practice.”
Texas Tech had just hired a defensive coordinator who would go on to win two Super Bowls as a head coach in the NFL.
“You may have heard of him,” Davis said. “Bill Parcells.”
Since that experience, Davis has encouraged every member of his staff to visit other colleges and NFL teams to mine for ideas.
“If I could give high school coaches advice, I would advise them to learn as much as they can,” Davis said. “Go and visit other coaches if you are within close proximity to college or pro teams. I wish I learned that earlier. Develop mentors, guys you can reach out to for advice or ideas. If you don’t continue to grow in this progression, you grow stale and stagnate.”